Is Leonardo da Vinci overrated?

The Mona Lisa is not the best artwork ever, and as a painter I am not sure Leonardo is much better than either Mantegna or Piero della Francesca, neither of whom is much known to the general public, much less Titian.  He has no work as stunning as Michelangelo’s David, and too many of his commissions he left unfinished or he never started them.  The Notebooks display a fertile imagination, but do not contain much real knowledge of use, except on the aortic valve, nor did they boost gdp, nor are they worth reading.  Much of his science is weak on theory, even relative to his time.  In Milan he was too content to serve as court impresario, and he seemed to have no idea of how to apply his own talents in accord with comparative advantage.

His ability to take an idea and turn it into a memorable sketch was his most remarkable ability, and in this he is without peer.

Plus he painted “woman as gorgon” very very well, but with a sweetness too.

I can recommend Walter Isaacson’s new book on Leonardo as a wonderful introduction, but it does not change my mind on these points.


You can always nitpick credential. I would ask, for the Renaissance who is greater than Leonardo da Vinci and why?

Well clearly da Vinci is greater than Bandarra, or the much better known Nostradamus for that matter. But I was really looking for people who had, arguably, greater accomplishments than Leonardo da Vinci.

Prophet Bandarra ( ) predicted the rise of Brazil. He found the key to unerstand the Old Testment's prophecies.

Well, the Prophet Bandarra was an good American, just like Jesus Christ. So please stop insulting his nation.

He was not. Prophet Bandarra was a Portuguese shoemaker. Some think he was of Jewish stock, some people think he was not. He predicted the coming of the Hidden One.

The Hidden One is Trump, right?

No, it is not. The Hidden One is a mesianic figure who will create the Fifth Empire, the universal empire of peace and understanding led by Brazil. The prophecies of Isaiah will be fulfilled.
"Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain".

"The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the bullock: and dust shall be the serpent's meat. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, saith the LORD."

Exactly. His sculpture of David alone is incredible.

Precisely this.

Ty lives in a world where people like him get "credit" for pointing out that something is over-rated or under-rated, usually in terms of political gain, but not always. His dream is to get invited onto NPR to discuss the matter.

His anti-Trump ravings for the last 11 months are simply not cutting it, so it's time to delve into art.

It will not work out well for him. Expect a Trump rant within 6 days.

Hey anotheranon, how's this guy's post for 'content'?

Looks good to me!

Is this a joke or did Da Vinci do a statue of David?

Bandarra, about whom it was said "His pen besmirches our noble tongue" ?
Bandarra, whose drunken maunderings were ignored by his contemporaries and forgotten by the rest of humanity?
That Bandarra?

The Prophet was esteemed by the noblest men of his time. Vieira, the greatest writer of Portugal's history, favored his prophecies. Famous poet Fernando Pessoa used them as the foundation for his most famous work. The Prophet has not been forgotten. We still wait for the deljverance he promissed.

IMHO the greatest artist of this period is Albrecht Dürer. Besides being a painter comparable to Raphael and Michelangelo, he also is renown in other media, particularly engravings and woodcuts. He is probably the first prominent painter of landscapes. In addition, he wrote theoretical works on perspective and proportion and created photorealistic biological paintings.

An excellent point! Dürer is sadly underrated, like many German painters: Caspar David Friedrich, Spitzweg, Both Cranchs Younger and Elder,...Who could not be moved by "Ritter, Tod und Teufel",_Tod_und_Teufel#/media/File:Duerer_-_Ritter,_Tod_und_Teufel_(Der_Reuther).jpg, "Melencolia I" "Das große Rasenstück" ?
He was an excellent mathematician and dozens of books on linear algebra or analytic/projective geometry reproduce his " Der Zeichner der Laute"

Sorry, here is the correct link for Melencolia I:

If you agree that he's overrated, you might want to read the new book on Vasari to find out how that came to be:

Is your evaluation of his painting in some way notable? Well, it is your blog. Say, when was your last gallery show? And when's your next? Did you watch Charlie Rose's interview of the author? His opinion (but of course, if he's not "a painter" then it hardly qualifies as a significant opinion, right?) was that Da Vinci did some really impressive things with light and perspective. He was self "educated" so your statement about him being "weak on theory" is hardly news, or even a minority view. While I don't disagree that as a painter he is an "also ran", comparing his painting to Michelangelo's sculpture of David is apples and oranges. I continue to be puzzled about why the self-anointed illuminati seem to believe their opinion on art is any more significant that anyone else's. I hold that art is in the mind of the beholder, and any attempt to compare my art to your art is about as foolish as comparing any other of our feelings. Which gets to the crux of my problem with this post. "Overrated" by who? What a waste of space. I'm sure no one will be looking up my bio in 500 years, how about you?

Well, no one will be commenting on your blog let alone looking up your bio. Do you think of yourself as clever and edgy with these posts?


-1. +1 - 1 = 0, which is Anon and msgkings, to the extent they are not the same person.

Thank you, Ray. At least someone here agrees with my insults of Tyler.

msgkings only contribution on this blog's comment section is to raise and lower the status of other commenters, while contributing very little to the discussion at hand. When was the last time he made an interesting point? I don't think ever.

I, the most infamous anon, will acknowledge that msgkings does sometimes stake out a policy and/or moral position.

And for what it's worth, I think the key to today is that Tyler wants to provide distraction and amusement, not connection to policy and/or moral position.

At least your posts contain content, however much I think you are a concern troll. msgkings literally does not post anything remotely interesting.

Wrong anotheranon, I do both. Some of my posts are content, some are conversation, and others are tearing up posters who think it's cute to be rude to the blog hosts, like prior_test, Art Deco, Other Jim, and Li Zhi. Also I troll the trolls like Ray Lopez and Thiago/Truth Seeker. You may not think any of my content is interesting, as is your right, but it's still content. And I'll put my stuff up against yours (have you ever posted before?) any day.

Every comment section is an ecosystem, and I operate well within the bounds of propriety. Relax man, we're here because we enjoy it and we learn things.

If he lets the others here rag on him like they do, he won't be banning me. You're nothing.

I like msgkings. Not given to hyperbole or hysteria, sometimes I agree with him sometimes not.

And his and Thiago's well-rehearsed dance quite amuses me.

I realized I just agreed with Anon. Going to shower now (although this blog wouldn't be the same either without him needing to check under the bed for Russians)

I wonder, what does this do to my status? I wonder if I care.

Check the polls, before thinking I am bothering you with oddball views. I mean sure, you can be mad at 54% of Americans for believing a thing, but not that it is just me.

Oh oh. George W Bush just went full anon.

Never go full anon.

It is not really a day to be at sea with current events, a better day to find safe harbor.

Well said, IMO.

Tyler and Co. seem to fancy themselves Olympian geniuses of some sort. It's a disease some people contract in high school and never get rid of.

LOL byomtov the genius

It's probably unfair to try to take away someone's way of life and observing and commenting on the external world it TC's.

I do wonder a bit about the relationship between art, and artists, as a function of the time/zeitgeist/cultural period/... and the same of the critic/commentator on that prior art/artist. Perhaps TCs comments are "valid" today but 50 years ago and 100 year from now will be dismissed as misguided.

Which I think also points to the question of who might be looking up anyone bios in the future. Withe era of big, and persistent, data at hand I suspect the answer will be a cyclical one and likely some of the oddest or most obscure individuals popping up as "should have been important" or even hugely influential in their virtual afterlife then dismissed as cranks or misguided fools later (wash, rinse, repeat).

Suggests that too much effort for one's place in history is probably grossly over rated and time and effort that could have been better spent by all but those deriving sufficient satisfaction from the activity regardless of the result.

From Benjamin Franklin to Steve Jobs to Leonardo (da Vinci is not part of Leonardo's name, but rather signifies his birthplace), what connects these three (besides being subjects of Isaacson biographies)? This review ( finds a connection in enigma, the three subjects being enigmas. I read the Franklin biography (who hasn't) and I think I read the Jobs biography (but I'm not sure - am I losing my memory or was the book unmemorable?). For those who haven't seen it, the Louvre (the location of Mona Lisa) is enormous. In fact it's so enormous, that visiting for only one day (or two days or three days, you get the idea) seems ridiculous, racing through while glancing for a few seconds at the enormous inventory of art. I suspect that many visitors are there to see the Mona Lisa, once having seen it moving on to the nearby Eiffel Tower.

I also went to see Hammurabi's code.

But yes, it does seem like you'd need a week to really enjoy it.

For my money Sandro Botticelli, more or less contemporary of Leonardo, is the world's best painter--and Primavera is the world's best painting.

Good pasta dish, too.

Botticelli is my favourite painter of all times too (although I would select, by a hair's breadth, The Birth of Venus as the world's greatest painting). He is the epitome of European civilization, with a select few like Newton, Shakespeare, Gauß and Tchaikovski.
My informants tell me that this rather obvious rating is not as popular as it should on American campuses. Hard to believe and really amazing if true...

Quality science fiction has always been appreciated by a only few highly imaginative minds. Leonardo da Vinci was under-rated.

Good grief, what a reductive way to look at an artist. "Boost GDP"? You must be kidding.

Some of us just grinned and let that slide....

Da Vinci was more than an artist. He was a polymath that worked in engineering, invention, architecture, and science among other things. It is appropriate to think about the greatness of someone across these fields in terms of how they changed the productivity or standard of living of fellow man.

Cowen was clearly viewing Da Vinci as more than an artist. He mentions his scientific theories, unfinished commissions, and lack of "real knowledge of use".

I'm ok with reducing Leonardo in status a bit, but he really should be given credit for just that, being an accomplished polymath in a time when almost no one knew or cared about the things he did. He's pretty much on par with Ben Franklin and Leibniz and others. If he's so unworthy who are his contemporaries that we should venerate instead (as JWatts asks above)?

Leibniz? Pfffst. Practically forgotten, even amongst philosophers.

But not forgotten by mathematicians (nor readers of Voltaire's scandalously unfair but very amusing Candide).

Don’t forget the amount of time he (Leonardo) spent trying to stay alive. I refer not only to his time in jail, but — you know — trying to stay living in the 15th cen. (I dong mean just getting food, I mean finding a patron etc.)

Re jail, didn’t he sketch plans for a jail bar breaking device? Practical, not complacent!

I really must insist you come in again, is Thursday at 11:00 ok for you?

No, it is not. My health is perfect and my soundness of mind is envied by my acquaintance, who consider me remarkable.

Not counting Brazilians, is there anyone who would vouch for your mental soundness?

I mostly deal with Brazilians. A cousin of mine is Italian. A cousin of mine married an American.

It boosts Paris GDP ;)


Oops - replied to wrong post. I actually think Axa is right on.

It's a humorous comment, but not without substance. For example, Albrecht Dürer was a superior artist and also generated considerable economic activity.

I always thought more of Michelangelo who could paint AND sculpt. Jealous Leonardo dismissed his Sistine chapel works as a ceiling painted by a sculptor. I think Michelangelo was as much of a human anatomist as Leonardo. Leonardo was more outgoing and much more connected than Michelangelo who was somewhat boorish and not very worldly.

Michelangelo had a fantastic memory for drawing ( according to Vasari) and could remember every line that he had drawn in his lifetime and never drew the same line twice. None of the figures in the Sistine ceiling have the same pose. He was constantly creating and never wanted to repeat himself or take an easy road. I think Leonardo is not overrated as a painter but as a scientist/genius/polymath I agree that he is.

Not sure about MIchelangelo as an anatomist. Women don't look like this:

He was gay so the female body didn't interest him.

Picasso's nudes don't look very normal and he was extremely hetero

I'd love to know what the person who paid for that thought when he saw it

I remember a tour guide told me that they didn't have female nude models. Even Botticelli's Venus looks like a man with breasts.

Leonardo also sculpted, but none of his sculpture survived ( big surprise).

So why does Leonardo's investigation of the aortic valve receive a special nod of approval? What recommends that one line of exploration above all the rest he examined and conceptualized?

There are two Leonardos, the man and the Renaissance symbol.

The man may look flawed 5 centuries later but anyway impressive.

As a symbol, he represents Florence and the Renaissance. I hope you're not underrating period in Europe.

Imagine someone writes a history book by year 2400 and takes Warren Buffet as a symbol of capitalism in early 21st century. Perhaps the guy is not the "best". But the question you should be asking yourself should be: is this guy representative of the idea I want to explain?

Same for Leonardo, the symbol represents concepts, a period, a region, many things happened. If you worry about the man, you're not reading well the history book.

@Tyler: also read the "patronage" article in Wiki:

Rulers, nobles and very wealthy people used patronage of the arts to endorse their political ambitions, social positions, and prestige. Some patrons, such as the Medici of Florence, used artistic patronage to "cleanse" wealth that was perceived as ill-gotten through usury.

The Medicis were the patrons of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Galileo and many Leonardo da Vinci is the symbol for all of them, even the bankers.

An indicator of wealth then was having an extensive retinue, actually a requirement. Being the patron of an artist was the counterpart of owning a big television now. Life isn't as complicated for the enormously wealthy today as it was in the past. Service industries have developed to satisfy their desires in a more economical manner. For instance, in the 15th century a truly wealthy individual with a passion for music would need to feed and house a number of musicians in addition to household help. Today he simply subscribes to the local symphony or opera. His servants, should he have any, can listen to recordings or even the radio. A studio photo portrait or just a good snapshot of his smirking wife has replaced the expensive oil that was once the only means of capturing the likeness of the lady.

It doesn't hurt Leonardo's fame that he was in Florence, Rome, and Paris. He probably brought the Mona Lisa with him from Florence to Paris. Italy has lots of Italian Renaissance masterpieces, but France, the art superpower of the future, didn't have all that many that were legitimately acquired the way the King of France appears to have bought the Mona Lisa.

Perhaps Tyler sees Leonardo as merely an Elon Musk.

But in that sense, the incomplete man may more define the age.

Which artists were greater scientists than Leonardo? Which scientists were greater artists than Leonardo?

Serious question. What makes Leonardo a scientist?

His investigations of nature make him a scientist. Whether he was a great scientist or a middling one, it is indisputable that he was observing and analyzing. My field is fluid dynamics and there are a couple of things that Leonardo was the first to describe. His work on hydraulics point the way to Pascal and Torricelli a century and a half later. His studies of turbulence and vorticity presaged developments that didn't come until the middle of the 19th Century. It can be objected that his notebooks weren't studied by anyone until relatively recently and so did nothing to move along progress in science. It is still amazing to look back at him seeing what no one else was seeing, in some cases not until centuries later.

"Las Meninas" by Diego Velasquez is the greatest painting, with "Along the River During
Qing Ming Festival",by Zhang Zeduan a close second.

I'll vote for Diebenkorn's "Citiscape 1" and Burchfield's "Ice Glare." Albert Marquet is the greatest oil painter and Chales Burchfield the greatest watercolorist.

Yes but, there's a connection between Leonardo Da Vinci and Pacioli. It may be that Leonardo assisted or influenced Paccioli in his understanding of mathematics? And wasn't Paccioli the man who published the first widely known work on double entry booking? And wasn't it double entry booking that forever changed the world of finance, and thus Economics? So, how could an Economist think that Leonardo is over-rated? ( A stretch, I know..)

I tend to agree that he is overrated. From a purely aesthetic point of view, I'm not a fan of his artwork, though I understand it is important. He may well be rated correctly as far as that goes, I'm not an artist. It's in the sciences that I find him to be terribly overrated. He was obviously very bright and had ideas ahead of his time, but none of those ideas actually came to fruition or changed the course of history. It's one thing to have an innovative idea, but turning that idea into an actual thing is far more difficult and important.

Among general public he’s over-rated for the reasons Tyler gives. But among specialists I think the correction might be over-done, at least in the artistic sphere. I personally prefer Mantegna and Piero, but they’re not better artists. He really was a giant. In retrospect it’s hard to appreciate how inventive and influential the High Renaissance masters were, because they were assimilated so completely. There’s also a certain inverted snobbishness (which I share) at the Mona Lisa’s place in popular culture.

Here's why Leonardo is so important...

Las Meninas: Is This The Best Painting In History?

It is! See comment above.

Leonardo was perhaps the first celebrity. He was like a more talented Andy Warhol.

Earlier Renaissance artists like Donatello tended to be treated more like respected local craftsmen. We kind of back-project superstardom onto them.

So, maybe Leonardo's greatest, most novel creation was his own role as an international celebrity whose company kings would compete over.

For example, who were the great artists who designed the Gothic Cathedral?. Surely Chartres, for example, had at least one, and probably several, architects and/or artists of genius working on it. But we have only a very hazy recollection of the individual identities of high medieval artists and architects.

We know more about early Renaissance figures in part because the subsequent fame of Leonardo during the high Renaissance as a man of genius made it seem reasonable to study up on his predecessors and not let knowledge of these individuals become obscured by time.

That reminds me of a fun little show I saw one Fourth of July on a sidewalk in Philadelphia. Three actors were playing Benjamin Franklin as old, young, and middle-aged, chatting and singing with one another. Their finale had the chorus line "Ben Franklin's life was his greatest invention."

Do I remember once reading that the scale of fuss about Leonardo was mainly a 20th century phenomenon?

Leonardo was a very big deal during his lifetime, probably bigger than any artist in Christian times. But the cult of the Mona Lisa largely started in the 19th Century (e.g., Walter Pater). It was a big deal before: e.g., Napoleon put it in his bedroom. But it wasn't all that accessible for much of its history.

But in the 19th and 20th Century, it was in the Louvre, the biggest, most important museum in the world, so it was seen and copied by huge numbers of artists. In contrast, Leonardo's striking Lady with an Ermine portrait is in Poland, which is off the beaten path of famous artists.

In the history of art, it really helps to be in Paris.

See, "Lady with an Ermine" would be interesting on a top 10 list. It would also show that the list wasn't compiled by a fourth grader doing homework using Google.

chacun a son gout.

But some gouts are better than others.

Even so, sauce for the gouts is sauce for the gander.

"He has no work as stunning as Michelangelo’s David,..."

And Michelangelo's David is nowhere near as stunning as his Pieta:

Which is no where near as stunning as the Laocoon.

I've always liked Bernini's David best.

What a boring list. Anyone with an ounce of creativity (and honesty) would have an unconventional favorite.

Eh, there are good reasons that Michelangelo's David is the most famous sculpture in the world and the other three are likely in the top ten.

Groan. Performative contrarianism is the curse of the Social Media Age.

That said, it takes an impressive degree of self-unaware chutzpah for Tyler Cowen, a fellow - like all of us - with much to be modest about, to declare a genuine polymath over-rated.

I had a genuine lol when I saw this subject. It's almost a joke, like asking if the moon landing was really all that impressive, or if maybe Stalin was underrated as wise and benevolent leader.

Actually, Stalin was called The Froend of The Little Children.

I hope Tyler's economic reasoning is more solid than his work as an art critic or science historian - but I have my doubts.

Four hundred ninety-eight years from now, who among us will be remembered?

Probably just you and Ray Lopez.

The one who breeds the most, no doubt.

That rules out Dems, obviously.

I'm going with whoever is the most GOP among us.

Show yourselves, Republicans! I am not among you, but I can't be the only one who is here just to mock this ongoing hypocritical shit-show.

Are you saying that you remember all of your ancestors from four hundred and ninety-eight years ago?

Because I certainly don't.

They'll all have the internet stuck to their brains, including this comment section, so all of us?

"Piero della Francesca, neither of whom is much known to the general public, much less Titian."

At least della Francesca gets a call out in Ghostbusters II.

Take that Leonardo!

No increase in the GDP? What about his gold machine that the Mayflowers had Hudson Hawk gather the components for.

I've never thought of LDV this way, and now I feel like I should read more about him. Thank you.

He may be more celebrated because of the sheer diversity of his interests and talents. Painting, sculpting, mathematics, natural science, medicine, architecture, etc. That, and the fact that he speculated many inventions that were beyond the science of his time but eventually came to past.

My guess is that there have been several thousand Italians who have reached heights of artistry as high as our friend Leonardo did (see, e.g., Waugh, speaking in the voice of Charles Ryder, painting in the chapel at Brideshead, describing how he felt the inspiration of the High Renaissance artists for a time - sadly a short time - but for a time)... I also guess that Leonardo could never in a million years paint a woman in a natural female posture as well as VerMeer, could never in a billion years paint a heavenly background for a kind-hearted saint the way Raphael did day in and day out for decades, and could never ever ever (to quote Taylor Swift) paint, as Titian did, a repentant Magdalen, looking forward to her future life of love for others with a vanishing soupçon of regret in her eyes for the years where she did not quite understand that hope, the poor sweet woman: That being said, Leonardo's background landscapes (the undulating rivers through the never quite rhythmic and never quite unrhythmic valleys, the noble trees with their uber-geometric grace, and the subtle proportions that make Ramanujan's improvements of the number theory of his day - sorry Hardy, you know it is true - look, in memory, simplistic in comparison to the enchantments of those backgrounds, not quite perfected (time for a paragraph break). ......................
John Singer Sargent once said that a painting is a portrait of a person with something wrong with the mouth and the hands............................
Leonardo, time and time again, got the hands right, got the facial expression right................................
To criticize him as anything less than an eternally valuable painter would be like criticizing the Platonically ideal moments of the hilarious stooges - Men in Black, those days on the train with Marjorie White (much better if imagined in color - if I had friends in Silicon Valley with the swag to get it done, it would be done) - as being anything less than funny.

if you want to say a bot wrote that: go ahead. My feelings will not be hurt. "looking forward to her future life" (obviously, in heaven): Bots don't write like that.

I actually don't know anybody who knew John Kennedy Toole (well I have corresponded with Rod Dreher, sort of, and he is from Louisiana, the state in which New Orleans locates itself, so there's that), and the closest connection to Joyce that I have is that a friend of mine has a cousin whose cousin was a writer Joyce admired, very much ( I may be off by a cousin or two....probably not, to tell the truth, but maybe, to be careful, I am off by "a cousin or two") : and when I pastiche , for a sentence or two here or there in some comment that people wish had more paragraph breaks (and they are probably right) - as I was saying, when I pastiche JKOToole or the elderly Joyce, God bless his loving little writerly heart, for a sentence or two, and I am then criticized for sounding like a bot: it is just too melancholy! Cheers, anyway !!!

yes that is exactly how I would teach a bot to there's that

Dangling modifier alert: "The Mona Lisa is not the best artwork ever, and as a painter I am not sure Leonardo is much better than either Mantegna or Piero della Francesca..."

I was not aware that Tyler is a painter! Well, he's a terrific painter of conversations and ideas, etc., but I mean in the literal sense.

so if you want to mock me as a bot go ahead. it is just too f**king melancholy, except for the fact that someone, somewhere, who has not laughed in too long a time, will laugh. (and yes Las Meninas have never, in light of what they were trying to express, been outpointed - chebere, amigos et amigas, chebere).

Bot . . . incoherent ramblings. Take your pick.

Look up the references you do not understand. To do so might require a humility that most millennials do not have: you can do better. If you understood every word at the simple level that a person who knows the words in a basic dictionary knows those words, you would not have said what you said. You can do better! The world is full of coherent people, who have something to say, but who do not condescend to be simplistic just because you are an entitled millennial. you may think they are incoherent: your loss.

To be fair I would say something similar to Leonardo - try harder, my young Florentian friend! work on more, better pictures; try and look at a woman the way a man who loves only women looks at a woman, if just for a moment, read the Bible with a little more enthusiasm, and, as good as you are at number theory - unless you were faking your knowledge, pastiching in your genius way the landscapes of the best of the Tartars who had wandered, far from their Oriental home, into your beloved Florence and its sister cities, in a way that may have fooled me, all these hundreds of years later, into thinking that you were a Ramanujan avant la lettre - as good as you are at number theory, remember, God loves us the way we are but loves us too much to let us stay that way: just as true for those who are gifted as for those who are not! (I was not fooled, by the way: impressed, but not fooled).

The Last Supper is still excellent Tyler. Forget about Gioconda. It's for philistines.

Self parody accomplished.

He seemed to pass the market test. I always thought Olive Garden was overrated, but it sells a lot of pasta. Taylor Swift...meh.

And the Leonardo story doesn't end:

If there's anything that's seriously overrated, it's contrarian hot takes by bloggers.

Here's the New Yorker's take on Leonardo:

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