Ever heard of Leonardo Syndrome?
If you’ve read Peter Burke’s excellent book, The Polymath,1 then you will have done, but if not: Leonardo Syndrome is where the drive to learn more and more results in beginning many projects but actually finishing few.2
It’s named ‘Leonardo Syndrome’ after Leonardo da Vinci himself. Despite being one of the most famous polymaths and creators in history - who doesn’t know about him?! - he was also somebody prone to failure.
Examples of his failures included not successfully squaring the circle, multiple engineering designs that didn’t work such as a giant crossbow and a flying machine, misunderstanding several aspects of the heart,3 and experimental painting designs that resulted in the slow degradation of a painting.
Even his first recorded commission as an independent painter - an altarpiece for the Chapel of San Bernardo in 1478 - he failed to complete, despite receiving a cash advance of 25 florins for it.4 Many of his contemporaries noted that he failed to meet deadlines or to even finish projects, such as never finishing a commissioned equestrian statue of Francesco Sforza.5
His unreliability was so consistent that that the Duke of Milan tried to get him to sign a contract confirming that he would finish the agreed work “within the stipulated period”.6 Leonardo never signed this, and indeed in his diary in 1499 admitted that he had never finished a project for the Duke.7 People doubted his abilities to complete projects so much that they would request other artists instead of him - they would often end up calling in other artists to finish or repair his work, anyway.8
His reputation was one of brilliance - and failure.
He ended up short of money, moving from patron to patron - leaving a trail of frustration in his wake - yet what we remember about him now is his genius. His endless curiosity was the source of his brilliance and his success, but also the cause of his woes; it was his hamartia, to put it in terms of a Greek tragedy.9
Yet if he had finished all of those commissions and followed through with his million-and-one ideas, what wouldn’t he have done? To do one thing means not to do another. What would now be missing from the world, had Leonardo da Vinci slogged dutifully away at a horse statue for a duke?
Maybe that statue itself would have been something brilliant, but it certainly wouldn’t have kept him on the same course he ended up treading. That course is what eventually led him to the Mona Lisa - which in itself is unfinished, yet still a renowned work that inspires and transfixes people to this day.
None of us, I suggest, are on par with Leonardo da Vinci’s genius.10 Many of us, however, will relate to Leonardo Syndrome. Reading about it was like a slap in the face for me; I stared at the wall for a solid thirty seconds when I got to the end of that chapter.11
Hopefully learning about it is the same source of reassurance for you as it was for me. Sure, maybe that level of flakiness requires that level of brilliance to compensate for it, but at least you know now that it isn’t fatal.
Instead, maybe it can lead to something brilliant.
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Burke, P. (2021) The polymath: a cultural history from Leonardo da Vinci to Susan Sontag. First published in paperback. New Haven London: Yale University Press.
Catani, M. and Mazzarello, P. (2019) ‘Grey Matter Leonardo da Vinci: a genius driven to distraction’, Brain, 142(6), pp. 1842–1846. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/awz131.
Cowan, H. (2017) ‘Greatness in failure: a look at Leonardo da Vinci and his drawings of the heart’, British Journal of Cardiac Nursing, 12(3), pp. 140–143. Available at: https://doi.org/10.12968/bjca.2017.12.3.140.
And you really should. I might be hypocritical in saying that, though, since I’ve not finished it.↩
Burke 2021, p. 81.↩
Catani and Mazzarello 2019, p. 1842.↩
Burke 2021, p. 42.↩
Quoted in Catani and Mazzarello 2019, p. 1843.↩
ἁμαρτία, literally meaning ‘to err’ but in the context of drama typically means the error leading to the protagonist’s downfall (or the wider disaster).↩
If you are, I’d love to know, just so I can say I knew you before everyone else did. I don’t have any money to invest though, sorry.↩
I also have a level of affection for Leonardo since he was what we would now consider to be queer, as well as illegitimate, left-handed, was predominantly self-taught, wildly eccentric, and generally a fascinating character. Still not finished the book, mind, nor Walter Isaacson's biography. Once I do, I'm sure I will have even more to say about him.↩