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“Why do all old statues have such small penises?” (NSFW)

'David'_by_Michelangelo_JBU10

Close-up of Michelangelo’s David

Reader question: “Why do all old statues have such small penises?”

The reader who sent me this felt that it was a question that was maybe too silly for my blog, but – firstly – there are no questions too silly for this blog, and – secondly – the answer to this question is actually pretty interesting.

By “old statues”, I assume that we’re talking about ancient Greek and Roman statues. We’ll focus on ancient Greek statues, as they heavily influenced all other small-penised European sculptures.

Laocoön and His Sons, Greek sculpture, Vatican Museum

Laocoön and His Sons, Greek sculpture, Vatican Museum

There are two main reasons why ancient Greek statues have small penises:

Firstly, they’re flaccid. If you compare their size to most flaccid male penises, they are actually not significantly smaller than real-life penises tend to be.

Secondly, cultural values about male beauty were completely different back then. Today, big penises are seen as valuable and manly, but back then, most evidence points to the fact that small penises were considered better than big ones.

Greek bronze, The Victorious Youth, J. Paul Getty Museum

Greek bronze, The Victorious Youth, J. Paul Getty Museum

One of the reasons historians, such as Kenneth Dover in his landmark book Greek Homosexuality, have suggested that small penises were more culturally valued is that large penises were associated with very specific characteristics: foolishness, lust and ugliness. There are actually quite a few ancient Greek sculptures that have enormous penises. Here’s one:

Statue of a satyr, Athens Archeological Museum

Greek statue of a satyr, Athens Archeological Museum

Here’s another:

A Greek Terracotta figure of Priapus, ©Christie's 2015, http://www.christies.com/LotFinder/lot_details.aspx?intObjectID=1403973

A Greek Terracotta figure of Priapus, ©Christie’s 2015, http://www.christies.com/LotFinder/lot_details.aspx?intObjectID=1403973

The first sculpture is of a satyr, and the second is of the Greek god Priapus. Satyrs were mythological creatures that were followers of Dionysus, the god of pleasure and wine. Priapus was a Greek fertility god cursed with a permanent erection, impotence, ugliness and foul-mindedness by Hera. Priapus was actually so despised by the other gods that he was thrown off Mount Olympus.

All representations of large penises in ancient Greek art and literature are associated with foolish, lustful men, or the animal-like satyrs. Meanwhile, the ideal Greek man was rational, intellectual and authoritative. He may still have had a lot of sex, but this was unrelated to his penis size, and his small penis allowed him to remain coolly logical.

Artemision bronze, thought to be Poseidon or Zeus, in Athens Archeological Museum.

Greek bronze, thought to be Poseidon or Zeus, Athens Archeological Museum.

The Greek playwright Aristophanes summarises this attitude in one of his plays, Clouds, where he writes:

“If you do these things I tell you, and bend your efforts to them, you will always have a shining breast, a bright skin, big shoulders, a minute tongue, a big rump and a small prick. But if you follow the practices of today, for a start you’ll have a pale skin, small shoulders, a skinny chest, a big tongue, a small rump, a big prick and a long-winded decree.” (Lines 1010 – 1019, emphasis mine)

Ancient Greek sculptures are all about balance and idealism. Therefore, it makes sense that they wouldn’t have large penises, as this would be considered humorous or grotesque.

The ancient Romans might have been more positive towards large penises, but their sculptures continue the trend of small penises. Later, in Renaissance art, sculptors were likewise specifically influenced by ancient Greek art and their small penis size.

A famous example of a small penis is Michelangelo’s David (1501 – 04), a Renaissance sculpture from Florence, Italy. There’s an interesting theory for why David’s penis is so small, apart from the Greek influence. In 2005, two Florentine doctors published a paper arguing that David’s penis was shriveled by fear. When viewed from the front, David’s face actually looks frightened and concerned, because of his impending fight with the giant Goliath. The doctors argue that Michelangelo sculpted every detail in David’s body to be consistent with symptoms of fear and tension – including his genitals.

Michelangelo's David in the Galleria dell'Accademia

Michelangelo’s David in the Galleria dell’Accademia, Italy

Classical Greek sculpture has been hugely influential for all sculptural representations of the male body in European art, so it’s no wonder that small-penised statues have been the norm throughout most of Western art history. It also shows that our obsession with penis size has always been there, it’s just changed slightly.

Interested in more genitalia in art history? Check out my post on hairless vulvas in art! Or, for a slightly different take, have a look at the history of STDs in art.

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59 Comments

  1. Pernille

    I have another thesis: the artist was of course using the most famous models of his time, the “pop stars”, the athletes, the rich and famous. But when he invited a girl to his place on a Saturday evening, he would point to his artwork and tell her: “look, this is an exact reply of mr famous, and look at how small his… now, Mine, however…” and he would then show her his tool, and it would seem better and brighter by comparison. So, it was simply a ruse to get the girls 😀

  2. Jason

    love the blog!! Wondering why is it that countries use specific colours? Was is that they could make other colours with their resources or maybe they just don’t know what the colour blue or green is where you can’t see the ocean or forests

  3. Everything you said makes sense, but I would just like to add another possibility: the temperature in the sculpture studio was comfortable for the sculptor (who was presumably clothed, and doing physical work as well), not the model (who was unclothed and not moving much). Those statues which were made realistically (as, for example, the satyrs were not), were making a realistic depiction of a guy who was cold.

    • J

      Yes, because in ancient Greece, if the sculptor worked up a sweat, they could just bebop right over to the thermostat and adjust the temperature setting on their air conditioning down a degree or two.

    • demonios

      It was more like a defiance to sexual desires, one was must supposed to be in serenity to be beautiful

  4. vb

    Wonder if any amount of the “small” perception comes from circumcised (male) observers? With foreskin, a flaccid penis retracts most of the way into the body–resting on the scrotum forming a silhouette reminiscent of a fig. Circumcised penises, however, often do not retract as much (or at all) when flaccid and–aside from the angle to the body–appear relatively similar to when erect. Circumcision is prevalent in the US, but all of the “old statues” appear to have foreskins.

    • claireismobile

      I disagree. Men are either growers or showers and I’ve known men cut and intact to be either.

      • James

        Claire, I’m with you! I’m pretty sure the presence or lack of a foreskin does not have a significant impact on how much a man’s penis grows when erect.

  5. Tortützen

    Another reason: Small penises are less likely to break off. Anything that protrudes too much (think big noses) is likely to break off. And a small penis is probably better than no penis, I guess.

  6. Also stone is cold! 🙂 … All good points, but also archeologists and curators self selected items that could be shown or partially covered in museum collections. But the ‘grotesque’ point above is the best. Pompeii has many ‘grotesque’ images and the flying penis was a common fertility statue at one time. I think the classic images of David and their inspiration (the ancient Laocoon) are striving for balance, subtly and a move away from base instincts toward a more lofty aspiration. There is a maturity here that is silly misunderstood today. Too much enmphasis and the viewer misses the bigger picture, too little and that itself becomes a question. I think they wanted balance but without prissiness and prudishness….it’s a sex organ, we have them, move on.

    • Chris

      The Laocoon Group significantly affected Michelangelo’s later work, but it hadn’t been unearthed yet at the time he sculpted his David. It was discovered about two years after he finished work on David.

  7. Lou Siew Hei

    Do you have any idea about the pubic hair? Some sculptures are without pubic hair, while others, like David from Renaissance period, have pubic hair like they have been groomed purposely. Did men back then really had their pubic shaped that way?

    • Hi! You can read my post on female pubic hair in art history here which might be of interest. Maybe in the future I’ll do a similar one for penises! As for why; it’s just really hard to say. What we do know is that many male sculptures during the Ancient Greek era did in fact have pubic hair as well.

  8. claireismobile

    As a tall woman I can see why they would see it this way around. Men I’ve been with who are big react differently to me than other men because they’re used to holding back with other women. They find their size is a hindrance usually. Smaller men fit most women better and don’t get held back by their size during sex.

  9. And now I know the origin of the word priapism! #BiologyGeek

  10. Joe Dragyn

    So what about the story that penises were sculpted larger (it was still a sign of virility) but in the Victorian era, many were sculpted down? Is that a myth?

    • I haven’t heard this story before so unfortunately I can’t verify it. However, apparently, there are many instances where penises are actually missing (or have fig leaves places over them). This is the case, for example, in the Vatican. This practice probably started much earlier than the Victorian era though, more likely around the 1500s!

      • The cast of David in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London has a figleaf to go with it, now kept in a case behind the statue. Apparently the leaf was hung on the statue whenever any female member of the royal family came to view the cast.

        (I think, but am not sure, that the figleaf is elsewhere at the moment, possibly in the underwear exhibition in the V and A.)

  11. ritadyan

    Something that has always bothered me about the David statue is how HUGE his down-stretched hand is compared to the other one and to the general proportion of the body. Taking into consideration that possibly looking at the hand first, the perspective would be somewhat larger, but this hand is just huge. Have to wonder if hand done first, and then rest of body, and then hand could not be easily scaled down to match. Has anyone else ever noticed this discrepancy in the statue? And yes, with that magnificent build, always regretted David did not have larger equipment, lol.

    • Yeah, this is something that a lot of people have noticed, especially because Michelangelo is otherwise so accurate when it comes to his anatomy. One theory is that, since the David statue was originally supposed to be placed on the roof of the Florence Cathedral, it was meant to be seen from a lower angle. Michelangelo could therefore have made certain parts of David’s body larger (such as his hands and head) so that it would look normal from below.

      • ritadyan

        Thanks! Did not know that! Learn something new every day. Love this thread and your page.

    • Caesura

      David was sculpted deliberately misproportioned because he was meant to be viewed in person, by someone standing on the ground. He is about 17 feet tall in person, and was originally intended to be placed on the roofline of a cathedral. If he was perfectly proportioned to real life measurements, his head would look like a pinhead in person and his hands wouldn’t be very visible to people standing on the ground. When we see it in photographs where the photographer isn’t constrained by the intended viewing angles, those become obvious and look like mistakes, when they aren’t.

    • Huh. Michelangelo’s David has hands. Learn something new every day.

  12. Modesto Briseno

    Think about this for a moment. It’s obvious. It was to protect the artwork from being climbed upon!

  13. donnyT

    My only issue with the statue of David is, it was sculpted with the intent of being positioned high up. meaning one was to look up at it. This is why the proportions are off when you look directly at it. But when you look up at David, he looks perfect.This was something I learned in Art History.

  14. Great article. Though, regarding the Priapus description; how can you be cursed with both a permanent erection and impotence?

    • It’s a little strange – however, various stories suggest that Hera cursed him with impotence while he was still in the womb, and because he had such a lustful nature he was very frustrated by his impotence (trying to rape someone, for example, but failing to do so). It could be that his permanent erect penis was more of a symbol of his lust than a scientifically accurate condition, allowing both negative aspects to exist for him at once.

    • Jonathon- that is the curse. A permanent erection. And impotence- meaning you can have all the sex you want but it will never lead to procreation. If procreation was the assumed goal of sex- impotence is the curse.

  15. Reblogged this on History Chick in AZ and commented:
    I think you’ll find this post from the blog “How to Talk About Art History” fun and interesting. Enjoy!

  16. Christopher Dodwell

    Penises were sculpted to a size that didn’t distract from the overall proportional aesthetic. The eye would be drawn to the penis first if it were larger and disrupt the harmony.

    • Excellent answer and Educated fact regarding the aesthetic/ ideal of Man in Art, and Women also, whatever Art’s period, decade, movement or century (and artist too for that matter). Too, including the social class level, usually the very wealthy, learnèd and importantly approving audiences rather than the lesser, ‘commoners’ of the general public, make and contribute, for an aesthetic and ‘ideal’ as expressed/practiced via Art. Eroticism has its time and place, for the civilized or uncivilized, and thus so do visually artistic ideals of decency in those times/places also. Besides, to this subject, it can be applied, that certainly as it’s common knowledge, that ‘less is more’ and ‘bigger is not always better’. This is ‘high’, ‘classical’ Artist we’re talking about. Good responses, all and interesting. Thanks for this blog!

  17. Luc Leclerc

    The first reason for this is that when an man works out, his penis shrinks because the most of the blood of his body his feeding his muscles and brain… the spongy tissue of the penis is totaly drained of it untill it get stimulated… and ancient models where athletes praticing all day… At the time, a large penis wasn’t a sign of virility but of laziness…

  18. Kelev

    You allude to but leave out one of other main factors influencing the aesthetics which is actually the main point of the Dover work you reference: the fact that the ideal male beauty was that of a young boy. The Greek homosexuality that Dover details in his book on the subject is centered around pederasty and the tradition of Greek men to have boy lovers from the upper classes who they were obligated to school, support, and romance. The art they created commemorating and referencing this tradition reflected this ideal of young, male beauty. Germaine Greer goes into great detail about this in her book on the subject and how that romantic tradition and aesthetic convention influenced art into today. As for David, again he was intended to be an adolescent, not an adult (as the model for the statue would have been, as well). That’s why his hands and feet were made disproportionately large, to convey that adolescent gangliness and hint at the growth spurt that often starts in the limbs.

  19. vincent costa

    A theory I have is that sculpting in marble (or other materials) is a reductive process. The more one works on it the smaller it gets. The artist will enjoy working more on parts that have sexual interest and ‘polish’ them more. This might not be as true when modeling with clay, however. Still the polishing would result in decreased mass and adding clay can not be done easily in the later stages of modeling.

  20. Mark Kuprych

    Regardless of why ancient depictions of penises were small, I think the more important point is that we need more discussion and photos on the subject. Ha! This has to be more important than index funds.

  21. schlafcat

    While we’re on the subject, and since Michelangelo’s David is one of the examples:
    Why isn’t David circumcised?

    • claireismobile

      Who says he isn’t?

      The amputation of the foreskin that Americans do is a modern phenomenon, whilst it’s dangerous to do in America there’s no way it would be safe to do in ancient Israel.

      Jewish circumcision was a cut to let blood. In Roman times men would pull their foreskin down to hide their scar because Jewish men were not allowed to take part in the Olympics which were performed naked.

      • PhoCo

        As a male who was ritually circumcised in the prescribed religious manner, without medication, medical tools (they use a ritual knife sharper than a scalpel) or any such ‘modern’ things, I’m so glad you know what’s not possible without modern marvels.

      • claireismobile

        There is a big difference between modern amputation and religious circumcision.

        With just a little bit of Judaism in my family (my side, and my husband being from Russian Jewish refugees) I’ve seen my fair share of them from the religious to more extensive cutting. Considering how many boys are injured, castrated or die each year because of this total amputation, when done in a sterile hospital, how would desert dwellers have kept their babies clean had they been doing that?

    • That question has been debated extensively, as googling will reveal. Here is a serious article on that and comparable questions.

      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1279184/

  22. Stephen A.

    Priapus, of course, is the name from which we get the medical condition “Priapism,” that 4-hour erectile condition that the drug ads warn us is so dangerous (and of course it can be.) And that statue with the large penis reminds one of the fertility festivals in which statutes like this were paraded around the streets in the ancient world as symbols of a good upcoming harvest. So to speak. Great article. I got a rise out of it.

  23. Actually, I was well aware of a lot of this but never have seen it actually spelled out before. Good job!

  24. R

    Hahahahaha… I’ve asked myself that once hahahaha..

    Great info! 😉

  25. Chris fenton

    And there made out of cold stone which won’t help

  26. Wonderful article! I learned something AND giggled a bit. Penis. Hehe.

  27. Perhaps the ancient association between having a large penis and being an obnoxious jerk survives in vulgar slang, as when we call somebody a “prick” in English or a “putz” in Yiddish.

  28. MC P

    The Priapus statue looks like it could’ve been used as a beer tap for a tavern of some sort.

  29. Chris

    As indicated in the comments, the primary reason that the penis of Michelangelo’s David is relatively small for a healthy man of 17 feet in height is that it was commissioned and executed to adorn a niche of the Cathedral (Santa Maria del Fiore). The Laocoon Group sculpture significantly influenced Michelangelo later work, but it wasn’t unearthed until at least two years after Michelangelo finished his David, so it had no influence there. As a secondary reason, second to the fact that it was produced as religious art, my own theory is that the genitals of this David reflect those of the young quarryman, whose name is now lost to history, who modeled for Michelangelo in the production of this work.

    A third reason, aside from the obvious influence of ancient sculpture, is that Michelangelo had certainly seen Donatello’s bronze David, which stood in the courtyard of the Palazzo Medici at the time, having been cast about 50 years earlier. That was the first fully nude sculpture produced since antiquity, and it caused quite a stir among artists as well as others who viewed it. Although Michelangelo departed from every other detail offered by Donatello’s interpretation (other than that the figures are at rest and not in motion), the delicately small penis of Donatello’s David may have influenced Michelangelo.

    There’s a reason not mentioned in your posting or the earlier comments that the Greeks prized the look of a small tapered penis, but it had to do with a series of misunderstanding that the Greeks had about biology and fertilization. That may be the ultimate origin of this. Small penises were believed to offer the shortest distance for semen to travel to the point of fertilization, and men with the smallest organs were therefore more fertile.

    You indicate that the “ancient Romans might have been more positive toward large penises…”; however, that is certainly the case. The Romans did copy not just the style of Greek art, arguably the best of which had been produced a few hundred years before Rome’s conquest of Greece, but they continued to have Attic artists copy the statues themselves in large numbers for shipment west, often changing only minor details such as hairstyles. As far as the penis size preferences of ancient Romans, they’re clearly close to those of the US and much of Western Europe today. The Romans covered the interiors of their homes and businesses with paintings of nude scenes and carved phalluses (such as the handles of oil lamps), much in the way we might today hang pictures of fruit or flowers, or keep a bowl of plastic fruit on a table.

    With Roman bath culture and people of all classes spending hours per day at the baths, in some places and at some times with men and women together nude in groups of hundreds, regular everyday people left behind a great deal of graffiti carved and inked in to the walls, and they definitely prized larger penises. In Greece, women and men were strictly separated in the baths, and that was not the case at all during the Roman period, or much of it anyway.

    Roman women not only had access to knowledge of how potential lovers or prospective arranged-marriage partners were endowed (they could visit the baths for themselves or send a servant to report back), but they had substantial agency and authority that the women of ancient Greece did not. The women of ancient Greece had almost no standing in society and no ability to conduct their affairs independent of men, regardless of social class. A marriage to arranged to a man with an “ideal” Greek penis was to be accepted. Free and noble Roman women didn’t have full say in marriage arrangements, nor a dating culture like today’s, but they had far more ways of exercising a preference, including for a sexual partner’s penis size.

  30. Roger

    I love how the author gave a clear, researched, accurate answer and a bunch of assholes had to chime in with their 2 cents, although they had no educated reason for any of their BS ideas.

  31. Informative, interesting and concise. Thanks.

  32. John Hand

    When discussing the relatively small size of the David penis, remember, he was still a boy when he fought Goliath and not yet a man.

  33. AshiusX

    Well, this was an interesting piece of information. It makes a lot of sense when you think about it. It seems the Ancient Greeks were about downplaying the ”animalistic side” of mankind at times.

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