Have you been to Notre Dame? A medieval cathedral in Paris, completed mostly in the 13th century.
At the front entrance to Notre Dame, there is a depiction of ‘the fall of man’. The dramatic moment at the garden of Eden where Eve eats the forbidden fruit and shares the fruit with Adam. Ashamed of their nakedness, both are expelled from the Garden of Eden.
We reach the climax of curiosity when we see their private parts are covered with a “plaster cast of fig leaves”.
According to Genesis 3:7 —
“And the eyes of them both were opened and they knew that they were naked and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.”
As soon as Christianity seeped into the European land in the 1st century AD, this doctrine was literally adopted by the artisans and sculptures and etched on the stone. As we entered the medieval period, Catholic churches started viewing nudity as “obscene and a sin.”
St. Augustine, the famous theologian and one of the Latin fathers of the Church believed that since eating the forbidden fruit, man lost control of his genitals and unwanted erection was apparently a sign of disobedience.
Thus, a fig leaf became synonymous with sin, sex, and censorship.
Fig leaf Campaign — the biggest coverup in history
The Renisaance period led to the age of awareness.
There came a genius artist and sculptor who defied Christian beliefs and rekindled the birth of the ancient nude — Michelangelo.
Michelangelo’s David is indeed the most perfect statue in the world. A nude proudly standing tall in the public place of Palazzo Vecchio.
Michelangelo portrayed David as a virtuous man and tried to show his inner beauty through his outer beauty. He took care of the tiniest of details and as we slide down, you might notice David’s small penis. Yes, there is a reason for his small penis. Michelangelo tried to imitate the classical statues.
An art historian explains how the small phalluses shown in Greek statues were seen as a symbol of restraint and control.
Soon Michelangelo’s virtuosity reached the Vatican and he was invited by Pope Julius II to design the Sistine Chapel.
Yet again, Michelangelo challenged the Catholic Church and painted the way he wanted.
Biagio da Cesena, the Pope’s master of ceremonies, vociferated the fresco paintings to be suitable for ‘public baths and taverns’ and not a chapel.
Michelangelo was charged with blasphemy and crossing his limits.
These criticisms instigated the Catholic priests and in turn pressurized Pope Julius II to take action against Michelangelo’s nude sculptures. A campaign was launched to camouflage the private parts of these sculptures in Italy.
Thus began the Fig leaf Campaign — the biggest coverup in history.
Why a fig leaf as a coverup choice?
The coverup choice was a fig leaf and not a birch leaf or chestnut or mighty oak. Why?
Because the Garden of Eden had abundant fig trees. Scholars believe that the Garden of Eden was set in modern-day Iran.
Artworks that fell victim to this campaign
Michelangelo’s David is the most popular sculpture to be censored for nudity as per the church’s propaganda.
Michelangelo’s Christ The Redemer in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome also came under the papal authority and a permanent bronze girdle was placed which could never be removed. This was done after the statue became a victim of vandalization.
In some cases, the plaster and marble phalluses were even chiseled off.
Art historian Leo Steinberg pointed out in his 1983 book The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion that many beautiful antique statues were castrated in Rome by the order of Pope Paul IV.
The campaign didn’t spare paintings, either. Areas of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement deemed unethical were painted over twice in the 1500s, and then again in the 1700s, with little swaddles and loincloths added.
A Mannerist artist named Daniele da Volterra was charged with modifying Michelangelo’s frescos, which won him the derogatory nickname of “The Breeches Maker”.
The trend took in radar Masaccio’s paintings too. In the 1600s, an unknown artist covered his fresco The Expulsion with fig leaves.
And in between 1758 and 1759, Pope Clement XIII swathed even more sculptures in the Vatican’s collection with fig leaves.
The fig leaf phenomenon spread beyond Italy’s borders, too.
When the Grand Duke of Tuscany gifted a cast of Michelangelo’s David to Queen Victoria in 1857, a large leaf was promptly sculpted to censor nudity, according to the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A).
Fortunately, a detachable fig leaf was created so that it could hang over the figure without damaging it. Today, the sculpture stands completely nude in the V&A, while a small vitrine next to it houses the large fig leaf.
Bernini’s ingenious twist to the fig leaf campaign
As we traverse 17th-century art, painters like Lorenzo Bernini gave an ingenious and eroticized twist to the fig leaf. Bernini understood that the more we cover things up, the more we want to know what’s underneath.
So, he dexterously created the famous marble sculpture — The Rape of Proserpina. The sculpture portrays “no nudity” and exudes a slipping drape effect conveying the message of the abduction of Proserpina who was seized and taken to the underworld by Pluto.
In 19th century art, the 18ft statue of Achilles, the Greek hero of the Trojan War was unveiled at the Hyde Park Corner on 18th June 1822.
The statue was made by Sir Richard Westmacott using 33 tonnes of bronze from cannons captured in Wellington’s campaigns in France. Originally, the statue was completely nude. But soon it caused outrage and so a small fig leaf had to be added soon after it was installed.
Over the last 40 years, a few of the paintings have been restored but still, nudity is considered taboo in the Catholic Church.
The fig leaves linger on at unexpected places.
Unarguably, the fig leaf campaign is the biggest coverup in history to censor art and nudity.
So in the first part of this post, I’ve argued that Michelangelo’s women had access to female models, and that his use of male models for female figures wasn’t unusual. The other thing that is often mentioned in class is that Michelangelo was gay and thus somehow had an inbuilt distaste, or even inability, to portray women’s bodies accurately. Now, without getting too closely into the fluidity of sexual identities in the Renaissance/early modern period (if you’re interested, a great starting point is the essays in Judith Brown and Robert Davis, Gender and Society in Renaissance Italy), I don’t think it’s possible in this period that a person’s sexuality can be taken as a straightforward explanation for his or her artistic choices. Moreover, it certainly doesn’t explain why this type of image should be popular with a broader audience.
There are two easier explanations: 1) androgynous bodies were thought to be beautiful in the Renaissance, 2) artistic nudes weren’t meant to be realistic.
The boundaries between male and female were conceived differently in renaissance culture than they are today. Thomas Laqueur has argued in relation to renaissance anatomical practice that at this time there was “only one canonical body and that body was male”. Although people have objected to what Laqueur has called the “one-sex model”, it seems to have been a highly influential way of understanding sexual difference in the renaissance. The idea was that the normative human body was male, and that women’s bodies were simply imperfect versions of men’s. For this reason, in early anatomical books, the bodies used to demonstrate human physiology are always male unless the female reproductive system is specifically being studied
Women, after all, were related to Eve who was created from Adam’s rib. Leone Ebreo in his Dialogues of Love (written from the 1490s but first published in 1535) explains that when God created Adam, he was a complete human, containing both male and female parts; Eve was created from his rib whilst he was sleeping, as women represent the imperfect, passive and corporeal aspect of men – who are representative of the intellectual and spiritual tendencies of humans.
Leonardo da Vinci, John the Baptist, 1513-16, Paris, Louvre
No wonder then, that for some in the renaissance, the most beautiful women were those who looked the most like that perfect original form. Like is attracted to like, Marsilio Ficino explained: “Women truly easily capture men, and even more those women who bear a masculine character. And even more easily, men catch men, as they are more like men than are women”. Ficino’s follower, Mario Equicola, claimed in 1525 that “the effeminate male and the manly female are graceful in almost every aspect”. This was shown to comic effect in Benvenuto Cellini’s Autobiography, where he tells a story of a dinner party where he brought his young and beautiful model, Diego, dressed up as a woman, and Diego was declared the most beautiful of all the ladies. There are plenty of images of feminine-looking young men in the Renaissance that show the interest in male androgyny too – many of Leonardo da Vinci’s male figures look feminine (hence the non-controversy about John the Evangelist “really” being Mary Magdalen that Dan Brown talked about in the Da Vinci code).
There are good reasons, therefore, beyond convenience, why renaissance artists might study a male r model as the basis for their female figures. What we need to do when looking at this type of renaissance nude is to disassociate ourselves from expectations of naturalism and to recalibrate our understanding of what is beautiful.
Adopt these habits to enhance your learning process.
A few days ago, I finished reading Leonardo da Vinci’s biography by Walter Isaacson. This book is easily the best 30 bucks I’ve spent in lockdown. Such an amazing read! My mind was absolutely blown.
I’m sure you know who Leonardo da Vinci is (or at least have heard his name before), but I’ll refresh your memory anyway: With expertise spanning virtually all fields known to man — arts, science, engineering, humanities — Leonardo is an Italian polymath who has been dubbed the “Renaissance Man.”
He is, arguably, history’s most creative genius.
How is it possible to become an expert in so many fields? And no, not in a “jack of all trades, master of none” kind of way, but to actually become a master of all those trades. The answer is intricate, of course, but if I were to boil it down into one thing, I’d say it’s this: Leonardo is a master of learning.
That is essentially the skill that makes polymaths like Leonardo shine so brilliantly: They have mastered the art of learning. I know, it’s a bit meta — but that’s exactly why it’s amazing. After all, once you’ve learned how to learn, you can replicate that process to whatever subject you want and ultimately become a master at it.
Here, I’ll outline seven habits that I’ve identified in Leonardo. While I encourage you to read the full book to get the whole picture, you can use these seven takeaways as a starting point.
1. Relentless curiosity
“Describe the tongue of the woodpecker,” Leonardo wrote in his notebook.
Did you know that the tongue of the woodpecker can extend more than thrice the length of its bill? And when it’s not used, it retracts into the skull and wraps itself around the brain, thus becoming a cushion for when the bird does what it’s known for: Smashing its beak repeatedly against tree bark.
That’s amazing, isn’t it? Another one of Mother Nature’s magic.
But you don’t really care, do you? Me neither. Why should I know about a woodpecker’s tongue? It won’t affect my day in any way. In fact, I can go about my entire life without needing to know about it in the slightest.
But that’s the trait that defines geniuses like Leonardo: They’re ridiculously, painfully curious. They just ought to know everything. Every little object or occurrence piques their interest and leads them down an inquisitory rabbit hole. When they have a question, they have to answer it no matter what.
But weren’t we all like that when we were children? Everything we see fascinates us. We bother adults around us with questions they deem unnecessary and at times comical. Sadly, we lose that behavior as we grow up, once we’ve learned that the world isn’t as forgiving as we thought it to be.
But there are some like Leonardo, who maintained that childlike sense of wonder well into their last breath. And that relentless curiosity has made all the difference — it shaped them into peerless learners, able to process all sorts of raw data into extraordinary insights.
As Albert Einstein, another one of history’s greatest geniuses, once said:
“I have no special talents, I am just passionately curious.”
2. Sharp observation
Sherlock Holmes, another renowned (albeit fictional) polymath known for his deduction skills, once said to his friend John Watson:
“You see, but you do not observe.”
Geniuses don’t just see, they observe. Leonardo certainly embodies this habit of keen observation. He proves to be an incredibly acute observer, as shown through the woodpecker example before, and more:
He noticed how people’s facial expressions relate to their emotions
He watched how light bounces off different types of surfaces
He identified birds who flap their wings faster in their upswing, and others who are faster in their downswing
Furthermore, we know that Leonardo is a man who acts on his curiosity.
When something catches his eye, he doesn’t just think “Oh that’s cool,” and carry on. He actually tries to understand why and how it works—and ultimately, he emulates the findings into his creations, like his exceptionally realistic paintings and sophisticated mechanical devices.
Leonardo notices patterns where others didn’t even glance twice. In other words, geniuses like him see things unseen.
As said by German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer:
“Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.”
3. Emphasis on experience
While Leonardo is famous for his extraordinary intellect, not many people know that he had barely any formal education. He went to an abacus school when he was young, and that was it.
A substantial part (if not all) of the brilliance we know him for is not the product of institutionalized learning — they’re the result of Leonardo’s own efforts. More specifically, his observations and experiments.
When it comes to learning, Leonardo puts a heavy emphasis on experience. He doubts people who like to cite experts but spend no independent effort on becoming experts themselves. He said:
“They will say that I, having no literary skill, cannot properly express that which I desire to treat of, but they do not know that my subjects are to be dealt with by experience rather than by words. And [experience] has been the mistress of those who wrote well. And so, as mistress, I will cite her in all cases. Though I may not, like them, be able to quote other authors, I shall rely on that which is much greater and more worthy: on experience, the mistress of their masters.”
To become a master at any trade, one has to actually experience that trade. Everyone can read books about engineering, for instance, but not everyone can become an engineer. They have to actually practice the craft.
Change “engineer” with any other profession and the lesson will still apply.
School can be a solid source of enlightenment, but no one can become a master unless they move beyond the classroom and into the real world.
4. Seeking knowledge for knowledge’s sake
When you eat ice cream, do you eat it because of its nutritional value? I would say no, otherwise, you would’ve gone for a salad instead. One reason for that could be because we associate ice cream’s taste with “happiness” and salad’s nutrition with “usefulness.”
Many of us have a similar association with playing and learning. Playing equals happy, and learning equals useful. We only learn when we think it’ll help in our career, or when we need a good grade to pass a class in university. Or, worse yet, only to look smart in front of others and garner their praise.
But why does it have to be like that? What if you indulge your curiosity like you indulge your appetite? What if you learn whatever you want to, not just what’s useful or what’s demanded of you?
As we see in Leonardo’s observation on the woodpecker’s tongue, a piece of practically useless knowledge can also be a source of joy. Sometimes, seeking knowledge for its own sake is enough. Maybe you’ll find a use for it later, but even if you don’t, at least you’ve enjoyed the process. That’s already a win.
When you associate knowledge itself with happiness, not just usefulness, it becomes almost impossible to stop learning — you’ll crave it like ice cream.
5. Purposeful procrastination
This one might sound weird at first. After all, do I need to tell you to procrastinate? If you’re like me, you already procrastinate so much it’s become a problem. If anything, you want to get rid of this habit, not adopt it. But Leonardo can give us a different perspective.
He once said:
“Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work least, for their minds are occupied with their ideas and the perfection of their conceptions, to which they afterward give form.”
Sometimes, when Leonardo is struck by inspiration, he doesn’t immediately act on it. Instead, he dwells on that inspiration and lets it shapeshift and evolve. Once he knows for sure what form he can give it, only then he started creating.
When painting The Last Supper, for example, sometimes he stares at the canvas for an entire hour, makes a single stroke, and that’s it. He leaves and continues another day. But now we see how magnificent that painting is.
If you do it purposefully, procrastination can be a powerful tool.
Think of it like this: A steak that’s marinated for 30 minutes, and another that’s marinated for an entire day — which one do you think tastes better? Honestly, it depends, but you’ll have a better chance with the second one, simply because the seasoning has more time to seep into the meat.
Creativity is kind of like that. When an idea comes to you, sometimes you shouldn’t act on it right away. Let it marinate in your mind. Play around with it, imagine what strange things can you do with it. If you do it right, the resulting idea will be far more interesting than its initial form.
6. Timely perfectionism
Still related to the previous point, this one is also a bit controversial. Isn’t perfectionism bad for learning?
“Real artists ship,” Steve Jobs famously said. What matters more than creating one immaculate art is creating a hundred good-enough ones, because the process will teach you many important lessons. But he underwent a long process before he arrived at that conclusion.
Jobs used to be a perfectionist, not wanting to release a device unless its motherboard looks beautiful — a motherboard, mind you, not a screen or a logo. Who sees a motherboard? Almost no one. You have to crack the device open to see it, after all. But Jobs wanted every aspect to be perfect, even the ones not visible from the outside.
Leonardo is the same. To him, an artwork is not finished until it’s perfect. That’s why he often leaves his work unfinished. “Finished but imperfect” is not in his vocabulary, so he’d rather they stay unfinished forever. Examples of this are TheBattle of Anghiariand Adoration of the Magi, which are both paintings that Leonardo left unfinished until his passing.
Often, perfectionism runs contrary to improvement. Your obsession with perfection can hinder you from making mistakes and reflecting on the lessons. The main goal in learning is to do your best even if it’s imperfect, improve in the process, then move on to the next work and do better with it.
Yes, that’s true. But learning is not a static process.
There will be times when your goal is to create the best work — not “the best you can possibly make,” but “the best, period.” And during those moments, there is no greater virtue than perfectionism.
7. Connecting everything to everything else
This is my favorite quote from Leonardo:
“Principles for the Development of a Complete Mind: Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses — especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”
Perhaps, the biggest fallacy of modern education is that we’ve put knowledge into separate boxes when it’s supposed to be a unified entity.
Science, art, history, philosophy — they’re all supposed to work in tandem. They inform and expand on each other. They fill each other’s gaps. After all, they have the same purpose: To help us make sense of the universe.
By separating knowledge into silos, we’re breaking the universe into fragments, and this way we will never understand it in its entirety.
Geniuses like Leonardo, however, know that a fragmentary approach is incorrect. There is a science to art, just as there’s an art to science. Everything is connected to everything else — and we should learn to see that connection.
To recap, here are the takeaways I’ve learned from Leonardo’s biography:
Be relentlessly curious
Don’t just see, observe
Don’t just study, experience
Seek knowledge for its own sake
Be perfectionistic when you need to
Connect everything to everything else
I have tried implementing these seven habits in my own life (that’s habit no. 3: Experience!) and I honestly think they’re worth a shot.
Some of them already come naturally anyway, like no. 4 — I learn because I enjoy it, I’ve always been like that. Maybe you already identify with one (or more) of these habits as well? Good, then you won’t be starting from zero.
Lastly, a tiny note: I’m not a historian. While I did my due diligence when writing this piece, I encourage you to do your own. Although even if we dismiss the historical accuracy and remove Leonardo’s name from this article, these seven habits can still be useful to adopt.
And their controversial relationships with their maestros
When viewing art, we are often only aware of two individuals — subject and artist. There is, for example, Mona Lisa and Leonardo DaVinci. And for simple portraits, this is as far as it goes. But there is often a third hidden figure in art, one we know very little about — the artist’s model.
By the very nature of their work, their identities are mostly erased, but we do know something about these people drawn from the highest and lowest rungs of society. Perhaps it’s time to take a fresh look at the faces that made the masterpieces of the renaissance possible.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was a complicated individual. He was one of the most celebrated painters of his age, but he was also a volatile and lustful man, spending the last years of his life on the run following a murder.
Caravaggio’s choice of models could also be controversial. Firstly, Mario Minniti. A fellow artist and one of Caravaggio’s go-to models, Minniti appears in Boy with a Basket of Fruit, 1593, Bacchus, 1596 and Boy Bitten by a Lizard, 1593–1594. Their working relationship lasted from around 1592 and 1600, though they seem to have been friends until Caravaggio’s death in 1610. He even provided shelter to the artist in Sicily during his time on the run. The flower behind the ear of Minniti in Boy Bitten by a Lizard, a common symbol of a prostitute,and the ‘close relationship’ between the two men have led some to speculate that they were lovers, but there is relatively little hard evidence to support this theory.
Two women often painted in tandem by Caravaggio were Anna Bianchini and Fillide Melandroni. In Martha and Mary Magdalene, 1598, Anna (right) can be seen as Mary Madelene, being convinced to give up her sinful life by her sister Martha (left), portrayed here by Fillide. The scene is a masterful study of light and emotion, typical of Caravaggio and the religious intensity of the scene is not undercut by the fact that Anna and Fillide were both courtesans.
That is not to say that using courtesans as models for religious figures came without controversy though. In his Death of the Virgin, 1505–6, Caravaggio used the high-class courtesan Fillide Melandroni as the model for the mother of God. A controversial move for sure, though he was by no means the first to do so. She was also the model for Judith in Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1598–99 or 1602, and as such is perhaps the most recognisable figure in Caravaggio’s art.
Sandro Botticelli is one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance and his most famous work, The Birth of Venus, 1484–86 owes a great debt to the tragically short life of one woman — Simonetta Vespucci. Married to the cousin of Amerigo Vespucci, Simonetta became a favourite at the Florentine court of the newly resurgent Medici family and as such became a favourite of numerous artists. Botticelli here depicts her as the face of the Goddess of Love.
As ever, such affinity for one woman has led many to believe that Botticelli may have harboured feelings for Simonetta, and while this is possible, there is no evidence that these were acted upon by either of them. Perhaps he had simply found a woman he believed to be the height of beauty and everything he stood for, as Beatrice was for Dante. Much like Beatrice though, Simonetta would die tragically young at the age of 23, from an unclear cause, though her beauty lives on as the face of Love itself today.
Perhaps it’s only fitting that the most famous artist model is associated with the quintessential artist of the Renaissance — Leonardo DaVinci. That model’s name was Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, a student and servant of Leonardo’s from the age of ten, who is remembered by history as Andrea Salaì or just Salaì.
While famous for his detailed studies of anatomy for his art, Leonardo also used models to great effect. Salaì is most strikingly rendered in the celebrated Saint John the Baptist, 1513–1516 (?), as well as Bacchus, 1510–15. It has also been erroneously claimed that Salaì is the real model for the Mona Lisa and her enigmatic smile, though this is disputed by most mainstream art critics and theorists. There is some similarity between the soft features of Salaì and Lisa del Giocondo (the suspected subject of the Mona Lisa). The letters of ‘Mona Lisa’ can also be rearranged into Mon Salaì (‘my Salaì’ in French). Neither the slight similarity of their features nor the apparent anagram has convinced most experts that Salaì is the Mona Lisa’s true subject, however.
Once again, the relationship between the two men has frequently been called into question. Leonardo was charged with homosexuality when apprenticed to Verrocchio, but he was acquitted. He is not recorded as having had a relationship with any woman, but there remains little compelling evidence of his relationship with men either.
The Face Behind the Art
Researching and understanding exactly who these models were can be challenging. Many wealthy patrons had portraits done of themselves, but many of the names behind the faces we today associate with the Renaissance have been lost to history. But understanding who these individuals are is crucial to understanding the art world of the Renaissance.
Even the most traditional of art can be made radical by understanding more about artists’ models, many of whom came from the lower classes. There is something wonderful in knowing that many of the faces we associate with sainthood and religious zeal belonged to people who in their real lives were prostitutes and ‘sinners’.
It could be argued that it doesn’t matter who the artist’s model is. Once they strike a pose, they are erased, becoming instead a character on the canvas.
But I think there’s more to it than that. We, as viewers, can enrich our appreciation of even these masterpieces by understanding the world they came from and the often simple, ordinary people that made them possible.
The artist connects (mostly unknowingly) to other realms, other eras, other timeframes. The artist peers into the future, the artist repurposes the past; the artist walks with the greats, past, present and future, and learns from.
And for all her pains, for all that the artist brings back from these exotic escapades, very rarely does the artist get recognition. Very rarely does she get success. Very rarely does she get fame.
But this is not what no one tells the artist. She will come to find that out on her own. If she’s lucky. And even if she doesn’t, the real pain in her life will come from an entirely different source.
What no one really tells the artist is who she really is.
What no one really tells the artist is where all her creations really come from.
What no one really tells the artist is what her art is meant for.
And so the artist assumes. And pays a steep price for it. What began as elation and motivation soon becomes a burden when it is not understood.
What once a source of living soon turns into a prison of isolation and misunderstanding.
What once could be relied on as a source of inspiration soon becomes a horror channel of surreal information and nightmarish suggestions.
All because no one ever told the artist.
But if no one tells the artist, can the artist at least ask?
Sure. Of course. That is one of the things I can encourage. And I am not one to encourage anything.
One of the reasons I don’t this is because with the encouragement I have above, I expect a follow up question like the one below:
Who does the artist ask?
I submit that this is not a very useful question; there are few people you will meet in your life capable of answering such questions.
A better question would be, ‘what does the artist ask?’
Very good. Now we are getting somewhere if you are asking this question. You have some direction you can explore.
And, if you asked the question, you likely consider yourself an artist.
An artist is a person who creates. The field of creation doesn’t matter. What she creates doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if the world is aware of the creation or not.
This is not meant to be an answer. It is not a definition. It is a direction to explore if you wish.