Leonardo Da Vinci’s To Do List (Circa 1490)

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?

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.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in December, 2014.

And if you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, Venmo (@openculture) and Crypto. Thanks for your support!

Related Content:

Thomas Edison’s Hugely Ambitious “To-Do” List from 1888

Watch Leonardo da Vinci’s Musical Invention, the Viola Organista, Being Played for the Very First Time

The Anatomical Drawings of Renaissance Man, Leonardo da Vinci

An Animated History Of Aviation: From da Vinci’s Sketches to Apollo 11

1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities

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.

Support Open Culture

We’re hoping to rely on our loyal readers rather than erratic ads. To support Open Culture’s educational mission, please consider making a donation. We accept PayPal, Venmo (@openculture), Patreon and Crypto! Please find all options here. We thank you!

You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
• Kairam says:

Draw Milan is not an ambition, it’s a chore on a to do list.

• Nick Winter says:

“Building walls without loopholes”. This must surely refer to putlog holes. Holes for scaffolding which one invariably sees on medieval walls and which supported the scaffolding necessary for building the walls. Hence Leonardo’s enquiry as to how the tower was built without them.

• David Ruud says:

I truly wish I could read the writings of Davinci and not have to rely on a translator’s words. I often wonder why there is so many “sections” torn from the pages of Davinci’s writings…as obvious in this page. Yes I know they’re “quite old” and damage is bound to occur. But many appear to be intentionally “edited”. Like many many paintings that have clearly been censored…painted over to hide “details”. Some I believe even relating to Davinci by other artists. I believe the “Art Market” is probably responsible for the “censorship”. Let’s be honest. When you’re dealing with billions of dollars of “money” there will always be an over abundance of “people” that will do anything to protect it.

• Marcel Kincaid says:

It’s only a chore if he has to do it. In other words, it’s an ambition.

• Marcel Kincaid says:

David Ruud: not a word of your conspiratorial, paranoid speculations is true.

• Kim Ryan Krebs says:

Leonardo moved to Milan (from Florence) with intentions of offering his services as a military director to Ludovico Sforza … Milan’s ruler at the time. Milan was a strategic (military) stronghold for Southwestern Europe and, it was a target for adversaries. Many of the topics that Leonardo had in his journals to do list center around ideas of making/creating improvements to the fortifications of city.

• Franchesco says:

For an artist drawing and painting is not anchore

• Bernie Daniel says:

Wow Marcel Kincaid that is one impressive rebuttal of Mr Ruud’s theory.

• sarah says:

Wow! Wonder if he would have just “Googled It” if he had the internet back then.

• Martin says:

I could be mistaken, but could it be that the picture is mirrored?

• Isabella Luciani says:

His name is Leonardo Da Vinci. Davinci is cultural appropriation.

• Lenen says:

If it were so then he would have a plethora of information that is not valid or sited.

• McMike says:

Loopholes refers to arrow slits. Which the Torre dei Leoni doesn’t appear to have any (on a cursory check of Google image). So, Da Vinci might be interested in asking a bombardier (a person whose job is to destroy castles in warfare) why the tower was built without this defensive capability- presumably making the attacker’s job easier.

• Scot says:

His name is “Leonardo” not “Da Vinci”.

• Ted says:

Marcel Kincaid;
Prove your rebuttal of Ruud’s thesis

• Support Us

We're hoping to rely on loyal readers, rather than erratic ads. Please click the Donate button and support Open Culture. You can use Paypal, Venmo, Patreon, even Crypto! We thank you!

• Free Textbooks

GET OUR DAILY EMAIL

Get the best cultural and educational resources on the web curated for you in a daily email. We never spam. Unsubscribe at any time.