Pollice Verso [Thumbs Down], 1872
Oil on canvas, 38 x 58.74 inches [96.5 x 149.2 cm]
Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix
The misunderstanding regarding the thumbs-up, thumbs-down gestures and ancient Rome began with a 19th-century French artist named Jean Leon Gerome and his painting Pollice verso. Gerome isn't a household word today, but he was a painter of international renown in his time, the leading academic artist of the period. Gerome was also a learned classicist who specialized in archaeologically correct history paintings. The Latin textbooks of our youth used to use Gerome's Pollice Verso [Thumbs Down] to illustrate Roman customs. His Pollice verso, in which a gladiator stands astride a fallen foe and looks up to the Colosseum's bleachers for the crowd's verdict, was a tremendous hit back in 1874, and called forth considerable scholarly debate on whether the thumbs up and down he painted amidst the crowd were the correct interpretation of the Latin phrase pollice verso, "with turned thumb." Alexander Stewart bought the painting from Gerome, brought it to America, and published a pamphlet about the work in which he proved to the satisfaction of his contemporaries that pollice verso was a matter of turning the thumb up or down. Gerome's artistic reputation went into eclipse after his death, but his gladiator paintings had considerable influence on early Hollywood's epics about pagan Rome, and that's how we got our current interpretation of thumbs up and thumbs down.