When I was designing the cover of my book INTACT: Men As They Were Born to Be, I knew I wanted an intact penis in all its foreskin glory on the cover. After all, a book full of intact penises needs proper representation on the front, right?
My first thought was Michelangelo’s Statue of David. It’s a well known piece of classical art, and I was hoping to bypass any puritanical censors who might otherwise object to seeing this “full monty” book cover at the local bookstore.
Imagine my surprise when I learned that there was an exact replica of the famous nude David statue near me in Glendale, CA. Naturally, I rushed right over to see him for myself.
My first time seeing the nude Statue of David and his famous appendage in person, I was awestruck by the size … of the statue, that is. The original David premiered in 1504 in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, Italy. The Glendale statue was constructed from castings made from the original David in Florence and from whitish, blue-gray marble resourced from the Carrara, Italy, quarries, just like Michelangelo’s original.
I remember studying David in an Art Appreciation class in college. Including the pedestal, David is 17-feet tall and 6.5-feet wide. The anatomical detail is amazing, and the skill of Michelangelo is obvious even on the cast reproduction.
Yes, his hands seem a little big for the scale of the statue, and sure, his quads could be a little bigger; and nowadays, his glutes would need to be a little more juicy. But who am I to quibble? David is beautiful – especially with that front-and-center foreskin protruding for all to see.
Or is it?
THE STORY OF THE STATUE
Among art historians, a controversy has arisen around David’s penis: is the Statue of David circumcised or not?
The fact that David’s penis still survives is a miracle considering the more prudish Catholic Church leaders of the past demanded the phallic portions of sculptures meet the business end of a hammer. In 1873, concern for the statue’s safety amidst a bustling town center led to a change of venue. David was taken from his original post outside the Palazzo Vecchio and moved indoors to a special alcove in the Galleria dell’Accademia, where he resides to this day.
The story of the statue is as dramatic as the youth/king who inspired it. Originally, the Statue of David was to be part of a series of 12 statues venerating characters in the Old Testament myths. The Florence Cathedral’s Overseers of the Office of Works, a.k.a. the Operai, commissioned the sculptures from Agostino di Duccio in 1463; and the marble for David arrived from Carrara in 1464. Agostino worked on the rough cuts of the legs and torso for two years but mysteriously stopped in 1464 around the time of the death of Donatello (the sculptor, not the turtle).
While other artists were brought onto the project, the big chunk of marble sat out in the elements for 35 years before the Operai hired 26 year-old Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni to create David as we know him. Michelangelo exemplified the new realism art style, a.k.a. naturalism, in which a person or object is shown exactly as they are without the interference of the artist’s opinion or personal aesthetic.
This realistic style that typified Renaissance art began in the late 14th century and reached its pinnacle by the 16th century, thanks to the revolutionary works of Leonardo da Vinci, Tiziano Vecelli (known as “Titian” in English), Sandro “Venus on the Half-shell” Botticelli, and Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (known as “Raphael” – the sculptor, also not the turtle). The literary works of Giovanni Boccaccio, Dante Alighieri, and Niccolò Machiavelli likewise exhibited the realist, naturalist art style.
Which brings us back to David’s penis….
Michelangelo was an Italian and a Catholic. The Italians adored the natural body, and the Catholic Church forbade circumcision amongst adherents of Christian mythology. Michelangelo hired Italian men to model for him, and they were probably sort of Catholic as well. So between seeing his own penis everyday and those of his models and male lovers, Michelangelo would have likely only ever seen an intact penis.
However, slingshot wunderkind David was Jewish and circumcised.
Or was he?
CIRCUMCISION IN THE ANCIENT WORLD
The barbaric act of circumcision amongst a few societies in East Africa and the Middle East repulsed the Greeks throughout the Classical and Hellenistic eras, with their cultural norm greatly favoring the normal, natural penis. The Hellenistic age is the overlap of the end of Classical Greek history in 323 BCE with the death of Alexander the Great at Nebuchadnezzar’s palace in Babylon and the full assumption of Roman authority in 146 BCE with the final defeat of the Greeks at Corinth.
Greek – and later Roman – culture prized the male foreskin as the ultimate symbol of male beauty and masculinity. Public nudity was common, and Jewish men apparently felt out of place in the public bath houses and gymnasia, surrounded by all that beautiful, masculine foreskin. Furthermore, the exposed glans of circumcised Jewish men was viewed as vulgar and indecent by the Greeks and Romans, to the point that Jewish men were not allowed to participate in sports or athletic games.
The ideals of Greece and Rome were adopted by many of the peoples they conquered, and the Jews were no exception. Jewish High Priest Jason, whose original name was Joshua or Yeshua, institutionalized Greek ideals in Jerusalem and even built a gymnasium for nude sports. In 170 BCE, Antiochus IV, ruler of Greco-Syria, outlawed circumcision amongst the Jews under penalty of death. With Rome controlling most of the known world by 146 BCE, Greco-Roman preferences for everything from fashion to foreskin became de rigueur.
Jews of this time, who wanted to participate in the Greco-Roman activities as well as advance in society and politics, tried numerous methods to get some skin coverage over their glans – and they weren’t alone. Even Greek and Roman men with short foreskin went to various lengths to cover their glans.
A Greek man could tie a leather cord known as a kynodesme around his short foreskin to pull it forward over the head of his penis. A Roman man could attach a fibula ring to the end of his penis and stick a pin through his foreskin to keep it pulled forward. Jewish men tried both of these as well as the method named after them, the Pondus Judaeus, which was a weight, usually made of copper, that was tied to the penile shaft skin in the hopes of stretching the skin over the glans.
Other Jewish apostates underwent “circumcision reversal” via a surgical procedure known as epispasm, which involved cutting the skin around the base of the penis and covering the area with a bandage while new skin grew to bridge the gap. The procedure was also commonly used amongst Greek and Roman men to remedy a short foreskin and is described in detail in De Medicina written by Aulus Cornelius Celsus, c. 47 CE.
Adapting epispasm for reversing the look of circumcision allowed Jewish men to fit in with Hellenistic and Roman men as well as participate in social events such as public baths, going to the gym, participating in athletic competitions, and conducting business. In fact, epispasm became so prevalent amongst Jewish men in the Hellenistic era that mentions of epispasm have been used to date ancient Jewish writings.
Because circumcision was associated with the cultural identity of Judaism as well as the blood covenant demanded by the Jewish god, the Jewish powers-that-be saw this surgical foreskin restoration as an affront to their religion. This was just one reason that led to several uprisings of the Jews against the Romans in an effort to win back Judea.
When Roman emperor and wall-fanatic Hadrian outlawed circumcision and any practice of Judaism, the Jews took up arms again in what would become known as the Bar Kokhba Revolt, or the Third Jewish-Roman War, in 132 CE. After the Jewish side was soundly defeated in 136 CE, rabbi sages known as the Tannaim wanted to make sure circumcision was done in such a way that it was not reversible, alterable, or able to be hidden when nude.
Rather than only cutting the part of the foreskin that extended past the glans as in the traditional Brit Mil’ah, the Tannaim devised a more thorough kind of circumcision which involved fully amputating the foreskin in order to prevent foreskin restoration when the boy grew older. This newer, more drastic form of circumcision was named Brit Peri’ah and remains as the current type of circumcision committed during a bris as well as the medical circumcision perpetrated by doctors.
Both Brit Peri’ah and medical circumcision begin with an adult stimulating the baby’s penis to an erection (yes, an adult stimulating a minor’s genitals, which should be crime … oh, wait….). Then comes the synechotomy – ripping the fused foreskin from the glans; a frenulectomy – sheering and removing the frenulum that attaches the foreskin on the underneath side of the glans; along with a circumferential excising of all foreskin tissue around the sulcus under the base of the glans.
All of which brings us back to the Statue of David….
DAVID & HIS PENIS
David, whom legend says was a teenager at the time of his monolithic battle against Goliath, is said to have lived around 1000 BCE. This definitely puts him in the timeframe of the older cutting of Brit Mil’ah, which removed only the part of the foreskin that extended past the glans. While this is still a human rights’ violation of a person’s genital autonomy, at least the boy still retained the majority of his foreskin, including the foreskin anatomy that was purposefully fused to the glans as well as the highly innervated internal foreskin which is the most nerve-rich and erogenous area of a man’s body.
Ritual cutting was a cultural and religious practice for some tribes in the ancient world, but circumcision was never a universal practice, not even amongst Jewish men. Adam was never circumcised; Abraham wasn’t cut, nor was Moses; neither was Jacob’s son Joseph (and he still got his amazing technicolor dreamcoat). This means there is indeed a chance that David – shepherd, musician, and third king of the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah – might not have been circumcised either, which means there’s no reason to think his famous statue sports a cut penis.
After seeing the identical replica statue in person – and I saw him much more close-up than you can get to the original statue in Italy, I think David is intact. Michelangelo was a Renaissance artist who adored the Classical era of Greece and Rome, and the Greeks and Romans loved foreskin. Michelangelo was a realist artist who wanted to portray the naturalism of exactly what he saw; and Michelangelo, his models, and his lovers almost assuredly had their foreskin intact. Therefore, I say the iconic Statue of David, the ultimate symbol of male beauty and masculinity, is indeed an INTACT man as he was born to be.
Long live foreskin!