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Fig Leaves

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Flash
345452.  Mon May 26, 2008 6:23 pm Reply with quote

This ought to be a runner, you'd think. Fred, can you opine as to the accuracy of this:

Q: How did the Ancient Greeks cover up the naughty bits on their statues?

F: Fig leaves

A: They didn’t

In Ancient Greek art full nudity, especially of the heroic male, was common, and this tradition was maintained until the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity when heroic nudity fell out of favour; people were still depicted naked, but usually because they were anti-heroic: the damned. Adam and Eve were shown dressed in leaves, as in Genesis, but this was a matter of narrative accuracy rather than prudishness. The tone only changed at the reformation, when preachers like Savonarola, Luther and Calvin preached the relatively novel idea of the impurity of the flesh (until then human shortcomings had been seen as mainly spiritual). These northern reformers were not directly influential where the art was being created in the Mediterranean countries, but they prompted a response: the Counter-Reformation. In the mid C16th the Councils of Trent forbade the depiction of genitals, buttocks and breasts in church art. Initially the rule only applied to new art, but the first mass campaign of adding plaster fig leaves to existing statues began quite soon, in 1564. This happens to be the year that Michelangelo died; as soon as he did so the "Last Judgement" was painted over by his apprentice, da Volterra. For paintings, the work could be done by adding bits of drapery and foliage, but the only way of doing it on statues was by attaching plaster fig leaves. The cover-up went on for the next 450 years. Its history is most visible in the Vatican collection; for example, fig leaves installed between 1644 and 1655 are metal rather than plaster, apparently on the personal whim of Pope Innocent X. In the C19th Pius IX (‘Pio No No’, as they used to call him) was still destroying nude statues; his successor Leo XIII put fig leaves on those that survived for the creditable purpose of protecting them from future iconoclasts. Some of the statues in the Vatican still have fig leaves, but that’s because they have been attached in such a way that they can’t be removed without destroying what’s beneath.

In Victorian times the practice wasn’t only ecclesiastical. In 1857 the Grand Duke of Tuscany presented Queen Victoria with a full-size replica of Michelangelo’s David, which she sent to the V&A. According to the museum: “on her first encounter with the cast of David at the Museum, Queen Victoria was so shocked by the nudity that a proportionally accurate fig leaf was commissioned. It was then kept in readiness for any royal visits, when it was hung on the figure using two strategically placed hooks.” Nowadays the fig leaf is housed in its own case on the back of the plinth of the figure.

In Genesis Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil and “knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons”. In the Islamic tradition the forbidden fruit itself is a fig (although, botanically, the fig isn’t actually a fruit – it’s an involucre or hollow flowerhead formed by the globular receptacle containing the inflorescence, open at the end opposite the stem, where a small navel-shaped aperture bears male flowers at the entrance and female flowers further inside. After fertilization inside the receptacle, it swells, enclosing a great many monospermal drupes, which are the real fruits produced by the ovaries of the fertilized female flowers. But let’s not be pedantic.)

In Greek mythology the fig is an attribute of Priapus and of Dionysus. Romulus and Remus were suckled under a fig tree, and the Buddha achieved enlightenment under one. The old Arabic word for the fig became such a widely-used slang word for the male genitalia that it could no longer be used in polite society to mean ‘fig’; figs are now called khrif (autumn).

Picture researchers: Eugen Sandow, the “father of modern bodybuilding” used to wear fig leaves when he posed as a classical statue. There’s a photo of him posing as the Dying Gaul, by Benjamin J Falk, said to be public domain, at:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Falk%2C_Benjamin_J._%281853-1925%29_-_Eugen_Sandow_%281867-1925%29-_1894_.jpg

and others at:

http://www.sandowmuseum.com/page7.html

There are also illustrations of Masaccio’s Expulsion from the Garden of Eden before and after restoration which make the point quite well (it was painted in 1425, covered up in 1680, and restored in 1980):

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Expulsion_from_the_Garden_of_Eden

 
Frederick The Monk
345537.  Tue May 27, 2008 3:01 am Reply with quote

That all looks pretty top notch to me. You might care to add something on penis size. If you look at classical male statues you'll notice that they're not terribly well endowed. This is because Greek, and particular Roman tastes lent towards the smaller cock. A large penis was considered ludicrous and you only see them on statuettes of buffoons and fools (and Priapus of course).

 
Flash
345586.  Tue May 27, 2008 4:15 am Reply with quote

Thanks, that would indeed be an interesting note.

Is it the case that the figleaf attachment was simply unknown in classical times, or just that it was rare?

 
MatC
345596.  Tue May 27, 2008 4:36 am Reply with quote

If asked who put fig leaves on statues, I would have said "the Victorians." After a moment's thought, I'd probably have added "Victorian Americans." I would never have thought for a moment that it was the ancients. Would anyone?

Love that thing about ludicrous cocks, though. Reminds me of the famous story about Milton Berle; in one version of it, in a comedians' steam room in New York there was an argument about who had the biggest schlong in showbiz. Someone bet on Forrest Tucker, but Jackie Gleason insisted Berle had a good two inches on him. Gleason wanted to do a measure-off there and then, and said to a reluctant Berle "Come on Milt, just take enough out to win the bet for me."

I think it was in the same steam room that another comedian said "I didn’t have my glasses on. I thought Milt had a small child standing next to him, until I realised it was his dick."

 
Flash
345612.  Tue May 27, 2008 4:51 am Reply with quote

The question I proposed above doesn't allow for a "Victorians" forfeit, but I guess that is one way we could go (except that the story about the V&A David means that it isn't actually a wrong answer - fig leaves were in fact still being added to statues in Victorian times).

I think it's a reasonable topic for a question of some sort, because 1) it's vaguely saucy, 2) it has a highbrow dimension to it nevertheless and 3) it's something everybody is familiar with at some level but probably doesn't know much about in detail - so I'm really after a question which puts the topic into play, and the one above seemed to me to do that and hold out a reasonable prospect of triggering a klaxon. But, not married to it if anyone has a better idea.

 
dr.bob
345643.  Tue May 27, 2008 5:14 am Reply with quote

How about:

Q: When did people start attaching fig leaves to the naughty bits of statues?

With a klaxon for "Victorian times." That would've been my instinctive answer, and I found it quite interesting that the practice dated back to the reformation.

 
MatC
345654.  Tue May 27, 2008 5:22 am Reply with quote

Yes - what I like about that is that you'd know it can't be Victorian times (because if it was, they wouldnt be asking the question), but you'd be straining to come up with anything else. With hilarious consequences, one hopes.

 
Jenny
345765.  Tue May 27, 2008 7:58 am Reply with quote

Frederick The Monk wrote:
If you look at classical male statues you'll notice that they're not terribly well endowed. This is because Greek, and particular Roman tastes lent towards the smaller cock. A large penis was considered ludicrous and you only see them on statuettes of buffoons and fools (and Priapus of course).


It's an interesting question, then, whether statues carved much later (cf Michelangelo's 'David') were also given smaller genitalia because tastes were still the same or because he wanted to imitate statues of classical antiquity. If you look at male nudes in Renaissance paintings, none of them are what you might call big, but in more modern male nudes they do seem larger. Not that I've made a study of it or anything. <conceals measuring tape>

 
dr.bob
345778.  Tue May 27, 2008 8:17 am Reply with quote

Frederick The Monk wrote:
If you look at classical male statues you'll notice that they're not terribly well endowed. This is because Greek, and particular Roman tastes lent towards the smaller cock.


I'd always assumed it was to avoid giving men a terrible inferiority complex on their way to work every morning :)

 
MatC
345804.  Tue May 27, 2008 8:42 am Reply with quote

Quote:
According to the museum: “on her first encounter with the cast of David at the Museum, Queen Victoria was so shocked by the nudity that a proportionally accurate fig leaf was commissioned. It was then kept in readiness for any royal visits, when it was hung on the figure using two strategically placed hooks.”


I know that's a bloody good source, but even so, is this story confirmed anywhere? It just sounds so mythical!

 
MatC
345812.  Tue May 27, 2008 8:53 am Reply with quote

Well, I see the answer to my question - via google, at least; I can't yet find any printed mention - is yes. Although some sources do give a slightly, but rather significantly, different version, which sounds a lot more believable:

Quote:
To demonstrate British prudishness, the exhibition will feature a two-foot high stone fig leaf. It was hastily made when a cast of Michelangelo's David was lent to London in the 1850s. Fearing Queen Victoria's reaction when she saw the statue, the fig leaf was hung in front of David's naked manhood by two iron bolts.

S: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1543427/Under-18s-are-banned-from-x-rated-exhibition.html

 
Flash
349597.  Sun Jun 01, 2008 4:57 am Reply with quote

I agree that that sounds likelier - the staff were trying to avoid the creation of an embarrassing photo-opportunity for the Victorian paparazzi. Stand the Queen in front of a naked David and they'd have made an engraving of it before you could say 'full frontal'.

 
Ainee
787140.  Sat Feb 12, 2011 6:24 am Reply with quote

There's a pub somewhere (?) with a statue of a naked man in the Ladies' Toilet. The figleaf is hinged, and when you lift it,
a small sign reads "A red light just flashed on and a buzzer sounded in the Bar"

Ainee

 
mckeonj
793021.  Thu Mar 03, 2011 5:56 pm Reply with quote

The aforementioned statuette with moveable fig leaf which triggers a light and buzzer is, or was when I were a lad, in the ladies toilet of a pub called 'The Hovel' in Shepperton.

 

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