Was Leonardo da Vinci a procrastinator?

"Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work the least.”

Welcome to the sixth issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Hope everyone’s doing OK!! Here’s something to read that has absolutely nothing to do with you-know-what 🦠🤓🦠

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519)

Google “famous procrastinators” and you will find several listicles of dubious authority asserting that Leonardo was among the top 8 or 10 or 15 most notorious work-delayers in the annals of culture and science. This seems surprising, given that the Italian polymath embodied the ideal of the Renaissance Man—with extensive knowledge of architecture, engineering, astronomy, mathematics, music, and many other subjects—and also produced two of the most famous paintings in history. Could such an accomplished individual really have been a chronic procrastinator?

Short answer: sort of. Leonardo did leave many projects unfinished, but whether the cause was really procrastination is arguable. He was certainly not a slacker. In the 1490s, the Italian monk and writer Matteo Bandello observed Leonardo at work on The Last Supper, which took him three years to complete. Bandello wrote:

He would arrive early, climb up on to the scaffolding, and set to work. Sometimes he stayed there from dawn to sunset, never once laying down his brush, forgetting to eat and drink, painting without pause. At other times he would go for two, three or four days without touching his brush, but spending several hours a day in front of the work, his arms folded, examining and criticizing the figures to himself. I also saw him, driven by some sudden urge, at midday, when the sun was at its height, leaving the Corte Vecchia, where he was working on his marvelous clay horse, to come straight to Santa Maria delle Crazie, without seeking shade, and clamber up on to the scaffolding, pick up a brush, put in one or two strokes, and then go away again.

Apparently, those times when Leonardo went days without touching his brush led some of his contemporaries to accuse him of dreamy inactivity—and his patrons to worry that he wasn’t working at all. That was hardly the case. As the biographer Charles Nicholl has noted, “Those ‘one or two strokes’ remind us of the painstakingly cumulative nature of his art. . . . The familiarity of a world-famous painting makes it seem somehow inevitable—how could it be other than it is?—but every inch has been fought for.”

Leonardo himself once tried to explain the creative process to his patron Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, who commissioned The Last Supper. “Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work the least,” Leonardo told him, “for their minds are occupied with their ideas and the perfection of their conceptions, to which they afterwards give form.”

The Lucan portrait of Leonardo da Vinci

At the same time, The Last Supper is one of the few major commissions that Leonardo actually completed. Were the many unfinished ones victims of procrastination? Again, it depends on your definition. Leonardo was a world-class perfectionist and sometimes couldn’t bear relinquishing control of works that did not meet his high standards. He started The Mona Lisa, for example, in 1503 and worked on it intermittently for the remainder of his life, still regarding it as unfinished when he died.

Moreover, Leonardo was easily distracted—sometimes by other projects, and sometimes by all the elaborate exploratory and preparatory work that he felt was required to produce a given work, which often led him down a winding path of further possibilities and areas for investigation. Kenneth Clark called Leonardo “the most relentlessly curious man in history,” and this proved a liability for completing works.

For instance, when Leonardo set out to make the world’s largest equestrian statue (another commission from the Duke of Milan), he decided that he first had to dissect a number of horses and make detailed anatomical studies, including, as the biographer Walter Isaacson has written, “scores of diagrams, charts, sketches, and beautiful drawings in which art and science are interwoven.” Isaacson continues:

Leonardo got so deeply immersed in these studies that he decided to begin an entire treatise on the anatomy of horses. . . . While studying horses, he began plotting methods to make cleaner stables; over the years he would devise multiple systems for mangers with mechanisms to replenish feed bins through conduits from an attic and to remove manure using water sluices and inclined floors.

In the end, Leonardo only completed a clay model of the statue, and it was later destroyed.

Isaacson labels all of this behavior procrastination, and in the conclusion to his biography advises readers that “procrastinating like Leonardo requires work: it involves gathering all the possible facts and ideas, and only after that allowing the collection to simmer.” Personally, I don’t know that this really counts as procrastination at all, which, as the psychologist George Ainslie has written, “generally means to put off something burdensome or unpleasant, and to do so in a way that leaves you worse off.” It seems to me that Leonardo was not putting off burdensome work but, instead, forever moving on to the next thing, which is different.

As for Leonardo’s daily routine or rituals, I haven’t been able to find much information, except for the detail that he carried a notebook wherever he went, because he believed that a painter should always be ready to make sketches “as circumstance permits.” He used these notebooks for much more than drawings. “As you go about town,” Leonardo advised himself in one, “constantly observe, note, and consider the circumstances and behavior of men as they talk and quarrel, or laugh, or come to blows.” He also observed the natural world in minute detail, and jotted down to-do lists, records of expenses, technical drawings, scientific treatises, and designs for the elaborate theatrical pageants that were popular in Sforza’s Milan court.

In order to always have writing paper on hand, Leonardo used small notebooks that he could hang from his belt. Between those books and the larger sheets he kept in his studio, he produced a trove of pages, more than 7,200 of which have survived, though that probably represents one-quarter of the actual total. According to one art historian, these notebooks represent “the most astonishing testament to the powers of human observation and imagination ever set down on paper”—a selection of which has been digitized by the British Library and is available for browsing online.

Pages from Leonardo’s notebooks, via the British Library



Having trouble finding time for a creative project alongside your other daily obligations? Or feeling stuck, blocked, or discouraged during the time you do have? Email your dilemma to subtlemaneuvers@substack.com (or just reply to this email) and I’ll do my best to provide some concrete advice based on my research into great minds’ work habits.

In past newsletters, I have addressed difficulties starting a new project, the problem of creating when life is literally falling apart, and whether one should really “eat the frog.”


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Above: selected pages from Daily Rituals: Women at Work