November 30, 2017

Enough about Mona Lisa’s smile — what about Leonardo’s toe?


The Leonardo da Vinci discoveries just keep coming! A researcher in Oregon recently noticed an unusual aspect to several Leonardo paintings and drawings, which raised interesting questions about the maestro’s method of composition — specifically whether or not he had reused certain body parts over his entire painting career. And if so… why?

Leonardo is celebrated for his incredibly lifelike faces and his ability to depict hands and fingers with both mystery and indirection. He was an astute observer of people, and no one alive ever did expressions and gestures (or landscapes) exactly like him. In his Last Supper the twelve apostles are each vivid and unique, and show his considerable study of human physiognomy. Even his animals are unique individuals and full of thought.

And yet, for a man in love with nature and its endless variety, there’s this one thing…   A quick survey of his paintings and drawings demonstrates the issue:

It’s that damn toe.  Where did that come from?

It is, technically speaking, what is called a “Greek foot” when the second toe appears longer than the first. Were the toe lengths more rounded and symmetrical it would be called an “Egyptian foot,” and if they were all level and the foot square, it would be a “Peasant foot.”  Other variations include the “Roman foot” and the “Celtic foot.”  Foot shape and toe length (fascinating subjects in themselves) were long studied for what they were thought to reveal about a person’s intelligence and personality.

And Leonardo was no doubt paying attention. He lived in an age of sandals and barefoot poverty. He knew feet in all their infinite glory, and yet…

The Greek foot is so called because it is the foot found on Greek statuary, and Leonardo (a student of ancient Greek and Roman art) knew this. The Greek foot was associated at the time with classical beauty — as it is still. The Statue of Liberty has a Greek foot.

And yet, only fourteen percent of actual human feet have the long second toe. It’s not normally how you would draw your generic, all-purpose foot. Michelangelo knew this. Study the feet on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and you will find every variety of toe, from Roman to Peasant to Egyptian, but the toe he gives his Adam, at the moment of divine connection, is the more elegant Greek toe. Raphael the same: when it came to feet he was very catholic. Most painters were. But not so Leonardo.

As a footnote, physicians today refer to the long second toe as a “Morton’s toe.” and frequently treat people with such toes for the problems caused by cramming them into shoes, including ingrown toenails, hammer toes, and arch pain. During Leonardo’s time, men’s and women’s shoes were designed with pointed toes—sometimes very long and pointed—a style that has gone out of fashion, fortunately, but one which he preferred. It could be argued that Leonardo painted the Greek foot for aesthetic reasons alone, but there’s a second, even more compelling possibility.

Cosimo de Medici once said: “Every painter paints himself.” We can assume this to have been general knowledge amongst the painterly community at the time. Leonardo in his Treatise on Painting certainly advises the young artist against drawing himself, as it will become habitual and limiting. And yet… we’ve got the evidence of that toe all over the place. Footprints, as it were, all leading back to the same source.

Which suggests perhaps the strangest thing of all: if you take all these bits and pieces that get repeated in Leonardo’s drawings and paintings, the thrusting lower lip and jaw, the glaring look, the pensive brow, the hands especially, but also the feet, do they not suggest fragmented bits of the self, scattered in plain sight? If the connection is real, if the foot he saw while laying in bed was the same foot he drew over and over, then what might we say about this?

Might we be looking at the earliest self-portrait in all of art history?  I don’t know, but if the shoe fits…



Mike Lankford is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and the author of Life in Double Time: Confessions of an American Drummer, a memoir about his years as a white drummer in a black R&B band, and Becoming Leonardo: An Exploded View of the Life of Leonardo da Vinci.