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What Did Leonardo Say?

If he had only painted the most famous portrait in Western art, Leonardo da Vinci’s birthday would be worth celebrating. But Leonardo was also a sculptor, architect, engineer, scientist, and all-around genius, and posthumously he has also entered the rarefied space of “inspirational quote maker.”

Born on April 15, 1452, to an unmarried notary and a peasant woman, Leonardo is remembered today as perhaps the ideal of the Renaissance man. And the more you read about him, the more you suspect he knew it, too. One of the odder pieces of Leonardo-marginalia that you can find on the internet is a cover letter he wrote.

It’s strange enough to consider that people have been forced into the uncomfortable ritual of writing cover letters since the Renaissance, much less picture Leonardo da Vinci being forced to do so. Still, his letter to Ludovico Sforza, then the de facto ruler of Milan who was looking for military engineers, opens with the confidence you’d expect from a genius:

Having now sufficiently seen and considered the achievements of all those who count themselves masters and artificers of instruments of war, and having noted that the invention and performance of the said instruments is in no way different from that in common usage, I shall endeavour, while intending no discredit to anyone else, to make myself understood to Your Excellency for the purpose of unfolding to you my secrets, and thereafter offering them at your complete disposal.

That is a confident man, who then goes on to list all the cool weapons he could make, and at the end, the painter-of-the-world’s-most-famous-portrait offhandedly mentions, “I can execute sculpture in marble, bronze, and clay. Likewise in painting, I can do everything possible as well as any other, whosoever he may be.”

Sforza would not only give him a job, he eventually commissioned Leonardo to paint The Last Supper. And if you should doubt Leonardo’s claims of being capable of doing “everything possible as well as any other, whosoever he may be,” it might be worth checking out a book of his complete paintings to see if the man a braggart or simply an honest assessor of his own talent.


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But many other quotes, some quite vague and some seemingly impossible, are attributed to Leonardo. Some are verified and come from his own notebooks, while others come from, well, someone else entirely. Can you spot a fake Leonardo quote when you see one?


This is an easy one, mostly because the content of the saying doesn’t make sense in Italian, where work, “lavoro” comes before success, “successo.” For that matter, the first Italian dictionary was published nearly a century after Leonardo died in 1519. And finally, that quote is pretty inane. Not a Leonardo.



This one is a little more tricky, and the tweet that it’s in certainly looks more credible, but it’s hard to link the words to Leonardo’s work. It’s much easier to find this phrase in William Gaddis’s 1955 novel The Recognitions, and then see it just start being attributed to Leonardo. Others are happy to claim it.


We’ll call that inconclusive at best.

This is a rather exclusionary attitude for someone to take, and you’d hope that someone with so much to teach wouldn’t feel this way, but this quote comes straight from Leonardo himself. The British Library generously calls this proof of Leonardo’s strong opinions about intellectual property.


This seems like the opposite of the quote directly above it, and yet it’s found in the 1888 Jean-Paul Richter translation of The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci.

You can see why the word “enigmatic” is often found around Leonardo’s name. Of course it’s usually followed by something like “yet great artist,” which is why we keep coming back to Leonardo, who just turned 564 today.

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