Five Iconic Historical Figures Whose Real Faces You Probably Don’t Recognise

Ned Kelly? Babe. Jane Austen? Babe. Leonardo da Vinci? Huge babe.

What do the death stare of Santa Claus, Ned Kelly’s sultry eyes, the luscious locks of Leonardo Da Vinci, Napoleon Bonaparte’s bloated head, and the quaint, unassuming smile of Jane Austen all have in common?

The fact that you’ve most likely never seen them before.

In this age of technology, where we holster our iPhones like weapons at the ready, there is little opportunity for us to escape into anonymity. Our faces are everywhere, littered like glitter across the Internet – and they won’t come off no matter how hard we try. But what about those who lived before Snapchat? Who even were they? Did they even have faces? What the hell did they look like?

Turns out, working that out is both exceedingly difficult and weirdly fascinating. Here’s the story behind some of our most famous unknown faces.

Santa Claus

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Ah, Santa, we know you well. You ugly, stocky, five-foot-nine gift-giver, with your large head and broken nose earned smackin’ down a hater in the middle of church.

If that doesn’t sound like the Santa Claus you know, the one Coca-Cola made famous, it is true of the real man destined to become him – a revered bishop named St Nicholas, or ‘Sinterklass’. But seeing as the fiery little Christian was born in 270 AD, we don’t know much about his appearance or hairstyle.

What we do know about future-Santa is that he was orphaned after both his parents died of plague – somewhat common at the time. This led him to anonymously distribute the large inheritance he received from them among the poor, one act that contributed to the tradition of Christmas gift-giving years later.

But due to a severe iPhone shortage at the time, the only images we have of St. Nicholas are religious iconography and paintings. Even between these two paintings alone, there seems to be disagreement on the girth of his head.

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Also, St. Nicholas clearly started that finger-rolly thing that Matthew McConaughey does.

But what did our Santa Claus really look like?

For over 900 years, St. Nicholas’ decrepit bones lay sealed in a crypt beneath Basilica di San Nicola in Bari, Italy. Throughout this entire time, the bones lay untouched – as many revered them as a religious relic because they kept exuding a perfumed water called ‘manna’ (yeah, I don’t know either).

But when the crypt needed repairs in the 1950s, the bones were removed and roentgenographers went mad at the chance to measure and analyse them using x-ray photography. In 2004, Francesco Introna of the University of Bari was able to advance this data using modern diagnostic techniques, which expert facial anthropologist Caroline Wilkinson of the University of Manchester used to bring St. Nicholas to life.

First, Caroline was able to create Santa’s 3D-rendered skull out of “virtual clay”, moldable using tools which allow someone to “feel” the model. Then, painstakingly, each individual facial muscle had to be applied with an expert thoroughly familiar with the face’s muscular anatomy. 

Digital artist Anand Kapoor then applied external characteristics such as skin, hair and eyes, and their work was complete.

They saw, for the first time, the (slightly creepy) face of Santa Claus.

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So, you know, sleep tight.

Ned Kelly

So if you weren’t aware of it, Ned Kelly was a total hunk.

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The Chet Faker of his day, this 16.3 x 12cm undated portrait of Kelly shows off his pre-hipster beard and perfect quiff, taken a few days before he was executed by hanging. 

Ned Kelly was one of Australia’s more symbolic and controversial historic figures, with opinions of him endlessly divisive – some revere him as an Aussie Robin Hood, while others see him a plain and simple murderer.

His lasting words, “such is life” – which is up for debate itself – are now uttered by countless Aussies when the chips are down, and even adorns the belly of our most beloved sporting icon.

His life running with the Kelly Gang became the focus of what many consider the world’s first feature-length film. While the most recently directed, ‘Ned Kelly’ in 2003, even brought our own Heath Ledger to play the outlaw.

Also Mick Jagger played him really badly in 1970 for some reason.

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But despite hiding it behind his iconic plate-metal armour, the infamous Victorian bushranger had a gorgeous mug. 

You’ve might have even seen it before without realising – as I did – as the Ned Kelly face has been popularized in street-art across Melbourne. This has been mainly because of street artist ‘HaHa’, who believes “street artists are the bushrangers of the 21st Century”.

Here Ned is on a street in Fitzroy:

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And here he is again in Fitzroy, St. Kilda, and Collingwood:

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I wonder how the outlaw would feel about his multi-coloured image plastered across the state he was born in.

Leonardo Da Vinci

Leonardo Da Vinci: painter, sculptor, inventor, geologist, architect, mathematician, writer, anatomist, engineer, cartographer – and babe?

Apparently Da Vinci – on top making everyone feel intellectually inferior – was also a man of “outstanding physical beauty”, according to Da Vinci’s fellow contemporary painter Giogio Vasari. Another friend remarked after meeting him in Pavia that he was “very attractive” and “striking”, with his “beautiful curling hair, carefully styled”.

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But despite Da Vinci being, debatably, most renowned for his paintings, there don’t exist many credible portraits of the artist. Those that do exist are too disparate to define a singular image. Some even believing that Da Vinci based the ‘Mona Lisa’ off his own image.

However, in his brilliant TED-talk, Dutch artist and illustrator Siegfried Woldhek took it upon himself to uncover the real face of Leonardo Da Vinci.

First, Woldhek scanned all of Da Vinci’s illustrations – a collection amounting to over 700 items – and culled everything that wasn’t a simple, male portrait. Having then brought the number of illustrations down to 120, he focused only on those that were face-on – or at least on the ¾ angle Da Vinci would have been able to paint himself.

Woldhek then removed from the remaining portraits all those that were significantly ugly – as pretty much all eyewitness accounts of Da Vinci say he was otherwise – as well as discarding those that weren’t detailed, too stylised or vague.

After this process, only three images remained:

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From left to right, they are: 1) ‘Portrait of a Musician’, a painting by Da Vinci considered previously to be of maestro Franchino Gauffurio; 2) ‘The Vitruvian Man’, Da Vinci’s iconic illustration of the physical proportions of a man many considered to be perfect, and; 3) ‘Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk’, a widely accepted self-portrait of Da Vinci around the age of 60.

The chronology of each image also corresponds to Da Vinci’s age, with the artist being 33 years old at the time of Portrait of Musician’ (1485), 38 years old at the time of ‘Vitruvian Man’, and 63 years old at the time of ‘Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk’.

To his wonder, Woldhek saw the clear similarities between the three. Each man had the same broad forehead, horizontal lines across them, strong eyebrow structure, long nose, curved lips, and bulbous chin.

Having illustrated over 1,100 portraits for publications around the world, Woldhek considers himself an expert on detecting true self-portraits. These three, to him, are the accepted images of Leonardo Da Vinci.

But to cement his opinion, Woldhek contrasted the images to one of the most accepted sculptures of Leonardo by Italian sculptor Verrocchio, of Da Vinci posing as David:

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The similarities between the sculpture and ‘Portrait of a Man’ speak for themselves. You are looking at the face of Leonardo Da Vinci.

Napoleon Bonaparte

“Nobody knows if the portraits of great men resemble them. It is enough that their genius lives there”

These were the words spoken by Napoleon Bonaparte – that infamous French military and political leader you’ve heard about somehow – when discussing his portrait with the painter Jacques-Louis David.

According to the tale, when David asked Napoleon to pose for his famous ‘Napoleon Crossing the Alps’ (below), he refused – stating that it wasn’t a “wart on the nose” which gives a painting resemblance, but instead the essence that animates the “character of the physiognomy”.

So in other words, Napoleon said “make me look as amazing as I think am” – and, because Napoleon was Napoleon, he got his way and David left with this:

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‘Napoleon Crossing the Alps’ has become one of the most recognised and romanticised portraits of Napoleon Bonaparte, despite the fact the actual man never posed for David. And surprisingly, this was a fairly common thing.

During the peak of Napoleon’s success as Commander of France’s Army of Italy in the 1790s, there was a high demand for portraits of the man. But as the times weren’t yet burgeoning on the technological, many painters had to rely either on their own imagination of Napoleon – influenced by hyperbolic war-tales and propaganda – or on other paintings.

The result was one inaccurate depiction of Napoleon inspiring another, and another, until we end up funny disparities like these:

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However, it was remarked by many of Napoleon’s friends and families that the man was notoriously difficult to capture in illustration. A friend of Napoleon’s younger brother Joseph, Charles Jared Ingersoll, said the following about the Commander:

Probably of no one that ever lived, have so many likenesses been taken as of Napoleon, on canvas, in marble, ivory, and on other substances; which generally bear some resemblance of feature and form; but it was extremely difficult to portray or delineate Napoleon’s look. Its mobility was beyond the reach of imitation.”

Wonderfully though, there does exist one image of Napoleon which Joseph’s best friend Nicholas Biddle claimed encompassed the “best likeness”.

It’s a miniature portrait, and it is not the most flattering:

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Jane Austen

Despite the profligacy of Jane Austen’s writing, there unfortunately exists barely any image of the author at all. This may be because Austen didn’t gain much of a literary reputation throughout her own lifetime, with her titles such as Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Emma only garnering a real following in the 20th century.

So what we’re left with today is only a few, sparse hand-drawn images. The earliest considered authentic are the two pencil and watercolour sketches below of Jane, around 35-years-old, drawn by her sister Cassandra.

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The ‘Portrait of Jane’ (1810) seems quite unfinished next to the watercolour sketch (turn around Jane, dammit), despite her sister being an accomplished artist. However, despite the credibility of the images, one of Jane’s nieces remarked that Cassandra’s drawing of her, which portrays Jane as quite tired and cold, was “hideously unlike” her.

This seems to ring true when we begin to turn to descriptions of Jane. One bibliographer, Sir Egerton Brydges, who lived near Jane during her youth, said of her:

Her hair was dark brown and curled naturally, her large dark eyes were widely opened an expressive. She had clear brown skin and blushed so brightly and so readily.”

This complimentary description is supported by memories of Jane, such as from her own niece, Caroline Austen, who recalled her as the “first face I can remembered thinking of as pretty”.

But in defiance of letting Jane Austen’s true image be lost to the ages, a team from the Jane Austen Center went about recreating her in a life-sized wax model. Yay!

Artist Melissa Dring, sculptor Mark Richards, Emmy & Bafta-winning costume designer Andrea Galer, and hair artist Nell Clarke worked for over three years using forensic technique and eyewitness accounts to recreate Austen’s image.

The process, which you can watch below, used Cassandra’s sketches and eyewitness accounts and, from that, slowly worked to mould her as a wax-figure.

In his own words, sculptor Mark Richards could only ever recreate Jane in “his own vision of her”, attempting to capture that “look in her eyes” which held such “intelligence and observation”.

But does the final wax-figure below reflect your own imagined Jane Austen?

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Jack Callil is a male human, freelance writer, and illustrator living in Melbourne. You can follow him at @Jack_Callil.