(Credits: Far Out / Iconographic Collections / Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Sometimes, you’ve got to wonder, if two rival artists in the mid-16th century argued, what insults would they come up with? Would they go for the jugular and insult each other’s skill right out the gate, or do they have to build up to cross that creative line? Luckily for fans of Renaissance art and well-thought-out insults, the explosive rivalry between Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo spawned one of the most prolific feuds in art history.
Long before Damien Hirst and David Hockney were bickering about the virtues of craftsmanship, Da Vinci and Michelangelo were engaged in a weird tangle of mutual respect and hatred. It didn’t help matters that they shared a similar background and were constantly compared to each other. Each grew up in poverty and spent lengthy periods painting in Florence, but after studying anatomy, proportion, and colour, each was drawn to different themes. Michelangelo focused on the poetic beauty of the body, whereas Da Vinci was more intrigued by science.
Somehow, fate forced the two together in a joint commission to paint battle imagery in a Florentine Council Hall. The ensuing melodrama exceeded even the passionate scenes they each painted and likely to the hall’s walls – if they were ever finished. Da Vinci famously painted with an encaustic technique, which fused wax and pigment onto a surface using heat, and while working in such close quarters was already tense, when Da Vinci’s method ruined both of their work as paint dripped, Michelangelo chose to destroy his already finished fresco. Things were reaching a boiling point, and an irate Michelangelo was the first to hurl insults.
They crossed paths in the street after the incident, but before they could exchange pleasantries, a group of men beckoned Da Vinci over, wanting him to explain a Dante passage. No problem, he thought, ‘I’ve got just the man for the job!’ Despite being an artist, engineer, scientist, sculptor, and architect, he asked Michelangelo to explain it instead.
It was a genius move, really, because it could only work one of two ways. He’d either explain it perfectly or crack under the pressure and shatter the illusion he was anywhere near as smart as Da Vinci. Michelangelo got an uneasy sense he was being set up to fail and withered under the spotlight before blurting out: “No, you explain – you who have undertaken the design of a horse to be cast in bronze but were unable to cast it, and were forced to give up in shame.”
After turning his back and walking away, he then fully committed to causing maximum offence, and as well as making fun of his unfinished horse statue, Leonardo’s Horse, which sat incomplete in Milan, he shouted: “And to think you were believed by those castrated Milanese roosters!” Da Vinci was stunned into silence, with no comeback to offer until years later.
He took a while, but it at least gave him time to mull over an insult with sufficient sting. A considerable while later, he was asked to consult on the best placement of Michelangelo’s David, a golden opportunity to twist the knife on his rival. With a nonchalance that was noticeably absent when Michelangelo first insulted him, he suggested it would look best completely covered up. He even went to the length of sketching it himself but crucially covered the exposed genitals of the statue.
The symbolism was rife – he’d gravely emasculated Michelangelo, and he thought he’d won their war of words. No such luck, Michelangelo waited until Da Vinci’s magnum opus, the Mona Lisa, was painted before he got the last blow in. He gazed at a painting that has long been hailed one of the most important in the history of art itself and declared he felt nothing. Da Vinci might’ve won the battle, but Michelangelo won the war.