The Way History’s Biggest Figures Actually Looked Proves We Had It All Wrong
Here in the Information Age, we take for granted the ability to see exactly what someone looks like. With just the click of a camera or a cursory Google search, you can conjure up an image of the most reclusive individual. Of course, it hasn’t always been that way.
For most of history, even the most powerful people were known only through artistic renditions. Complicating matters is the fact that many of these portraits and sculptures contained huge inaccuracies. Fortunately, hi-tech historians have stepped in and recreated these famous faces using CGI renderings and newly unearthed artifacts. The results are nothing short of dramatic.
1. Tutankhamun: Howard Carter’s 1922 discovery of the boy king’s tomb made Tut an international sensation. His sarcophagus portrait became an enduring symbol of Egyptian wealth and artistry. But he probably looked quite different in real life.
A product of extensive inbreeding, Tut had a number of genetic defects. He only ruled Egypt for about a decade before either disease or an infected leg fracture led him to bite the dust.
2. Elizabeth I: Over her 44 years on the throne, this queen established herself as one of the most dominant monarchs in Great Britain’s history. While many portraits of her are still in existence, the painters made her look slightly younger.
Contemporary artist Mat Collishaw peeled back the aesthetic improvements to build an animatronic face of Elizabeth I. The lifelike visage also includes minor features typical of that period, including smallpox scars and wisps of facial hair.
3. Julius Caesar: After the famed Roman general installed himself as a dictator, monuments to him spread throughout the empire. His rule lasted for only two years before his assassination at the hands of the Senate.
In 2018, the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden took a stab at recreating Caesar. Noticing key similarities in various busts — including a peculiar bump at the top of the head — they produced this somewhat disturbing model of the general.
4. George Washington: Before and after his death, images of this Founding Father were everywhere in American culture. However, due to a wide range of artistic interpretations, two portraits of Washington can look like totally different men.
Historians created an approximation of Washington’s true face based on firsthand descriptions and the work of the more trustworthy portraitists of the day. His most devoted followers consistently made note of his tall stature and intense gaze.
5. Cleopatra: The love interest of Caesar ally Mark Antony, she had the tragic distinction of being the final ruler of Egypt before it fell to Rome. Popular legend holds that the beautiful queen took her own life by allowing an asp to bite her.
However, our image of her is largely shaped by modern beauty standards. Based on coin portraits from her lifetime, the real Cleopatra possessed a large jaw and a prominent hooked nose.