“When the work exceeds the ideal of the artist, the artist makes scant progress, and when the work falls short of his ideal it never ceases to improve, unless avarice be an obstacle.”
Is it a bit harsh to say that super genius and the ultimate Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci, was an underachiever? Maybe, but hear me out first.
He definitely overachieved in life, considering he was able to overcome his illegitimate birth and lack of formal education to climb out of his low social standing to not only become a master painter in Florence but also a member of the royal court of Milan and eventually bosom buddies with the King of France himself.
However da Vinci’s brilliant, restless mind was a blessing and a curse. He seemed to be bursting with so many ideas in such a variety of disciplines that it actually inhibited him from realising his full potential. For starters, he got bored easily and didn’t finish many of his painting commissions. Once da Vinci had a concept figured out and he could see the finished painting in his mind he often just abandoned it. Three of his most famous works, The Adoration of the Magi, St Jerome in the Wilderness and The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist are all incomplete preliminary paintings. Some saw his mercurial working method as laziness. The priest of the Church where the Last Supper was commissioned once complained that Leo was taking too long to finish the famous mural (it took him 3 years all up to finish the masterpiece). Da Vinci was so angry at the priest for complaining, he threatened he use the priest’s face as the model for Judas.
At 30, Da Vinci walked away from a safe and prosperous career as a painter in Florence and moved to Milan to seek new challenges. There he worked on his most famous ‘unfinished’ piece of art: The Gran Cavallo, a 24-foot bronze horse statue commissioned as a tribute to the Duke of Milan. Da Vinci spent 17 years working on the horse (among other projects), only managing to complete the huge clay model (which was still pretty damn impressive). It would have been the largest statue of it’s kind and surely one of the wonders of Renaissance art had it been completed but it was abandoned due to approaching war, with the bronze for the horse used to make canon balls instead. (You can see a replica made in 1999 by sculptor Nina Akuma here.)
Da Vinci was a compulsive note taker, filling over 15,000 pages with sketches, designs and thoughts on art and life (also grocery lists and names of people who owed him money). His ideas were HUNDREDS of years ahead of his time. He filled pages with elaborate war machines, tanks, siege weapons, bridges, underwater diving suits, helicopters and parachutes. He was obsessed with birds and flight (he would buy caged birds only to release them), designed fantastical flying machines and spent years conducting an exhaustive study of human anatomy.
For all the brilliance included in his notebooks, da Vinci never published any of it, even though he had plans to do so. If they were published in his lifetime, they would have revolutionised engineering and medicine, and da Vinci would have been heralded as the greatest scientist of his day, not just a great artist. Unfortunately, his papers were lost for centuries and only rediscovered in the 1800s.
Leo was a perfectionist, never satisfied with his work, always tinkering and working on multiple projects at the same time over a number of years. For instance, he started the Mona Lisa in 1503 and kept it with him as he moved from Italy to France, working on it until his death in 1519. On his death bed, da Vinci apparently said “I have offended God and mankind because my work didn’t reach the quality it should have.” Yes folks, even the undisputed greatest genius in history suffered from self-doubt about his work.