Ever wonder why some statues depicting naked men or women have fig leaves strategically placed over their private parts? Nakedness in art has always been a troublesome subject. In Ancient Greek art, it wouldn’t be cool not to flash the male genitalia around. You would be forgiven to think that they all walked around naked (OK, well they did at the Olympics) . “Heroic nudity” at its best. Women, on the other hand, had their private area covered up in public display.
It was really when Christianity came to the Roman Empire did this show of nudity became frowned upon.
During the Middle Ages came the rise of the “fig leaf”. Only the damned or unfortunate who were depicted naked, everyone else including religious figures like Adam and Eve adorned the leaf. All hail the leaf!
Then came the Renaissance and it was back to loving nature, the human body and all things Greek. Leonardo da Vinci led the way with his Vitruvian Man and Michelangelo with David. Not a leaf to be seen. Well, hold up there. Evidently, when David was unveiled the Florentines were so shocked at his nakedness they pelted the marble man with rocks. It too was given a nicely sized fig leaf for a little time.
As like all good things the pendulum began swinging the other way. Enter the Catholic Revival and Pope Paul II (1534-49). He was the first pope of the Counter-Reformation and responsible for the forming of the Council of Trent. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) was set up by the Roman Catholic Church to issue condemnations of what it defined to be heresies. Basically, they condemned all nudity in art.
During this time numerous artworks including statues were altered to cover up the nudity. Michelangelo copped it sweet. Critics in the Catholic church were none too pleased about The Last Judgement and accused Michelangelo of being insensitive to proper decorum. How could such a fresco, with over 300 naked men and angels grace the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel?
Pope Paul III’s Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, who on viewing the work reportedly proclaimed “it was mostly disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all those nude figures, exposing themselves so shamefully, and that it was no work for a papal chapel but rather for the public baths and taverns”.
In response, Michelangelo whipped out his paintbrush and added Cesena’s face to one of the naked figures in The Last Judgement. Oh and added a pair of donkey’s ears and an ill-placed snake for good measure.
The Pope was mildly amused when Cesena came squealing to him to complain. Secretly Pope Paul III loved the work. He was later criticised for protecting it.
In 1564 after numerous hissy fits by the Council of Trent, painter Daniele da Volterra was asked to paint over all the genitalia.
Fig Leaf Campaign
Enter Pope Innocent X (1644-1655) and the beginning of the Fig Leaf Campaign. In the 1640s he ordered the chiselling off of all exposed phallus-es on the Roman statues in the Vatican collection. Over the missing appendages were placed mass produced metal fig leaves.
Fast forward another 200 years to Pope Pius IX (1846-1878). He continued the tradition of removing genitalia from statues. He feared that the sight of naked statues might arouse passion and lust.
Queen Victoria continued the fig leaf tradition. In 1857 a cast of Michelangelo’s David was sent to Queen Victoria as a gift from Grand Duke of Tuscany. When the prudish monarch laid eyes on David’s dangly bits she was appalled and immediately ordered a fig leaf to cover it up. The fig leaf was hung on by hooks any time a Royal was present.