Historians have recently paid increasing attention to the role of the disputation in Italian universities and humanist circles. By contrast, the role of disputations as forms of entertainment at fifteenth-century Italian courts has been somewhat overlooked. In this article, the Milanese "scientific duel" (a courtly disputation) described in Luca Pacioli's De divina proportione is taken as a vantage point for the study of the dynamics of scientific patronage and social advancement as reflected in Renaissance courtly disputes. Pacioli names Leonardo da Vinci as one of the participants in the Milanese dispute. In this paper I argue that Leonardo's Paragone and Pacioli's De divina proportione are likewise the outcome of the Milanese "scientific duel." By challenging the traditional hierarchy of the arts, they both exemplify the dynamics of social and intellectual promotion of mathematicians and artists in the privileged setting of Renaissance courts, where courtly patronage could subvert the traditional disciplinary rankings.
While in modern times excellence in science is often acknowledged with a prize medal, this was not the case in the Renaissance. Despite the fact that the Italian Renaissance saw a remarkable revival of medal casting, there were no medals to be won in the Renaissance for originality and scientific priority. Rather, professional success was determined by the ability to win public disputations and debate contested topics. This article illustrates how this mode of knowledge production, which reached its peak in the second half of the sixteenth century, was deeply rooted in the culture of verbal and physical duelling that developed in Italy around that time. Transforming the culture of academic disputation into one of public spectacle, the sixteenth century saw scientific practitioners make careers out of controversy and polemical exchange. From the mid-seventeenth century onwards, this model of knowledge production was slowly superseded by more moderate exchanges and collaborations.