Artistic feuds are not a novel phenomenon

Art Art & Lit Culture

Image description: 15th century engraving of men in battle.

Kanye West and Taylor Swift, the sisters Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland, Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus: these are just a few names of today’s well-known artists who feuded over artistic differences, vied for being recognised as the better artist or had bitter disagreements due to personal reasons. Especially today, in the times of social media, an ill-advised tweet or throwaway remark can result in angry feuds driven by fans and media; artists enter the arena of public opinion to gain the upper hand over the hated rival or, as cynics might claim, to sell more of their art.

This phenomenon is not new – even in simpler times without social media, feuding artists competed over the title of the better artist, attacked each other publicly or used their rival as inspiration in their own art.

One of the most famous of these feuds erupted in 1500s between the three best known painters of that period: Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael de Urbino, Michelangelo. These three men, nicknamed the “Big Three Names of the High Renaissance”, were all geniuses in their respective fields. Da Vinci is the prime example of a universal genius; he excelled in painting (Mona Lisa and The Last Supper come to mind), but also dabbled in engineering, where he worked on war machines and flying devices, and studied anatomy and physiology in detail. Michelangelo’s domains were painting and sculpting; he is probably best known for painting the Sistine Chapel Ceiling and his marble statues David and Pietà. Lastly, Raphael, is best known today for his painting and architecture: most famously the painting School of Athens.

Paranoia and hatred broke out between Michelangelo and da Vinci.

In the early 1500s, when most of these master works were made, the three artists came into contact, vying for artistic recognition and the patronages of the wealthy. Contrarily to today’s supply-demand of art, which allow the masses to have a direct say in the fame and wealth of an artist, artists in the Renaissance World depended on the patronages and commission of the rich and influential, the noble families, kings, popes or cardinal, for survival.

It is thus not surprising that paranoia and hatred broke out between Michelangelo and da Vinci in 1504, when they were commissioned to paint companion pieces in the Hall of the Five Hundred, the Council Chamber of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Renaissance chronicler Vasari emphasized that Michelangelo and da Vinci were commissioned “in competition”.

40 year old da Vinci, already famous throughout Europe, and 29-year old Michelangelo, thought to be an artistic prodigy, had butted heads previously – Michelangelo had accused da Vinci of “starting, but not finishing his pieces”, apparently leaving da Vinci “red in the face”, whereas da Vinci had called for a covering up of the genitals of Michelangelo’s David.

Fame can be described as fickle mistress; as such, fame does not constantly favour one artist.

This close proximity now meant an increase in hatred and paranoia between the artists over the next two years as they worked on their paintings. In the end, Michelangelo triumphed; at only 31 years of age he was officially described as “the greatest artist in Italy and perhaps the World” by the Florentine government, which meant an increased artistic profile and thus higher chances of patronages. His fame only increased from then onwards. Although offered a lot of patronages in Italy, da Vinci later left Italy for France, where he worked under the personal patronage of Francis I, in contrast to Michelangelo who never left Italy.

However, like in current times, fame can be described as fickle mistress; as such, fame does not constantly favour one artist. And so, in 1508, Michelangelo gained a new, dangerous rival in the form of 26 year old Raphael de Urbino. Raphael beat both him and da Vinci in a competition to paint a fresco in the Pope’s private library. It was particularly bitter for Michelangelo that Renaissance contemporaries, such as Vasari, who had used to describe Michelangelo favourably, now judged Raphael as equal or even superior to Michelangelo in his paintings, and decidedly as superior regarding his colouring. Raphael also became the new favourite of the pope and thus a threat to Michelangelo’s livelihood.

Michelangelo, never one to back down for making a pass at the competition, openly derided Raphael according to Robert S. Liebert. Raphael took Michelangelo’s rivalry to heart and retaliated. Similarly to the feud between Taylor Swift and Kanye West, which inspired Kanye to write the lines “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous” in his song “Famous”, Raphael used Michelangelo as an inspiration for a brooding Heraclitus in his painting “The School of Athens”.  This pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus was known for his legendary sour temper and his bitter scorn for all his rivals, which might have been a jab at Michelangelo. Even after Raphael’s death, the feud continued: Michelangelo alleged in a letter that “everything he [Raphael] knew about art he got from me [Michelangelo]”.

Researchers have often wondered whether it was not only artistic rivalry which caused Michelangelo to lash out against da Vinci and Raphael. It has been suggested that the rivalry can also be traced back to differences in terms of sexuality and appearance. While Michelangelo has been described as ill-tempered and unkempt, da Vinci had been a good looking man in his prime and was always fashionably dressed, whereas Raphael was young, good-looking and charming in the early 1500s (this has been quoted as one of the factors which quickly made him rise in the favour of the pope).

Also, Michelangelo is thought to have been homosexual, da Vinci had homosexual relations as a young man, and later surrounded himself with younger men, and Raphael was engaged to the niece of a powerful man. It is not unlikely that the rivalry – at least on Michelangelo’s side – was not only fuelled by artistic differences, aspirations and the need for patronages, but also by Michelangelo’s jealousy of his rivals’ more free life style and personal appearance.

Similarly, differences in personalities and upbringing also accounted for the life-long rivalry of Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland; in 1942, when both sisters were nominated for an Academy Award and Fontaine won, she ignored her sister’s congratulations, highlighting the huge role that personal differences can play in artistic feuds.

In conclusion, rivalry between artists due to competing for the same resources and/or personal or artistic differences is definitely not a novel phenomenon. If anything, it is potentially only amplified by today’s social media. However, of all the famous feuding artists, Michelangelo, da Vinci and Raphael hold the dubious distinction of having one of the most famous rivalries, next to the ones between Vincent Van Gogh and Gauguin or Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.

Image credit: simplethrill