If you’re like me, maybe you’ve looked up lists of celebrities with ADHD and been a little underwhelmed.
Ty Pennington? I might be out of the loop, but I had to double-check who that was. David Neeleman? Respect for his accomplishments, and I like JetBlue, but honestly, is that the best we can do?
Then along comes a paper in the journal Brain suggesting that Leonardo da Vinci might have had ADHD. Now there’s something I can work with.
The paper is written by a pair of neuropsychologists, but calling it a psychology study might be overstating the case. It’s more like a collection of historical anecdotes tied together for an exercise in entertaining, scientifically plausible speculation.
So what’s the evidence for Leonardo’s retroactive ADHD diagnosis?
For starters, it seems that he had a small problem with starting projects and not finishing them. Or maybe a big problem.
The authors of the paper quote the sixteenth-century Italian painter Giorgio Vasari, describing Leonardo:
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
It does sound like the classic ADHD report card. Lots of potential, etc. It’s just that this report card happens to be from the 1500s and concerns a genius of historical proportions.
Leonardo’s inability to follow through on his ideas showed up in the commissions he received too. He never finished his first recorded commission, and he became notorious for failing to complete commissioned projects. In his diary, Leonardo wrote about the Duke of Milan, one of Leonardo’s most important patrons: “none of his projects had been finished for him.”
Many an ADHDer has a story of being told in frustration that they’ll never amount to anything. But Leonardo might be special in that he received this rebuke from the Pope. The authors, again quoting Giorgio Vasari, write that Pope Leone X lamented: “Alas! this man will never do anything, for he begins by thinking of the end of the work, before the beginning.”
Even in the works he did finish that went on to become iconic masterpieces, Leonardo had an erratic approach. The novelist Matteo Bandello, Leonardo’s contemporary, observed Leonardo working on the Last Supper:
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
If there’s one thing Leonardo was reliable in, it was apparently his unreliability. All of which leads the authors of the paper to pose the question: “lack of discipline, artistic temperament, or attention deficit disorder?”
Of course, these things aren’t mutually exclusive. At any rate, based on other evidence the authors cite, we know that Leonardo’s brain probably wasn’t normal. He was left handed. Based on the effects of Leonardo’s stroke, it appears that his language abilities were organized atypically. Some of his writings have spelling mistakes indicative of dyslexia, and then there’s his penchant for mirror writing too. All of which is to say, ADHD wouldn’t be too much of a stretch.
So is there a takeaway from Leonardo’s possible ADHD symptoms? The authors have one which I think makes a lot of sense:
Besides the beauty of his art and the mesmerizing power of his observations, in the 500th anniversary of his death, Leonardo da Vinci should also be remembered for his resilience. 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.
Most of us with ADHD probably don’t have a Mona Lisa lurking inside us. But we do have the ability to find meaning despite the challenges our symptoms create. In that regard, Leonardo is not alone!