The 10 most scandalous works in the history of art

They have been censored, accused of bad taste, misunderstood or contested, but they have left their mark on the history of art. Here is a selection of the works, from the past and the present, that have most amazed and aroused scandal.


Rough, provocative works, considered obscene, blasphemous, immoral, offensive. The history of art is full of them, rightly so, because to scandalize, often, is equivalent to questioning common values, it is equivalent to making people think and revolutionize. Many images over the centuries and for various reasons have shocked critics and audiences, ending up being opposed or even, in the worst cases, censored; these same then, in the happiest cases, have become cornerstones of the history of art. Here is a selection, in chronological order, of ten great works of art that have caused a scandal.


1. Last Judgment – Michelangelo Buonarroti – 1536-1541. At the time of its creation, the fresco in the Sistine Chapel was the object of very harsh criticism and its author even risked the accusation of heresy, with accusations of obscenity and betrayal of the evangelical truth. Those too unholy bodies, naked and in unseemly poses, were branded as indecorous to the point of being dressed, up to the 1990s, with the fluttering drapery of Daniele da Volterra, therefore known by the nickname of “Braghettone”.


2. Death of the Virgin – Caravaggio – 1604. When it was delivered to its client, the painting was refused. The painter was contested for the excessive naturalism of the figure of the Virgin: the swollen belly, the earthy complexion, the abandoned arm, the bare ankles seemed too earthly and not very holy, to the point that it was rumored that Caravaggio was inspired by the corpse of a prostitute found in the Tiber.


3. Breakfast on the grass – Edouard Manet – 1863. What appears to the public today as a traditional and elegant image, at the time of its first exhibition was considered vulgar: pictorially disrespectful of academic canons, aroused great criticism also for the subject that blended classic and modern, because it placed female nudes next to young bourgeois in contemporary clothes, giving rise to interpretations that read the scene as the meeting of a prostitute with two men of the time.


4. The origin of the world – Gustave Courbet – 1866. Commissioned by a Turkish ambassador who collected erotic paintings, the French painting with its poetic title and carnal subject was decidedly subversive and cheeky dealing with a rough subject with an almost photographic realism. The work has passed into various private collections – including that of Jacques Lacan – and then entered the collections of the Musée d’Orsay, yet still today it is sometimes a cause of scandal and object of censorship.


5. Fontana – Marcel Duchamp – 1917. A common urinal that becomes an artistic object with the title of “Fountain” and the fictitious signature of R. Mutt was an inconceivable operation for the art critics of 1917: the jury of the Society of Independent Artists did not allow the piece to be exhibited, but in the meantime Duchamp was changing art history with the ingenious invention of the ready-made.


6. Artist’s shit – Piero Manzoni – 1961. Artist excrements, in numbered and autographed tin boxes, are to be considered works of art: this is the message of the Milanese artist who, ironic and shameless, enriches and at the same time it undermines the principles of art and its market, with a strong and provocative operation by some still considered unacceptable today.


7. Second solution of immortality (The universe is immobile) – Gino De Dominicis – 1972. Indignation and denunciations for the artist who at the 1972 Venice Biennale involved a boy with Down syndrome in his installation: sitting on a chair, in the the corner of a room, in front of symbolic objects of an immobile instant, represented the absence of a precise perception of time. The parents of the Down boy, who also had consented to his participation in the work, pushed by the rumors that spoke of inhumanity, even went so far as to sue the artist.


8. Mother and son (divided) – Damien Hirst – 1993. Displayed in four display cases, a cow and a calf divided: divided between them and divided in half, dissected and immersed in formaldehyde. Controversial and macabre, the English artist reflects on the precariousness of life, but his taste in speaking of death with shocking images and in treating, dissecting and exhibiting animals has been causing scandal and controversy for more than twenty years.


9. Untitled (Children hanged) – Maurizio Cattelan – 2004. So annoying that a man climbed a tree in an attempt to remove it and from there he fell and ended up in the hospital, the installation of the three hanged children, mannequins hanging from a tree in a Milanese square, was highly contested. Like this one, most of the provocative Cattelan’s images leave the audience speechless with irreverence and genius.


10. Pregnant Alison Lapper – Marc Quinn – 2005. Exhibited in Trafalgar Square, the huge sculpture in Carrara marble representing a phocomelic woman was indignant among others. Alison Lapper is a model and artist suffering from a serious malformation: Marc Quinn has made her the protagonist of his works several times, noting how her disability is a neglected theme in art and enhancing the energy of women.