Leonardo Da Vinci’s To Do List (Circa 1490) Is Much Cooler Than Yours

in Art, History | December 2nd, 2014

da vinci todo list

Most people’s to-do lists are, almost by definition, pretty dull, filled with those quotidian little tasks that tend to slip out of our minds. Pick up the laundry. Get that thing for the kid. Buy milk, canned yams and kumquats at the local market.

Leonardo Da Vinci was, however, no ordinary person. And his to-do lists were anything but dull.

Da Vinci would carry around a notebook, where he would write and draw anything that moved him. “It is useful,” Leonardo once wrote, to “constantly observe, note, and consider.” Buried in one of these books, dating back to around the 1490s, is a to-do list. And what a to-do list.

NPR’s Robert Krulwich had it directly translated. And while all of the list might not be immediately clear, remember that Da Vinci never intended for it to be read by web surfers 500  years in the future.

[Calculate] the measurement of Milan and Suburbs

[Find] a book that treats of Milan and its churches, which is to be had at the stationer’s on the way to Cordusio

[Discover] the measurement of Corte Vecchio (the courtyard in the duke’s palace).

[Discover] the measurement of the castello (the duke’s palace itself)

Get the master of arithmetic to show you how to square a triangle.

Get Messer Fazio (a professor of medicine and law in Pavia) to show you about proportion.

Get the Brera Friar (at the Benedictine Monastery to Milan) to show you De Ponderibus (a medieval text on mechanics)

[Talk to] Giannino, the Bombardier, re. the means by which the tower of Ferrara is walled without loopholes (no one really knows what Da Vinci meant by this)

Ask Benedetto Potinari (A Florentine Merchant) by what means they go on ice in Flanders

Draw Milan

Ask Maestro Antonio how mortars are positioned on bastions by day or night.

[Examine] the Crossbow of Mastro Giannetto

Find a master of hydraulics and get him to tell you how to repair a lock, canal and mill in the Lombard manner

[Ask about] the measurement of the sun promised me by Maestro Giovanni Francese

Try to get Vitolone (the medieval author of a text on optics), which is in the Library at Pavia, which deals with the mathematic.

You can just feel Da Vinci’s voracious curiosity and intellectual restlessness. Note how many of the entries are about getting an expert to teach him something, be it mathematics, physics or astronomy. Also who casually lists “draw Milan” as an ambition?

Leonardo da Vinci exhibition

Later to-do lists, dating around 1510, seemed to focus on Da Vinci’s growing fascination with anatomy. In a notebook filled with beautifully rendered drawings of bones and viscera, he rattles off more tasks that need to get done. Things like get a skull, describe the jaw of a crocodile and tongue of a woodpecker, assess a corpse using his finger as a unit of measurement.

On that same page, he lists what he considers to be important qualities of an anatomical draughtsman. A firm command of perspective and a knowledge of the inner workings of the body are key. So is having a strong stomach.

You can see a page of Da Vinci’s notebook above but be warned. Even if you are conversant in 16th century Italian, Da Vinci wrote everything in mirror script.

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of badgers and even more pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

by | Make a Comment (36)

Comments (36)

  1. Robert Clayton says . . .
    June 5, 2015 / 12:03 am

    Loopholes in this context are the slots or narrow windows in fortresses or castles which archers would use to fire arrows through at attackers. Presumably the intent here is for LDV to understand alternative defences and the pros / cons of these kind of architectural features, from the point of view of a soldier.

  2. Kendol says . . .
    June 5, 2015 / 6:22 am

    Nice list of DaVincis research To Do’s. He also had basic things like: get new shoes and pick up milk.

  3. K Isham says . . .
    December 15, 2016 / 3:15 pm

    Loopholes might be referring to the spaces left from the scaffolding used to support the builders during construction; it seems like he wants to figure out new scaffolding techniques that leave smooth walls.

  4. David Higham says . . .
    December 15, 2016 / 8:11 pm

    “the means by which the tower of Ferrara is walled without loopholes”

    I wonder whether Leonardo’s “loopholes” actually refer to “putlog holes” which are holes left in masonry where the scaffolding used to build them was situated. To build a wall without them would be of interest to him.

  5. Chris says . . .
    December 16, 2016 / 3:57 am

    Present days todo would be exactly the same. If he wouldn’t have to make money :(

  6. hahaha says . . .
    December 16, 2016 / 4:52 am

    so dicaprio basically wanted to measure things which is more interesting than my to-do list. yeah, fkoff

  7. Julien says . . .
    December 16, 2016 / 8:28 am

    The scan of Leonardo’s notebook is reversed. This is more readable: http://www.juliendesrosiers.com/images/leonardo-todo-list.jpg

  8. Dan Colman says . . .
    December 19, 2016 / 5:14 pm

    Hi there,

    Just curious, does anyone know who posted this on their Facebook page? Got a sudden influx of visitors and would love to know who to thank.

    Dan (editor)

  9. Tom says . . .
    December 19, 2016 / 9:45 pm

    Please, do not call him “Da Vinci” – to sound credible, call him just “Leonardo”, so we know which “da Vinci” you mean ;-)

  10. Mak Diose says . . .
    December 19, 2016 / 10:36 pm

    Hi, most likely. it’s Tim Ferris.

  11. Nick Venables says . . .
    December 19, 2016 / 11:03 pm

    Hi Dan,

    I found it via a Facebook post from Laura Betterly. Hope that helps!

  12. Tom says . . .
    December 19, 2016 / 11:51 pm

    Tim Ferris shared it!

  13. Dan Colman says . . .
    December 20, 2016 / 12:07 am

    Ah, ok, that would explain it!

    Thanks for letting us know Tom.


  14. Yo hi says . . .
    December 20, 2016 / 12:43 am

    Tim Ferriss

  15. Marcus says . . .
    December 20, 2016 / 1:33 am

    Hi Dan,

    Tim Ferris, author of The 4 Hour Work Week posted it on his Facebook page. Interesting article!

  16. Aaron says . . .
    December 20, 2016 / 3:09 am

    Looks like Tim Ferris posted it author of 4 hour work week.

  17. Marta says . . .
    December 20, 2016 / 3:15 am

    It was posted on facebook by Tim Ferris

  18. Aaa says . . .
    December 20, 2016 / 3:19 am

    Hey Dan!

    Tim Ferriss did about 10 hours ago

  19. Joel says . . .
    December 20, 2016 / 3:54 am

    Tim Ferris posted it in his facebook page. He has an enormous amount of followers; hence, the sudden influx of visitors :)

  20. Tim says . . .
    December 20, 2016 / 4:54 am

    I saw this on my LinkedIn feed, it was posted by Tim Ferriss.

  21. Thomas says . . .
    December 20, 2016 / 5:38 am

    Hey Dan, Tim Ferriss just shared it on FB, that’s probably where they are all coming from. Me too ;D

  22. Ken P says . . .
    December 20, 2016 / 5:56 am

    @TimFerriss posted it on his FB

  23. LK Lewis says . . .
    December 20, 2016 / 6:25 am

    You can probably credit that to Tim Ferris, Dan.

  24. Michael Mitsakos says . . .
    December 20, 2016 / 7:38 am

    Tim Ferriss posted this on his FB, that’s how I found it ;)

  25. Mladen says . . .
    December 20, 2016 / 3:12 pm
  26. nosidełko says . . .
    December 21, 2016 / 5:53 am

    wow, some kind of tagging was also there :)

  27. Anon says . . .
    December 21, 2016 / 7:46 am

    Tim Ferris

  28. Rooz says . . .
    December 21, 2016 / 1:38 pm

    Did you just really say DiCaprio?

  29. Nesibe says . . .
    December 22, 2016 / 1:03 pm

    Hey have you noticed that the picture of DaVinci’s note paper is upside-down in the article!!!
    Or was he such a talent who writes head down!?

  30. Sara says . . .
    December 23, 2016 / 7:39 am

    You can thank Tim Ferris. He has a huge following

  31. Walshy8it says . . .
    December 23, 2016 / 8:41 am

    Stop telling Dan it was Tim Ferris… Tattletales!

  32. Don Surber says . . .
    December 23, 2016 / 12:26 pm

    A loophole is an arrow slit in a wall. Small window used by archers to defend the tower

  33. Sgl says . . .
    December 23, 2016 / 8:19 pm

    I used Tim’s link in his 5 Bullet Friday email.

  34. AB says . . .
    December 23, 2016 / 9:17 pm

    Who’s the noob who called him DiCaprio??!! Far out what a noob.

  35. Jon says . . .
    December 26, 2016 / 11:58 am


  36. John Bean says . . .
    January 3, 2017 / 8:43 am

    Measurements may have been for a job he was doing, which also may explain the need to draw Milan. Or perhaps he just needed a map, he moved to Milan in the early 1480’s according to sparknotes.com .(http://www.sparknotes.com/biography/davinci/section4.rhtml)

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