Making the Fig and Other Artistic Insults
An Eye for an Eye, a Fig for a Fig
Even noble literary figures need to blow off steam. Shakespeare’s Capulets and Montagues deliver the shocking, duel-provoking insult of thumb-biting. Only a duel could avenge such a slur on one’s honor.
Sampson: I will bite my thumb at them, which is disgrace to them if they bear it.
Abram: Do you bite your thumb at us, Sir?’
Romeo and Juliet. Act I. Scene I.
Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy contains another impish affront,“Making the Fig.” This slur involves thrusting out the thumb between the first and second fingers to express anger or disdain.
In Dante’s Inferno, Vanni Fucci, a thief convicted of stealing from the Church of San Zeno, “raises his hands, points in mockery, and cries, ‘Take them, God.’” (Canto XXV)
The next time you are in Rome look very carefully on the Sistine Ceiling, at the putto behind the Cumaean Sybil, the one with his arm around his friend.
Is he making the fig?
To whom could Michelangelo’s gesture be addressed? Could it be a protest against the censorship of the Counter Reformation? Against those who “for decency’s sake” insisted on covering Michelangelo’s exquisite marble statutes with drapery and fig-leaves…
An eye for an eye, a fig for a fig?