The toes of Botticelli's Venus.
The toes of Botticelli’s Venus. Public Domain

With her fleshy buttocks and small, rounded breasts, Venus—de Milo, de Medici, and Botticelli’s version—epitomizes the idealized female form found in Classical, Hellenistic, and Neoclassical Art as well as art made during the Renaissance. For 2,000 years she has been a ubiquitous figure in the canon of Western art, yet despite art historians poring over nearly every inch of her curves, a few small parts of her body have been sorely neglected: her second toes, which stick out like sore thumbs past her shorter big toes.

If it seems ridiculous to contemplate a couple of oddly aligned long toes, it’s worth wondering why so many artists in ancient Greece sculpted them to have uneven proportions in the first place. The magnificent bronze sculpture of the Boxer at Rest and the marble Diana of Versailles, which is a Roman copy of the Greek original, each has them, as does the Barberini Faun, a masterpiece most often recognized for the satyr’s seductive pose and brazenly exposed genitalia than for his long second toes.

Long second toes on display in an ancient Greek sculpture, <em>Laocoön and his sons</em>.
Long second toes on display in an ancient Greek sculpture, Laocoön and his sons. Public Domain

A couple thousand years earlier, artists in ancient Egypt sculpted toes that tapered gracefully down in size from the big toe to the pinky. Much like the Great Pyramids, where everything was measured and precise, even these small body parts appear—at least to our modern eyes—harmonious and evenly spaced.

While styles change over time, depicting a longer second toe as the ideal in Classical art might not have been a fluke, and in fact, the phenomenon may have been due to the interest of the Golden Ratio by mathematicians in ancient Greece. The Golden Ratio, which appears in geometric patterns in nature such as some of the spirals in seashells and in leaves, was also used by engineers in ancient Egypt, but the first written account of it was by the Greek mathematician, Euclid, and it was during the Classical era when it gained popularity among people within many professions. Later, the proportions Euclid described, which were often considered both divine in their provenance and also aesthetically pleasing, may have inspired the Roman engineer Marcus Vitruvius Pollio to write about what he considered to be the perfect proportions of humans in his book, The Departments of Architecture:

Just so the parts of Temples should correspond with each other, and with the whole. The navel is naturally placed in the centre of the human body, and, if in a man lying with his face upward, and his hands and feet extended, from his navel as the centre, a circle be described, it will touch his fingers and toes. It is not alone by a circle, that the human body is thus circumscribed, as may be seen by placing it within a square. For measuring from the feet to the crown of the head, and then across the arms fully extended, we find the latter measure equal to the former; so that lines at right angles to each other, enclosing the figure, will form a square.

Although Vitruvius didn’t discuss which fingers and toes are the ones that would touch the circle or the square, 1,500 years later, Leonardo da Vinci drew his famous Vitruvian Man—whose long second toes align perfectly with the circle drawn around him. Some art historians believe da Vinci was inspired by the Golden Ratio, but others have demonstrated that while the numbers are very close, the equations don’t exactly match.

Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man.
Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Public Domain

At the beginning of the 20th century, an American orthopedic surgeon named Dudley Morton named the phenomenon of having a longer second toe “Morton’s Toe.” Morton believed that this toe, which he also called Metatarsus atavicus, was an atavism similar to color blindness, human tails, and supernumerary nipples, and that it recalled a trait our pre-human ancestors once expressed so that they could more easily swing from trees.

While swinging from trees might sound delightful, Morton’s Toe can cause a slew of uncomfortable orthopedic problems such as bunions and hammertoes. Some medical professionals such as John F. Kennedy’s personal physician, Dr. Janet Travell, have posited that the odd long toes could also cause Myofascial (chronic) pain due to body weight being shifted to the ball of the foot rather than directly behind the sturdy big toe.

An x-ray showing Morton's Toe.
An x-ray showing Morton’s Toe. Cjottawa/CC BY-SA 3.0

Between 15 to 20 percent of humans have Morton’s Toe. Although the name of the toe refers to the second toe of the foot, it would be more accurate to call the condition Morton’s foot, as the problem is caused by the first metatarsal bone in the foot, not the toe, being shorter than its neighbor.

Today the toe—and the foot it belongs to—is often called a “Greek foot” by art historians and podiatrists. No matter what it’s called, people who share the atavism can head to many museums around the world to find ancient doppelgängers with the same feet. While it set the standard for idealized feet in many periods of Western art, hopefully podiatrists recommended corrective shoes or pads to provide some relief for the models.