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Leonardo da Vinci may have had ADHD, neuroscientists suggest

The diagnosis might explain his chronic procrastination, his inability to finish projects and his rampant physical and mental restlessness.

"The Last Supper" by Leonardo da Vinci
"The Last Supper" by Leonardo da Vinci

May marks the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death, so it’s not surprising that we’re seeing a spike in scholarly articles about him, including in medical journals.

Earlier this month, I reported in Second Opinion on a paper in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine by two Italian doctors who proposed that the illness that hampered the great artist’s ability to paint in his final years (and kept him from finishing the Mona Lisa) was most likely due to a traumatic hand injury rather than a stroke, as is more commonly believed.

Such retrospective diagnoses are controversial, but fun nevertheless. As I’ve also indicated here before, they remind me of the parable of the blind men and the elephant. The clinicians who make these diagnoses tend to see in the lives and deaths of historical figures the particular disease with which they are most familiar.

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A procrastinating and often unfocused genius

That may (or may not) be the case in a paper published this week in the journal Brain. In it, psychiatrist Marco Catani of King’s College London and medical historian Paolo Mazzarello of the University of Pavia argue that Leonardo had attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Giovanni Ambrogio Fignino’s drawing of Leonard da Vinci
Gallerie dell-Accademia, Venice
Giovanni Ambrogio Fignino’s drawing of Leonard da Vinci
It explains, they say, his chronic procrastination, his inability to finish projects and his rampant physical and mental restlessness — all traits described, often with great frustration — by the artist’s contemporaries.

Those are also signature traits of ADHD.

“While impossible to make a post-mortem diagnosis for someone who lived 500 years ago, I am confident that ADHD is the most convincing and scientifically plausible hypothesis to explain Leonardo’s difficulty in finishing his works,” says Catani in a released statement.

“Historical records show Leonardo spent excessive time planning projects but lacked perseverance,” he adds. “ADHD could explain aspects of Leonardo’s temperament and his strange mercurial genius.”

Roots in childhood

Catani and Mazzarello base their paper on accounts of Leonardo’s behavior and work habits that were written either during Leonardo’s life or soon after his death in 1519. As the two doctors note, Leonardo’s temperament was described as “variable and unstable” even during childhood, and “his difficulties with focusing became even more evident later in adolescence, when he moved from the small village of Vinci to Florence in the workshop of Andrea Verrocchio.”

As Leonardo grew older, his great talent — indeed, his genius — became widely acknowledged. But the artist also developed a dogged reputation for unreliability, which often kept patrons from hiring him.

“At the court of Ludovico il Moro, the future Duke of Milan, [Leonardo] astounded his patrons with the most ambitious ideas and projects, but failed to gain their trust in his ability to deliver on time,” explain Catani and Mazzarello. “Even when Leonardo was finally commissioned with the important project of building a bronze statue of Ludovico’s father, the future Duke asked his allied Lorenzo il Magnifico if he could indicate a more apt Florentine artist for the project because he ‘doubted Leonardo’s capabilities to bring it to completion.’”

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Leonardo’s struggle to stay focused is apparent in this account by one of his contemporaries, who watched him working on the Last Supper in the dining hall of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie:

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.

Leonardo was sometimes able to charm his way out of losing a commission. Write Catani and Mazzarello:

[He] used his wit to mask his shortcoming and talk his way out of the trouble or embarrassment caused by his behaviour. While working on the Last Supper, for example he was subjected to the continuous nagging from the superintending prior of Santa Maria delle Grazie who ultimately asked the Duke of Milan for intervention. Summoned by the Duke, Leonardo quickly justified his delay with the difficulty of finding the models of the last two characters, Jesus and Judas. For Judas, he explained, he had searched in vain through the jails of Milan for the perfect looking scoundrel. None could be found and he conceded that in the end, if he could not find a better model for the cruel apostle who betrayed our Lord, he would have to use the face of the importunate and tactless prior. The Duke laughed the whole matter off and Leonardo returned working at his own leisure.

Both positive and negative effects

Catani and Mazzarello also note that Leonardo was left-handed and (most likely) dyslexic — two traits that are more prevalent in children with ADHD. They explain how those traits are possibly linked to Leonardo’s creativity:

Some epidemiological studies indicate that left-handed students are more likely to major in music and visual arts, while dyslexics often have superior performances in tasks for visuospatial discrimination and visual memory. Furthermore, not only is dyslexia more prevalent among art students that students in other areas, but art students with dyslexia have superior mental imagery and 3D mental visualization of objects than art students without dyslexia. Abilities in 3D mental rotation are an important ability in those with pareidolia, an ability to recognize figures in the surrounding environment, a method that Leonard used to boost his visual inspiration — he would contemplate for hours the changing shape of the clouds.

Although Leonardo’s ADHD may have contributed to his astounding creativity, it may also have had a negative effect on his financial success as an artist.

“There is evidence that Leonardo was often short of money and paid much less than other artists of his caliber,” write Catani and Mazzarello. “His behavior negatively affected his career and relationships to the point that it is difficult to find among his contemporaries someone who had not commented on his unreliability. He was often employed in modest roles, such as the party organizer, and many of his architectural and engineering ideas were disregarded for being too unrealistic and impractical.”

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“Undeniably Leonardo accomplished more than any other human being could possibly dream of in a lifespan,” they add, “but one wonders what would have been the impact of his work on history if he had managed to apply himself more consistently to his art and effectively disseminate his intuitions and discoveries.”

Lifting some of the stigma

The two neuroscientists hope, however, that understanding Leonardo’s life through the prism of ADHD will help reduce some of the stigma that surrounds the condition today.

“The difficulties linked to his extraordinary wandering mind caused him deep regrets but did not prevent him from learning and exploring the wonders of human life and nature,” they write.

“There is a prevailing misconception that ADHD is typical of misbehaving children with low intelligence, destined for a troubled life,” says Catani.

“I hope the case of Leonardo shows ADHD is not linked to low IQ or lack of creativity but rather the difficulty of capitalising on natural talents,” he adds.

FMI: You can Catani and Mazzarello’s paper in full on Brain’s website.