Deciphering Da Vinci's Cover Letter

Christian Sager

Courtesy of Leonardo3 from Hoepli edition 1894-1094 -
Courtesy of Leonardo3 from Hoepli edition 1894-1094 -

While I usually don't tell my future employers about my amazing talent for blowing things up and my penchant for bringing terror to my enemies, it worked for Leonardo Da Vinci when petitioning patron Ludovico Sforza. For most of us, resumes and cover letters are an unfortunate, but necessary reality for job hunting. It wasn't so different for Da Vinci and his cover letter/resume to Sforza is yet another mark of his genius. Not only did it earn him Sforza's patronage, but it is also a great example of how to rhetorically appeal to prospective employers.

I first read the letter itself courtesy of Bruce Sterling's Tumblr. It seems it was originally translated and posted on Marc Cenedella's blog, per an agreement with the Leonardo3 research center. Interestingly, within the letter Da Vinci mentions three of his creations that made our list of his top 10 inventions: the machine gun, the armored tank and "the city of the future." Here's a translation:

Most Illustrious Lord, Having now sufficiently considered the specimens of all those who proclaim themselves skilled contrivers of instruments of war, and that the invention and operation of the said instruments are nothing different from those in common use: I shall endeavor, without prejudice to any one else, to explain myself to your Excellency, showing your Lordship my secret, and then offering them to your best pleasure and approbation to work with effect at opportune moments on all those things which, in part, shall be briefly noted below. I have a sort of extremely light and strong bridges, adapted to be most easily carried, and with them you may pursue, and at any time flee from the enemy; and others, secure and indestructible by fire and battle, easy and convenient to lift and place. Also methods of burning and destroying those of the enemy. 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. If, by reason of the height of the banks, or the strength of the place and its position, it is impossible, when besieging a place, to avail oneself of the plan of bombardment, I have methods for destroying every rock or other fortress, even if it were founded on a rock, etc. Again, I have kinds of mortars; most convenient and easy to carry; and with these I can fling small stones almost resembling a storm; and with the smoke of these cause great terror to the enemy, to his great detriment and confusion. And if the fight should be at sea I have kinds of many machines most efficient for offense and defense; and vessels which will resist the attack of the largest guns and powder and fumes. I have means by secret and tortuous mines and ways, made without noise, to reach a designated spot, even if it were needed to pass under a trench or a river. I will make covered chariots, safe and unattackable, which, entering among the enemy with their artillery, there is no body of men so great but they would break them. And behind these, infantry could follow quite unhurt and without any hindrance. In case of need I will make big guns, mortars, and light ordnance of fine and useful forms, out of the common type. Where the operation of bombardment might fail, I would contrive catapults, mangonels, trabocchi, 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 offense and defense. In times of peace I believe I can give perfect satisfaction and to the equal of any other in architecture and the composition of buildings public and private; and in guiding water from one place to another. I can carry out sculpture in marble, bronze, or clay, and also I can do in painting whatever may be done, as well as any other, be he who he may. Again, the bronze horse may be taken in hand, 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. And if any of the above-named things seem to anyone 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 comment myself with the utmost humility, etc.

Da Vinci does a lot of things right with this letter, which helped convince Sforza he was the man for the job. Most importantly, if you step back and look at history, Da Vinci did his homework on Sforza and appealed to both his needs and vanity. The letter was written sometime around 1482, when Sforza was not yet officially the Duke of Milan, but Da Vinci still makes sure to refer to him as "your Excellency" and an "Illustrious Lord" throughout. At the time, Sforza had been struggling with his nephew for the regency and was even exiled at one point for his actions. It wasn't until twelve years later that his title was legitimized after his nephew died under "mysterious circumstances" and Sforza married off his niece to Roman emperor Maximilian I.

The offer to construct a bronze horse in "happy memory" of Sforza's father was simply gravy to dress the letter up in further appeals to the regent's pride. Ironically, Sforza later used the bronze to produce weapons instead. Clearly, Da Vinci knew he'd have need of them, since most of the letter boasts about building all sorts of guns, explosives, "tortuous mines" and unattackable covered chariots. Probably aware of Sforza's family power struggle, Da Vinci sold himself as a death dealer first and an artistic intellectual second.

Knowing that Sforza was a patron to many artists and engineers was likely why Da Vinci offered to prove his worth in an "experiment in your park" if others should challenge his claims. Notice that he strives to appear objective ("without prejudice to anyone else") about his peers, even when he belittles them as "specimens... who proclaim themselves skilled contrivers of instruments of war."

Braggadocio may be the best tool Da Vinci uses to build his case for Sforza. Not only does he provide an extensive list of war machines he can construct, but he also tells the regent he can paint as well as anyone else available. Today it would read something like, "Not only can I slaughter your enemies in gory detail, but if you need someone to paint your mistress with an ermine, I'm your guy."

Alluding to his "secret," Da Vinci describes himself enigmatically to lure Sforza to his unique character. It isn't a secret anymore; Da Vinci was a really smart guy. This letter just shows that beyond engineering, architecture, painting, sculpting and his many other skills, Da Vinci was also a master of written persuasion. Appealing to an employer's emotions and needs, while showing what makes you extraordinary are clever ways to get their attention. I'd just leave out the part about raining an explosive storm of stones upon thine enemies.


Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. "Ludovico Sforza." 2013. Accessed online 11/15/13.

Alfredo, B. "Sforza, Ludovico." Britannica Biographies. 2012. Accessed online 11/15/13.