For better or worse, history often paints its major players in ways that bear little resemblance to reality. Do any of us truly know what famous historical figures looked like? Was Napoleon really short? Was Anne Boleyn the beautiful seductress?
As historical retellings warp and change like a centuries-long game of telephone, firsthand descriptions by their contemporaries provide us with an understanding of how these famous figures appeared to their peers. Descriptive writings provide what portraits sometimes cannot. Maybe, like in the case of Charlemagne, there was no one in his time who developed their artistic abilities to perfectly recreate the human figure, or in the case of many kings and queens, their looks were enhanced in artworks they commissioned.
Not only do these firsthand descriptions give insight into how a person looked, but they also provide an understanding of the person's personality and stature.
History may have cast the ill-fated second wife of King Henry VIII as a stunning temptress, but the diary of a Venetian ambassador tells a different story:
Not one of the handsomest women in the world; she is of middling stature, swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, bosom not much raised... eyes, which are black and beautiful.
Descended from a long line of Habsburgs, Charles II of Spain suffered a plethora of physical defects due to inbreeding. When he was born, his father Phillip IV was concerned over rumors that his child was a girl rather than a male heir. To fend off any rumors, he allowed ambassadors from neighboring states to come see the young prince, one of whom was French Lord Jacques Sanguin. Though he was pleased to see the child was a boy, he wrote in his report back to Louis XIV:
The prince seems extremely weak, both cheeks have a herpes-type rash, the head is covered with scabs, and below the right ear a type of suppurating duct or drainage has formed. We have heard of this through other channels as the bonnet the child usually wears prevents seeing this area.
His physical illness continued throughout his life and he was even given the nickname "the bewitched king" as many believed his defects arose because he was a target of witchcraft. In the final years of his life his condition grew progressively worse. French ambassador Marquis d'Harcourt wrote to Louis XIV, "He is so weak that he can not be out of bed for more than one or two hours... he must always be aided when getting into or out of his carriage... he has swollen feet, legs, abdomen, face and sometimes even his tongue so that he can not speak.”
Lorenzo’s contemporary biographer Niccolo Valori described the Italian statesman and patron of Renaissance culture:
Above the common stature, broad-shouldered and solidly built, robust, and second to none in agility. Although nature had been a step-mother to him with regard to personal appearance, she acted as a loving mother to him in all things connected with the mind. His complexion was dark, and although his face was not handsome it was so full of dignity as to compel respect. He was short-sighted, his nose was flattened and he had no sense of smell.
Upon his arrival to the Institut National in 1798, philosopher and diplomat Alexander Wilhelm von Humboldt had this to say about the military genius and first emperor of France:
He is small and lean, has a small head, and it seemed to me for such a figure his hands were small and delicate. His face is more oval than round and very spare. His hair is brown and thin. His forehead, as far as I could see from the hair over it, is flatter than it is prominent, and the arch of his eyebrows is strong, marked and well curved, such that his forehead protrudes above his nose. His eyes are large, deep-set and finely contoured, his nose curved, but not hooked, though it is cleanly and strongly contoured. His mouth and chin are very masculine, strong, and his chin is especially strong and roundly contoured. His hair was in a pigtail and powdered.