Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) is known the world over as one of the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance, yet his reputation for greatness rests on a mere handful of paintings – a number of which are unfinished. Of course, there was no way to test adults for ADHD during the Renaissance, but 500 years after his death, scientists are exploring the possibility that adult ADHD/ADD may explain the artist’s many unfinished works.
Writing in the journal Brain, two neuroscientists – Marco Catani and Paolo Mazzarello – wondered, “Could Leonardo have had attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)? Leonardo certainly seemed to suffer from the symptoms of adult ADHD, including constant procrastination, the inability to follow through or complete tasks and being easily distracted.
The possibility that Leonardo may have had ADHD is based on more than his small body of work and the number of paintings he left unfinished. Early biographers and even some of Leonardo’s own contemporaries left descriptions that provide clues for today’s scientists.
Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) is credited with writing the earliest biographical information about Leonardo, which appears in a biography of famous sculptors and painters. As Smithsonian Magazine reports, 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.’”
The two neuroscientists say that along with other historical documentation, “supports Leonardo’s difficulties with procrastination and time management as characteristic of ADHD, a condition that might explain aspects of his temperament and the strange form of his dissipative genius. Leonardo’s difficulties were pervasive since childhood, which is a fundamental characteristic of the condition. There is also unquestionable evidence that Leonardo was constantly on the go, keeping himself occupied with doing something but often jumping from task to task. Like many of those suffering with ADHD, he slept very little and worked continuously night and day by alternating rapid cycles of short naps and waking.”
Catani and Mazzarello also point out that these days adult ADD/ADHD is often linked with a high level of intellectual ability, as witnessed by the number of highly successful people who have been diagnosed as adults. “Arguably,” the scientists write, “if positively channeled, some characteristics of ADHD can bear an advantage: mind wandering can fuel creativity and originality; restlessness can move to seeking novelty and action for change.”
For historians, this is an interesting possibility. For someone who is waiting for the results of ADHD testing – in adults or children, Leonardo’s story proves that a diagnosis of ADHD doesn’t mean that you can’t achieve greatness. And Leonardo didn’t have access to ADHD treatment!