Leonardo da Vinci Sends His Curriculum to the Duke

When Leonardo was 26 he sent a letter of application for a job to the Duke of Milan. “I can be very useful to you,” he says and goes on to list the varied and surprising fields he feels himself qualified in.

He may have been the world’s greatest painter but in this letter he puts painting low on the list. It wasn’t simply the result of his tailoring the application to fit the patron’s needs. Leonardo loved warfare and obviously had spent hours and hours not only dreaming up war machines but making models too.

(Setting up a gigantic cannon in an armory–a drawing by Leonardo)

Here is a summary of the contents of the letter, partly paraphrased:

Most illustrious Lord:

I have studied the products of men who call themselves great inventors of war machines and I have seen that they are no different from the ones used everywhere. So now I would like to present my own secrets to your Excellency.

1) I have some extremely light and strong bridges which can be easily transported. With them you may pursue and at any time flee from the enemy; and others too, secure and indestructible by fire and battle, which are easy and convenient to lift and place. Also methods of burning and destroying those of the enemy.

2) I know how, when a place is besieged, to take the water out of the trenches, and make endless variety of bridges, and covered ways and ladders, and other machines pertaining to such expeditions.

3) If bombardment of a fortress is impossible because of its position or because its banks are too high, I am able to destroy it, even if it is built on a rock.

4) I have mortars which are most convenient and easy to carry; and with these one can fling small stones almost resembling a storm; and with the smoke from them cause great terror to the enemy, to his great detriment and confusion.

5) For the fight at sea I have many kinds of machines most efficient for offence and defence; and vessels which will resist the attack of the largest guns and powder and fumes [armored ships?].

6) I have ways of using secret and tortuous mines and other means to reach a designated place without noise, even if it were necessary to pass under a trench or a river.

7) [The first tanks, that Churchill was so proud of financing in World War I] I can make covered chariots, safe and unattackable which, when they enter among the enemy with their artillery, can destroy them, no matter how large the force. And behind these, infantry could follow quite unhurt and without any hindrance.

8) In case of need I will make big guns, mortars; and lighter and more useful forms, out of the common type.

9) If bombardment should fail, I would contrive catapults and other machines of marvellous efficacy and not in common use. And in short, according to the variety of cases, I can contrive various and endless means of offence and defence…….

Design for a cannon-size crossbow by Leonardo (public domain photo)

Only at the end of the enumeration does he begin to mention architecture, painting, and sculpture:

10) In time of peace I believe I can give perfect satisfaction and equal any other man in architecture and the composition of buildings, both public and private; and in guiding water from one place to another.

11) I can carry out sculpture in marble, bronze or clay, and also in painting whatever may be done, and as well as any other, no matter who he is.

12) I will make a great bronze horse which is to be to the immortal glory and eternal honor of the prince your father of happy memory, and of the illustrious house of Sforza.

Studies for the casting of the colossal Sforza horse (public domain photo)

If any one of the above-named things seem to any one to be impossible or not feasible, I am most ready to make the experiment in your park, or in whatever place may please your Excellency; to whom I commend myself with the utmost humility.

Leonardo da Vinci



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22 Responses to Leonardo da Vinci Sends His Curriculum to the Duke

  1. erikatakacs – Canada – I am a figurative sculptor working in paper pulp.
    erikatakacs says:

    He lists sculpture before painting??? From his letter, it seems he was more passionate about making (war)machines than art. Very interesting letter.
    How did the Duke react to this self-confident letter?

    • Anonymous says:

      well this is simple, he wanted it to look like he was more dedicated to war fare than art so that he had more chance of getting the job. the art side of things was more like the little free gift you get on a magazine!

      • Anonymous says:

        Leonardo was a very gifted painter. Yet Ludivico (The Duke of Milan) was more passionate about warfare. Leonardo in desperate need of a job, wrote the letter focusing on his warfare talent. After all, Leonardo only finished 13 paintings in his lifetime, compared to the thousands of designs war or not in his codexs.

  2. kimiam says:

    Bait and switch! The man was a genius. :P~

  3. wrjones
    wrjones says:

    I don’t think it was bait and switch. The engineering is just as much fun as painting or sculpting.

    Hire him, we will see how he does in his probationary period.

  4. 100swallows says:

    To tell you the truth, kimiam, I don’t know what “bait and switch” means. But I agree with Bill that designing those war machines must have been at least as exciting as painting a picture. He was a genius all right; but a lot of guys that tinker around aren’t. Would you hire a 26-year-old kid that said he could do all that? What kind of experience could he have had in real warfare? And many thought he could never have cast that giant horse. Vasari says he used to convince the elders of Florence with some fantastic plan but then afterwards,on their way home, each of them realized that what Leonardo had said just couldn’t be. Of course now when we have his helicopters and tanks and ships with false hulls and so on, you wonder which of his fantastic projects those elders thought “just couldn’t be”.

  5. Aryul says:

    The legend of Leonardo Da Vinci never ceases to amaze me.

  6. rich says:

    Can’t stop admiring that sketch. What a grasp this man had!
    The choreography of all those bodies, all of them naked heavy weight lifters in action. The precise details in all those accessories.
    He didn’t care much for composition though, but that wasn’t the task here it seems.

  7. 100swallows says:

    You wonder how this drawing was made. It must have been very well planned and yet at least the nudes look spontaneous. How could he know which things to draw first so as not to mix or to cross the lines? And who was all that incredibly detailed work for? Maybe he would use it to show to the Duke–I don’t know its history. As art it is muddled and as illustration of any one of the machines or tools it doesn’t seem as clear as it might be–no real focus. To show how that crane works he didn’t need to draw all those guys tugging. I don’t get it. He seems to have had fun imagining and drawing it all–that’s for sure.

  8. ¿Y dónde se encuentra la carta que citas? ¿No inventó también un aparato volador?

  9. 100swallows says:

    ¡Hola Reyes!
    Aquí tienes una traducción al inglés de la famosa carta:
    y un repaso de los inventos más destacados de Leonardo–pero también en inglés:
    ya ves: en castellano, poca cosa.
    Un saludo.

  10. ivdanu – Quebec – Canadian visual artist of Romanian origin.
    ivdanu says:

    Sad as it is for us, painters and sculptors, in the real, sad&cruel world, tanks and other war machines count more, in the present, than most msterpieces… And if some paintings wouldn’t cost enormous sums of money, probably the art will be really price-less. No price at all…

  11. Rags35 says:

    Doo! No pensaba hacerte trabajar. Sé algo de inglés, pero es que me cuesta un huevo (con perdón), porque nosotros los españoles tenemos el sentido del ridículo muy delicado. Y ¿por qué no reconocerlo? algunos tememos además el formidable esfuerzo que supone expresarse en lengua extranjera. Yo siempre digo que ¿por qué tengo que estudiar inglés si los demás no hacen nada por aprender la lengua de Cervantes?

    Perdona pues si te he enviado a la caza de unos datos que bien podría haber cazado yo.

  12. 100swallows says:

    No pasa nada, Rags. Lo que me fastidia es no encontrar la página web que usaba mientras escribía mi artículo. Era muy buena. Además de la carta tenía el testamento de Leonardo. No te preocupes–guarda ese huevo y escríbeme en cristiano las veces que quieras.

  13. Lynne Diligent
    wpm1955 says:

    Well, what was the result of this letter? Did he get hired?

    Madame Monet
    Writing, Painting, Music, and Wine

  14. 100swallows says:

    Yes, Madame Monet, he did. What was strange was that he didn’t convince Lorenzo the Magnificent in Florence that he was worth hiring and had to look for a job in Milan.

  15. Dude says:

    He is my Superhero. And my project at school.

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  17. Anonymous says:

    that was just a way of trying to get the job if he had put painting first they wuld have thrown the letter away but he spoke of his important abilities in that context!!!!!!!!!i give him props he was a genius not just in one sector

  18. Prep! says:

    What Is His Job?

    Feeling: Emotional, Pretty, and Creative!

  19. Pingback: Leonardo da Vinci | Drinks With Dead People

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