At school (or even earlier), we get to know historical figures like Queen Elizabeth I and George Washington. Usually, we’ve seen a nice portrait of the person we’re learning about, but what we didn’t know is most of these pictures aren’t accurate. What we mean is that most of these historical characters looked different from that beautiful painting. We know, bummer.
Artists are paid on commission. When they painted something, they’d get paid if someone liked the painting. That meant that the artist would paint their subject as pretty as they could—maybe also get a big tip. Therefore, people particularly royals) look far different from their implied portraits.
We came across pictures of how some historical figures looked like and had to share. Honestly, we never thought any of these historical figures looked completely different from their paintings. It’s like 1100’s Photoshop!
Dante Alighieri is the author of the Divine Comedy, the three-part sequence about a man working his way through hell (Inferno), purgatory (Purgatorio) and heaven (Paradiso). Dante Alighieri is most often depicted with strong features, particularly a hook nose.
Since the nose is soft tissue (and doesn’t stick around long after we pass), we didn’t verify that Dante didn’t have a hook nose, so the facial reconstruction also involves a similar nose. That said, his features were much less sharp than paintings make us believe. One big difference is his brow, which is much less stern than any painting or statue can display.
Mary Queen of Scots
When she was six days old, Mary Queen of Scots became queen but was moved for education to France. By 19, she’d return to Scotland to take over Queen’s job. She was known for her unparalleled elegance and physical height, standing 5’11.” Because she was a cousin of Queen Elizabeth 1, the two looked very close.
Mary’s true face has been reconstructed, and she looks very different. The years of her turbulent existence (mostly imprisonment) took a huge toll on her since her restoration reveals an older face. That being said, she’s still pretty stunning. It turns out that the paintings weren’t too far away, while they still had the usual de-aging occurring.
Everyone recognizes George Washington and his contributions as America’s first president. Many of the pictures we see of him show him with a serious brow, which is typical of the time – just look at any photo of Benjamin Franklin. He also has reddish cheeks and white hair, powdered to give a white appearance.
A reconstruction of his presence reveals something similar to our textbooks. Some variations, however. Next, his nose was significantly higher than we saw in portraits. His jaw is now much smoother and has some dimples to match those red cheeks.
King Tut is most popular for his opulent tomb, disturbed and cursed to those who find it (supposedly) (supposedly). After it was found, we all got a good look at King Tut’s mask, first showing the young prince. It was the only real picture we could draw from for years.
Like several of these masks, the whole story wasn’t told. King Tut was very sick. Historians say he had a club foot (he possessed many canes), an overbite, and broad hips. His teeth were possibly bucked teeth when his mouth opened. He also had a flat head, a pattern popular this time.
Cleopatra always alluded to herself as Isis, so many people will think her beautiful. She was also extremely clever, having known nine languages and becoming the first pharaoh to make Egyptian official language despite being Greek. She must have been stunning, having wooed Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.
Cleopatra influenced numerous artworks, but she wasn’t the beauty many saw. Yeah, that’s not fair. She’s always young, and it’s easy to see why so many men fall for her. But clearly, this isn’t the woman we’ve seen for decades. Most of her appeal came from her intellect, which is understandable given how firmly she ruled.
Roman Emperor Nero
Nero has a notorious reputation as one of history’s evil guys. He’s so bad that ancient historians and scholars believe he ignited the huge fire that killed Rome in 64 A.D. The evil Nero’s bust is fairly true, but Nero had rather masculine features to begin with—something that’s often applied to bust to look stronger as a dictator.
Although the bust is pretty true, there’s something that we didn’t see coming – red hair. That’s okay! Nero had fiery red hair (no pun intended). He doesn’t look like many of us assumed, mainly because Rome’s modern people look very different.
Nefertiti claimed to be Egypt’s most beautiful woman in the 14th century B.C. Although many people know her name, they might not know Pharaoh Akhenaten’s wife (and later mother to King Tut). Even her name meant, “the beautiful one came.” The two were a power pair, even forming their religion, Aten’s cult.
Nefertiti is frequently portrayed with the headdress of a pharaoh, having more strength than previous wives. Then a team at Bristol University released this bust in 2018, using a mummy claimed to be Nefertiti’s. Although her skin color is controversial, her bone structure is considered fairly accurate.
Julius Caesar was a Roman statesman and general who had a crucial role in the rise of the Roman Empire. Accounts say he was a slim, thin-haired man who also had a rather discerning brow. Most representations portray him as an elderly man who is not too strange because he did not rule for a long time.
The latest reconstructions show him looking a little differently, but with very similar characteristics. Because he still has the stern brow, his head looks completely different. We have to point it out. Archeologist Tom Buijtendorp believed that the head was incorrect due to heavy delivery.” Another thing we realized: his eyes are extremely close together.
While Shakespeare is more contemporary than many entries on this list, his face still varies quite a bit from artist to artist. Most portraits depict him with dark brown (or often reddish) hair going down to his shoulders, though his head is bald. The pictures quite often display a smoother face than a baby’s bottom.
The latest photographs of Shakespeare’s actual appearance were made using his death mask. The mask reveals that he had a bald head. What changes is his skin texture? It was burned in the sun for years and became wrinkled with age. He also had a much thicker nose than other artist renditions show.