Leonardo da Vinci: world class Lichtenbergian

If you’ve read Andrew Santella’s delightful Soon: an overdue history of procrastination, you already know that Leonardo da Vinci was one of the worst procrastinators that ever lived. He took years to finish any project, if he ever did, to the point that the ratio of his finished works to his unfinished works was bad enough to make even the most dedicated Lichtenbergian feel accomplished.

Today we’re going to look at a prime example, his large-scale painting The Adoration of the Magi.

Here it is in situ in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence:


It’s big: about 8 ft x 8 ft on a wooden panel. It was commissioned by the Augustinian monks of San Donato a Scopeto in Florence in 1481, but Leonardo left it behind — unfinished — when he decamped to Milan for a regular salary from the Duke there.

Here it is in a better photo:

Click to embiggen.

Click to embiggen.

It has only recently been returned to exhibition after a six-year restoration, during which a great deal of Leonardo’s original sketching was revealed. This is what we will examine today.

Nothing about this painting is finished. It’s all ABORTIVE ATTEMPTS and SUCCESSIVE APPROXIMATION. Look at the Madonna and infant:


He only got around to sketching them in with some gray and sepia washes. He seems to have spent a lot more time on the surrounding figures…


…and even here he hasn’t really finished anything. Some are more filled in than others, and it may be that he would have ended up leaving out some of those heads all mashed together.

On the other side…


…it’s even more of a mess. In the center, see the two women’s heads? Was he trying to decide which position to use? It seems very unlikely that both heads would have remained — it’s physically impossible.

And look at this detail:


What the heck is going on here? There is a horse beginning to morph into shape, and the cow above him seems to have difficulty deciding how many legs it wants, and then out beyond the stable is anyone’s guess. And what is that architectural detail emerging center left?

Back on the other side:


I love how the architecture is more complete than the humans in it, who are mere outlines. And look at that smudgy horse on the left.

Boys and girls, if you have ever put down your pencil or your brush in frustration because you couldn’t “start at the beginning and go until you reach the end,” this is your object lesson in why you’re A Idiot. No one does that, not even Leonardo da Vinci.

Especially Leonardo da Vinci.





Especially Leonardo da Vinci re: ABANDONMENT.