Disputes in art: Tales of rivalry and recklessness

Disputes in art: Tales of rivalry and recklessness

crocifisso donatello e brunelleschi
crocifisso donatello e brunelleschi

Getting to know the lives and personalities of artists, beyond just their creations, deepens our comprehension and enriches our interpretation of their eras. 
It’s the individual passions, the inner contradictions, and the clashes that give life and dimension to figures who might otherwise be reduced to mere celebrated names on the pages of books and in museum labels. And is there anything more universally human than a disagreement?
We’ve curated a selection of the most illustrious disputes across all ages, some of which are connected to masterpieces that we can still admire today, in a celebration of the artists as passionately as the art they produced.

Brunelleschi, Donatello, and Ghiberti

Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), described by Vasari as a “man of noble spirit” and “divine genius” but “slight in stature”, compensated for his lack of height with a towering intellect. This intellect is what still commands our awe today, as we gaze upon the dome of Florence’s Duomo, a testament to the architect’s formidable talent.
Esteemed for his numerous masterpieces, Brunelleschi’s brilliance was recognized by his peers, including the renowned Donatello (1386-1466). 
These two icons from Florence shared a friendship so profound that Vasari noted in Vite “one did not seem able to live without the other”. 
This bond allowed them to navigate and transcend their occasional disagreements, leaving a legacy of collaboration that benefited future generations. Their most notable dispute involved Donatello’s wooden Crocifisso for the Basilica di Santa Croce, which stands to this day.

In the early 15th century, after completing his wooden sculpture of Cristo, Donatello proudly presented it to Brunelleschi for critique. Brunelleschi, candid to a fault, suggested the figure resembled a peasant more than Jesus. “If it were as easy to do as to judge”, replied Donatello, “my Cristo would appear to you as Cristo and not a peasant: take a wood and try crafting one yourself”. 
Brunelleschi rose to the challenge, as Vasari narrates. Years after their artistic dispute – and without any loss of camaraderie – Brunelleschi invited Donatello over for a meal. Upon arrival, Donatello, sent in advance by Brunelleschi, was greeted by the sight of a crucifix as large as his own creation. The shock was such that he dropped his basket, scattering eggs, cheese, and more across the floor, much to the amusement of Brunelleschi who had just walked in. “What’s the plan, Donato? With everything spilled, what shall we eat?” Brunelleschi joked. Donatello, with a mix of admiration and surrender, responded, ‘I’ve had my fill of surprises for today; if you want your share, there it is. But from now on, let it be known you craft the Christs, and I’ll stick to peasants.’ The Crocifisso by Brunelleschi, a masterpiece, now resides in the cappella Gondi of Santa Maria Novella, inviting all who visit Florence to witness the legacy of their friendly rivalry.

While Brunelleschi and Donatello managed to reconcile their artistic disagreements, the same cannot be said for the rivalry between Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455), which ended only with the completion of Santa Maria del Fiore. 
The two had earlier competed for the commission to decorate the Battistero eastern doors with their bronze designs. Of the proposals presented for the contest, only theirs remain today: both displayed at the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence, they capture in a few centimeters of panel the vast gap that always separated the two architects. In that case, Ghiberti prevailed, and the work was awarded to him.

Sacrificio di Isacco Brunelleschi
Sacrificio di Isacco, Brunelleschi
Sacrificio di Isacco Ghiberti
Sacrificio di Isacco, Ghiberti

In the years that followed, Brunelleschi would ultimately get his due, though it was no easy feat. The construction of the dome for Santa Maria del Fiore spanned sixteen years, from 1420 until 1436, and was crowned with the addition of a lantern – a 21-meter tall edifice of white marble – after his passing. Vasari tells us that in order to be named the Superintendent of the Dome, essentially the chief architect, Brunelleschi faced significant skepticism, especially from the city’s officials who doubted a dome of such scale could be built without wooden supports.
Complicating matters was Lorenzo Ghiberti, who had been appointed co-leader of this monumental task. Brunelleschi, unwilling to share the spotlight or his innovative methods, pretended to be ill, effectively leaving Ghiberti to manage the construction site by himself. Predictably, Ghiberti struggled, and progress came to a halt for several days. The concerned workers sought out Brunelleschi, who cleverly demonstrated that while Ghiberti floundered without him, he could easily carry on alone. This clear demonstration shifted the balance, leading to Ghiberti’s dismissal from the project. With his rival out of the picture, Brunelleschi seized the reins, and his unobstructed ingenuity led to the dome’s completion, earning him lasting fame for this architectural marvel.

Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raffaello

Exploring the lives of history’s great masters often reveals figures with turbulent personalities and difficult dispositions. Take, for instance, Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio, whose rebellious nature often led to his misfortunes, despite his immense talent.
Another notable figure was Michelangelo Buonarroti, famed not only for his somewhat elusive personality, which was less inclined towards physical confrontations, but also for his diverse and exceptional skills in multiple disciplines. As a painter, sculptor, architect, and poet, Michelangelo Buonarroti successfully tackled some of the most daunting artistic challenges of his era, consistently triumphing over them. Yet, this unparalleled genius also possessed a fiery and uncompromising temperament.

This is why, in Vasari’s writings, we frequently encounter accounts of Michelangelo’s disputes with his peers. Notably, he had disagreements with artists like Lorenzetto, Boccaccino, Sebastian Viniziano (Fra Sebastiano del Piombo), and Baccio d’Agnolo. Most significantly, he often clashed with Leonardo Da Vinci and Raffaello Sanzio, who were, alongside him, the leading figures of the Italian Renaissance.
Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519), being 23 years older than Michelangelo (1475-1564), created an interesting dynamic. The age difference, Michelangelo’s rising fame, and their differing viewpoints likely fueled some friction between them. A notable incident occurred during the decision-making process for the placement of the David by Michelangelo, a masterpiece of 16th century sculpture now in Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia. After completing this nearly miraculous work from a previously discarded block of marble, a committee, including Leonardo, was formed to decide its placement. Leonardo’s suggestion evidently didn’t sit well with Michelangelo, leading to what Vasari described as “great disdain” between them.

A 16th century manuscript, the Anonimo Gaddiano or Magliabechiano, recounts an encounter where both artists crossed paths on the same street where men were discussing Dante’s work. Recognizing Leonardo, someone asked him to interpret Dante’s verses. Leonardo deferred to Michelangelo, who, thinking it was a jibe, replied: “Explain it yourself, who made a design of a horse to cast it in bronze and could not cast it, and out of shame, you let it be”, before walking away and leaving a red-faced Leonardo behind. Michelangelo was referring to the equestrian statue promised and never realized for Francesco Sforza. 
Their rivalry was further evident when they were both commissioned to paint frescoes in the Sala dei Cinquecento in Palazzo Vecchio: Leonardo with the Battaglia di Anghiari and Michelangelo with the Battaglia di Cascina. 
Only copies of their original preparatory studies remain today. Both works, greatly admired and studied by their contemporaries, became a source of inspiration for many artists, with Benvenuto Cellini famously calling them the “School of the world”.

Michelangelo’s rivalry extended to Raffaello Sanzio when he moved to Rome to work on Pope Giulio II’s tomb. Raffaello, the favored protégé of Bramante (1444-1515), an influential architect, painter, and architectural theorist, found himself at odds with Michelangelo. According to Vasari’s version, in fact, it was Bramante that, attempting to undermine Michelangelo, persuaded Giulio II to redirect him from the tomb project to painting the Cappella Sistina’s frescoes. Built in honor of Pope Sisto IV, the pontiff’s uncle, the chapel had remained bare. Bramante thought Michelangelo, primarily a sculptor, would falter in painting, thus leaving the field open for Raffaello. However, Michelangelo’s completion of the chapel’s ceiling and vaults proved to be a stunning success. In a letter, Michelangelo attributed the discord with the Pope to the envy of Bramante and Raffaello, claiming that Raffaello owed much of his artistic skill to him.
Raffaello’s works, especially those created after witnessing Michelangelo’s masterpieces in Florence and Rome, show the influence of Buonarroti’s style. Raphael subtly acknowledged this by depicting Michelangelo as the philosopher Eraclito in his Scuola di Atene painting in the Stanze Vaticane.

The rivalry between Michelangelo and Raffaello wasn’t just professional; it spilled into personal confrontations as well. One such incident occurred in Rome’s Piazza San Pietro, where Raffaello, stylishly dressed and surrounded by his students, encountered Michelangelo. Michelangelo mockingly referred to him as a “captain with his entourage”, to which Raffaello retorted with equal sharpness, likening Michelangelo to a solitary executioner. Indeed, Michelangelo was known for his reclusive, unkempt lifestyle, often eschewing worldly matters, and not shying away from criticizing colleagues and even patrons, including the previously mentioned pontiff.

Bernini and Borromini

Remaining in Rome, we witness the setting of another legendary rivalry that erupted a century later, featuring the leading masters of the Roman Baroque: Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) and Francesco Borromini (1599-1667). 
Bernini, born into a family of artists and graced with an amiable and cosmopolitan demeanor, was an extrovert with connections that brought him both fame and prosperity. Borromini, however, who started life as Francesco Castelli Brumino and later became known as Borromini, came from more modest beginnings and was known to be withdrawn, brusque, and elusive. Their backgrounds foreshadowed a tumultuous relationship.

Their paths first crossed in the 1620s while both were employed by the architect Carlo Maderno, the head of the works of Basilica di San Pietro. Bernini, who had been warmly received by Pope Urbano VIII, was commissioned to create the Baldacchino of San Pietro, working alongside Borromini, a longstanding member of Maderno’s team. Despite his inexperience with the lost-wax bronze casting technique used for the Baldacchino, Bernini leaned heavily on Borromini’s expertise. However, when it came time to credit the work’s success, Borromini’s contributions were overlooked, inciting his resentment. Borromini lamented, “It’s not Bernini’s financial gain that bothers me; it’s that he reaps the honors for my toil”. This grievance was compounded when, after Maderno’s death, Bernini was chosen over Borromini as chief architect, contrary to expectations.

Borromini’s fortunes appeared to turn when Pope Urbano VIII passed away in 1644, and Pope Innocenzo X took his place. One of Innocenzo X’s first orders was to tear down Bernini’s tower on the facade of San Pietro, which Borromini had rightly criticized as structurally unsound.

When it came time to renovate Piazza Navona, Borromini was tasked with an ambitious engineering project to reroute the aqueduct to the square’s center, planning for a grand fountain. It was Borromini who brilliantly conceived the representation of the four great rivers of the known continents: the Ganges, the Danube, the Nile, and the Rio de la Plata. Yet, in a twist of fate, it was Bernini who was shrewdly assigned the fountain’s construction, overshadowing Borromini once again.
In the very same square, another episode of rivalry took place, more legendary than real. Observers of the Rio de la Plata statue will note the figure’s arm raised as though in self-defense. But against what? Common lore suggests the figure is shielding itself from the potential ruin or mere sight of Sant’Agnese in Agone’s facade, a work by Borromini.

The discord between the two architects never diminished; it was perhaps destined to be so. Borromini, a man of exceptional talent but complex disposition, ultimately took his own life. Bernini, in contrast, led a prosperous life, leaving behind numerous descendants. Among his many legacies is a particular work that captures his passionate and retaliatory spirit: the busto di Costanza Bonarelli, housed at the Museo del Bargello in Florence. Costanza, the wife of an assistant and the lover of both Bernini and his brother Luigi, ignited Bernini’s fury. In a vengeful rage, he disfigured her with acid and pursued his brother with the intent to kill, forcing him to seek sanctuary in a church. It was only through the pope’s intervention that Bernini was pacified, his restitution being a marriage to Rome’s most beautiful woman – a stroke of luck Borromini never knew.

busto di costanza bonarelli gian lorenzo bernini
Busto di Costanza Bonarelli, Gian Lorenzo Bernini

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Manet and Degas

Turning to the later years of the 19th century, we find ourselves entwined in the peculiar and enigmatic tale that binds Édouard Manet (1832-1833) and Edgar Degas (1834-1917). These two painters, fated to be celebrated as icons of their time, first crossed paths in 1861. Degas, then a young man of twenty-seven, was at the Louvre, diligently trying to replicate a Velázquez masterpiece. Manet, a regular at the museum and an aficionado of Spanish art, was strolling through the same gallery. Observing Degas’ less-than-successful attempt, he offered some pointers, which Degas accepted with unexpected grace, setting aside his usually sensitive ego. This marked the beginning of a close-knit friendship – sharing frequented haunts, mutual acquaintances, and visits to each other’s family homes.
Their friendship was underpinned by a deep-seated mutual admiration. Degas, with his reserved and somewhat haughty character, laced with incisive wit, was taken by Manet’s outgoing, animated, and convivial nature, which seemed to captivate all. Manet, personable and spontaneous, was then in a whirlwind of artistic production, painting with remarkable ease – a stark contrast to Degas, who was meticulously carving out his unique style through much toil and careful deliberation.
Yet Manet’s career was a rollercoaster of highs and lows, and during a particularly rough patch, a disturbing incident strained their bond.

The painting Monsieur et Madame Édouard Manet, crafted by Degas in late 1868 and presented to Manet as a gift, wasn’t the first portrait Degas had done of his friend, but it triggered a discord that slightly distanced the two. They remained connected, however, up until Manet’s death. 
After a while, Degas visited Manet’s home and shockingly discovered the canvas mutilated; Manet had inexplicably cut away nearly the entire right side, sparing only Suzanne’s back and a fragment of her face. Initially, she had been fully portrayed in profile, seated at a piano.
The painting, now at the Kitakyūshū Municipal Museum of Art in Japan, still features Manet, depicted in a laid-back pose on a couch behind Suzanne, with a disheveled pose and a look of boredom. 
It’s speculated that Degas’ portrayal was more revealing of a strained marriage than Manet would have liked to admit publicly. Their relationship, having begun as an affair that produced a son, Léon, was shrouded in secrecy, with societal norms at the time forcing them to claim Léon as Manet’s brother. Despite Manet’s subsequent marriage, he never formally acknowledged Léon, leading some to surmise he was the offspring of Édouard’s father, Auguste.
Adding to the complexity was a romantic rivalry, as both artists had fallen for Berthe Morisot, a fellow painter. Manet, although married, became her long-standing lover.

When Degas learned of the defacement of his artwork, he was deeply wounded. In a mix of hurt and indignation, he reclaimed the painting and returned a still life he had once received from Manet. Vollard, the art dealer, recounts that Degas included a note tersely stating, “Monsieur, I am returning your Plums”.
Despite this rift, the two were too intertwined in life and art to sever their connection completely. They patched up their relationship, though it never fully reverted to its former intimacy. Interestingly, the painting at the center of their conflict mirrored this unresolved tension. 
Degas had planned to repair the canvas, attaching a new piece of fabric to do so, but he never finished restoring the image, leaving the alteration as a visible reminder of their dispute.

Monsieur et Madame Edouard Manet Degas
Monsieur et Madame Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas

This episode is just one among many where personal dynamics have impacted artistic alliances. The annals of human history brim with quarrels, rifts, and abrupt shifts in relationships – and the art world is no stranger to such dramas. Beyond those mentioned, there have been famous feuds, such as those between Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini or Tiziano Vecellio and Tintoretto.
Sebastian Smee’s insightful book, The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art, published by Random House in 2016, captures some of the more contemporary artistic conflicts. Other tales of rivalry await those curious enough to delve deeper into the stories behind the canvases, to uncover the humanity of the artists who painted them.
This exploration, too, is a journey well worth embarking upon.

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