Despite his global fame, Leonardo da Vinci’s reputation as an artist is based on just 20 paintings still known to exist. While a few works have been lost or possibly destroyed over the centuries, there’s another reason we have so few genuine works by the master: the Italian artist was notorious for beginning and never completing artworks. He toiled on plans for the Sforza Horse, intended to be the largest cast bronze sculpture ever, off and on for 12 years before abandoning it. A commissioned mural of the Battle of Anghiari was plastered over when the master painter failed to complete the work. Some researchers even believe the Mona Lisa is unfinished, something mentioned by Leonardo’s first biographer.
Looking at the scant details of his life and his penchant to procrastinate and abandon artworks, two neuroscientists have presented a possible reason for Leonardo’s behavior in the journal Brain. They suggest that the artist may have had Attention Deficit and Hyperactive Disorder (A.D.H.D.).
“While impossible to make a postmortem diagnosis for someone who lived 500 years ago, I am confident that A.D.H.D. is the most convincing and scientifically plausible hypothesis to explain Leonardo’s difficulty in finishing his works,” co-author Marco Catani of King’s College London says in a press release. “Historical records show Leonardo spent excessive time planning projects but lacked perseverance. A.D.H.D. could explain aspects of Leonardo's temperament and his strange mercurial genius.”
In the paper, the researchers report that while Leonardo dedicated “excessive” time to planning out his ideas, his perseverance waned when it came to executing them. “Leonardo’s chronic struggle to distill his extraordinary creativity into concrete results and deliver on commitments was proverbial in his lifetime and present since early childhood,” they write.
In fact, in a biography of famous sculptors and painters, the first to include information about Leonardo, Giorgio Vasari writes an almost textbook definition of A.D.H.D.:
“in learning and in the rudiments of letters he would have made great proficiency, if he had not been so variable and unstable, for he set himself to learn many things, and then, after having begun them, abandoned them.”
When Leonardo was older and began apprenticing in the workshop of painter Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence, his inability to execute became more apparent. There, he received his first commissions, and though he planned the works extensively, he ultimately walked away from them. In 1478, he received his first commission as a solo painter for an altarpiece in the Chapel of San Bernardo. Despite taking an advance of 25 florins, Leonardo did not deliver.
This may explain why Leonardo stayed in Verrochio’s workshop until the relatively advanced age of 26 while other painters set off on their own. When he left the atelier, it wasn’t as a painter, but as a musician working for the Duke of Milan.
When the Duke of Milan finally let Leonardo go after 20 years of service, the artist wrote in his diary that he had never finished any of the many projects the Duke had commissioned from him. Even the pope got on his case; after working for the Vatican for three years he was dismissed by Pope Leo X who exclaimed, “Alas! this man will never do anything, for he begins by thinking of the end of the work, before the beginning.”
Novelist and contemporary Matteo Bandello, who observed Leonardo during the time he worked on The Last Supper, provides one of the few glimpses we have of these work habits:
“I have also seen him, as the caprice or whim took him, set out at midday, […] from the Corte Vecchio, where he was at work on the clay model of the great horse, and go straight to the Grazie and there mount on the scaffolding and take up his brush and give one or two touches to one of the figures and suddenly give up and go away again”
Besides these biographical tidbits, Emily Dixon at CNN reports there are other signs of A.D.H.D. Leonardo is known to have worked continuously through the night, alternating cycles of short naps and waking. He was also left-handed and some research indicates he may have been dyslexic, both of which are associated with A.D.H.D. At age 65, Leonardo suffered a left-hemisphere stroke, yet his language centers were left in tact. That indicates that the right hemisphere of his brain contained the language centers of his brain, a condition found in less than 5 percent of the population and prevalent in children with A.D.H.D. and other neurodevelopmental conditions.
While this study may feel like a slam dunk diagnosis, Jacinta Bowler at ScienceAlert cautions that these type of postmortem diagnoses are alway problematic. That's because, in many cases, medical professionals don't have the skills to properly critique or place into context historical documents and may interpret things incorrectly. And anecdotes, short biographies and diary entries are no substitute for a direct examination.
Graeme Fairchild of the department of psychology at the University of Bath tells Dixon at CNN that diagnosing Leonardo with A.D.H.D. could be a positive. It shows that “people with A.D.H.D. can still be incredibly talented and productive, even though they might have symptoms or behaviors that lead to impairment such as restlessness, poor organizational skills, forgetfulness and inability to finish things they start,” he says.
It also highlights the fact that the disorder affects adults too, not just children as some think. “For many people, A.D.H.D. is a lifelong condition rather than something they grow out of, and it certainly sounds like Leonardo da Vinci had major problems in many of these areas throughout his life,” says Fairchild.
Leonardo recognized his difficulties with time and project management and sometimes teamed up with other people to get things done. But he also beat himself up for what he saw as his lack of discipline. Even at the end of his life, he regretted his failures and reportedly said “that he had offended God and mankind in not having worked at his art as he should have done.”
Catani tells Kate Kelland at Reuters that Leonardo could serve as the poster child for A.D.H.D., which in the public mind is often associated with low IQ or misbehaving children. He says there are many successful people with the problem, and they can be even more successful if they learn how to manage or treat the disorder.
“Leonardo considered himself as someone who had failed in life - which is incredible,” he says. “I hope (this case) shows that A.D.H.D. is not linked to low IQ or lack of creativity, but rather the difficulty of capitalizing on natural talents.”
In fact, recent research indicates that adults with A.D.H.D. are often more creative than those without, giving them a leg up in certain fields.