Art History Feuds: Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci

The Battle of Amazon and Centaurs by Georgy Kurasov, 2013, image courtesy of GK studio

The battle between artistic gods and the legacy left behind

The spectacle of great artistry lends itself to becoming the breeding ground for intense personalities and even more intense rivalries. Feuds between artists have existed since the Renaissance and are often fueled by competitive jealousy between masters of the craft. Take, for example, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Both artists hold an iconic status as pioneers of an incredible artistic rebirth and both dramatically redefined the boundaries of art. Yet despite their similarities and great talents, the two contemporaries had a bitter feud. But through this rivalry, a breeding ground of romanticized inspiration was born

 

Both Renaissance revolutionaries grew up in impoverished families who scorned their decisions to pursue a career in the arts. Both men also spent considerable time studying art in Florence, Italy where they studied anatomy, color, and the narrative of art. But Michelangelo found himself drawn to glorifying the beauty of the human body, whereas Da Vinci was drawn to science and natural phenomena. Both artists grew in fame and notoriety in Italy, often drawing comparisons between one another—there were few artists at the time who demonstrated such mastery of their crafts. It wasn’t long before the two masters fatefully crossed paths.
 

There is only one account of how this bitter feud between the masters began, and it reads like a Shakespearean drama. The story goes that both artists had been commissioned to paint battle scenes in Council Hall in Florence.

David of Michelangeo, 2016, image courtesy of PhiRequiem- Wikimedia.
David of Michelangeo, 2016, image courtesy of PhiRequiem- Wikimedia.
Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, image courtesy of Wikimedia
Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, image courtesy of Wikimedia.

The walls of the Council Hall were never completed. Da Vinci who used the encaustic technique for his work, (which involves painting with wax and heating the surface.) caused ruin to both men’s work when the paint from his piece flowed too freely. Michelangelo, who was using the fresco technique, upon learning of the disaster of Da Vinci chose to destroy his completed fresco.
 

The competitive nature of this commission, and artistic disagreements while working, drove a wedge between the two formerly courteous painters. One day, when the two crossed paths in the street, their infamous verbal shakedown occurred. Da Vinci had been summoned over by a group of men to explain a passage in Dante. Michelangelo, who happened to be passing by at the time, was then summoned over by Da Vinci, who told the men that Michelangelo would be able to explain it to them.
 

Michelangelo, fearing that the invitation to speak was a trap by Da Vinci to make him appear a fool, fired the first verbal shot. Michelangelo insulted da Vinci in the street, berating him for an unfinished horse statue in Milan. Michelangelo dissed Da Vinci by pointing out the failures of the latter to successfully cast the horse statue in bronze as Da Vinci had originally hoped. Taken aback by the sudden attack, Da Vinci had no retort for Michelangelo at the time. But word quickly spread of the alleged rivalry, and thus the flames of enmity were fanned.

Michelangelo portrait by Daniele da Volterra, image courtesy of Wikimedia
Michelangelo portrait by Daniele da Volterra, image courtesy of Wikimedia
Portrait of Leondardo Da Vinci, 1786, image courtesy of Wikimedia
Portrait of Leondardo Da Vinci, 1786, image courtesy of Wikimedia

Some time passed until  Da Vinci finally shot back at Michelangelo. When Da Vinci was consulted on the placement of Michelangelo’s masterpiece “David,” Da Vinci curtly responded it would be best to cover the nude statue up. To cast the final blow, Da Vinci included a crude sketch of the statue that depicted it in a crass way, with a covering on the genitals. This was seen as a metaphorical castration and emasculation of Michelangelo, humiliating the artist.
 

But Michelangelo was determined to have the final word in their feud, commenting on Da Vinci’s masterful “Mona Lisa.” Michelangelo claimed to feel nothing when gazing at the painting. Even by today’s standards, this was an uncommonly harsh reaction. Henceforth, the two masters outwardly loathed each other and were happy to make their opinions known to anyone who’d ask.

How Michelangelo and Da Vinci’s relationship lives on today

The lasting impact of this deep-seated rivalry is still felt in the art world today. Pundits enjoy theorizing on the relationship between the two men, and how it so quickly spiraled into their iconic feud. There is also a sense of sadness when thinking of how the time these two spent fighting could have been channeled into greater artistic collaboration, for the benefit of the public good. This feud is so mesmerizing, due in part to the icon status of the two masters. No living artists could recreate such a titanic clash. The feud has gone on to inspire artists such as Georgy Kurasov, as seen in his work “The Battle of Amazon and Centaurs.”
 

In this neo-constructivist painting, Russian-American painter Georgy Kurasov imagines the feud as an epic battle. The Amazons represent Michelangelo, depicted as an array of muscular nude figures that recall his renowned sculptures. The Centaurs represent Da Vinci, a clever call back to the verbal argument about Da Vinci’s inability to cast a horse statue that led to this great feud. The depiction of nude figures and horses also references the respective painting subjects each artist was commissioned to represent on the walls of the Council Hall.

The Battle of Amazon and Centaurs by Georgy Kurasov, 2013, image courtesy of GK studio
The Battle of Amazon and Centaurs by Georgy Kurasov, 2013, image courtesy of GK studio

“Outstanding works of art have not only a material essence, but they continue to influence us already in the metaphysical space,” says Kurasov. “Since my school childhood, I have been fascinated by the work of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, two people who were as different as ice and flame.”

 

Kurasov felt compelled to create his painting in tribute to the memory of the feud. His process for creating this work began with reimagining the story behind his inspiration. He was drawn to creating a mythological narrative for the feud.


“Firstly, the masters of the Renaissance were inspired by ancient works of art, and secondly, Michelangelo and Leonardo themselves are practically ancient gods for us, sometimes they are called Titans. It would be foolish to look for a real story in myths, so I came up with my own myth,” says Kurasov. “Centaurs existed and fought in battles, the Amazons are known for their militancy, and I didn’t invent them either, but these characters never met in Greek myths, because the Centaurs are representatives of early myths, and the Amazons of later ones.”

Thus, the new myth of the Amazons and the Centaurs was born. Kurasov noted that as he began to paint, one of the centaurs began to resemble Da Vinci and one of the Amazons came to resemble Michelangelo. Kurasov said this was not his original intention, but was instead the organic result of the two masters’ influence. Kurasov additionally notes that he doesn’t view the Amazons and Centaurs fighting each other, as much as they are simply opposing each other. Kurasov found the altercation to be an inevitable part of art history.

 

“They were very different personalities, I would say complete opposites, and they were cramped in Florence,” explains Kurasov. “Leonardo soon left the city, worked in Milan, Rome, and then at the invitation of the king moved to France, where he ended his life.”

 

With Leonardo’s untimely death, the heightened feud came to a quiet, solemn end. But the legacy of the relationship between the artists continues to travel through history like a torch, passed down from generation to generation of future artists. Each new wave of artists learns from the masters that came before them Feuds such as these create mythologies of the artistic masters, ones that become increasingly sensationalized with time.
 

Perhaps the reason artistic feuds resonate so strongly with audiences is the exclusivity of these arguments. It would be incredibly rare for any artist today to achieve such mastery like Da Vinci and Michelangelo, in a way for these two there was no other person who could even be considered a worthy opponent. The mystery and lore surrounding the feud has given longevity as well. There is no way to verify who actually said what, and how the two masters really felt towards each other. What remains physically of Da Vinci and Michelangelo’s relationship are just whispers of their attempted collaboration. These incomplete walls from their City Hall collaboration still exist in Florence today, ghosts of a great artistic battle the world barely saw, and we the spectators look on to their battle like mortals to gods.


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