Crumbling busts and centuries-old portraits are usually the best glimpses we get of historical figures, but what if we told you that you could see these greats in the flesh? Graphic designer Becca Saladin has created a stunning project called Royalty Now that crafts breathtaking images of what history's heroes and villains would have looked like today. You'll never see the past the same way again.
1. Marie Antoinette
Though she's known for living an excessive and materialistic lifestyle while her subjects struggled to survive, this French queen wasn't anywhere near as corrupt as her critics made her out to be. But that didn't matter to the guillotine. Following the overthrow of the French government, Marie Antoinette was beheaded at 37 years old, as ordered by the Revolutionary Tribunal.
"Marie Antoinette is one of my all-time favorite subjects," artist Becca Saladin wrote on her blog. She revealed, "I wanted to create some in-her-own-time images that use more of her real-life appearance rather than the stylized version." You can see her work on her YouTube channel, Royalty Now Studios.
2. Julius Caesar
A celebrated general in the Roman military, Julius Caesar was elected as the Consul of Rome in 59 BC. While initially a popular ruler, his thirst for power led to the demise of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire. No longer able to withstand his tyrannical rule, dozens of Roman senators stabbed him to death in 44 BC.
Despite this horrible end, though, Julius Caesar has lasted long in the public's imagination. Artist Becca Saladin also noted on her Instagram that this rendering "has been a fan favorite for some time."
Believed to have lived from 1370 BC until approximately 1330 BC, Nefertiti was an Egyptian Queen and the Great Royal Wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten. Together, this royal couple became famous for their religious revolution. They attempted to shift Egypt from its polytheistic practices to the monotheistic worship of the sun god, Aten.
"I wanted to make both past and modern versions of the stunning queen from the front view of the bust which I haven’t done before," Saladin revealed on her blog.
4. Alexander The Great
Widely recognized as one of the greatest military leaders in history, Alexander the Great became the King of Macedonia in 336 BC after his father was assassinated. Despite being just 20 years old at the time of his coronation, Alexander became an exemplary commander, conquering Persia and Egypt to create the largest empire the ancient world had ever seen.
"It's definitely safe to assume there is some stylization going on with images of Alexander, considering his huge reputation and penchant for depicting himself as god-like," Saladin said on her blog. But she tried to bring something real to her recreation.
5. Cleopatra VII
The last active ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, Cleopatra has long fascinated historians and the general public alike. But, as crazy as it sounds, the way some people view Cleopatra has likely been highly influenced by the legendary Elizabeth Taylor movie Cleopatra.
"I chose to base my recreation off of the Berlin Bust of Cleopatra, which was thought to have been created around 46-44 BCE," Saladin said. "I chose this bust because most of the depictions of her include common features — a strong nose, full lips, and a small chin."
6. Shaka Zulu
Shaka Zulu was the King of the Zulu Kingdom in Southern Africa from 1816 until 1828. As a result of his many militaristic reforms and ingenious war tactics (particularly the "Bull horn" formation), Shaka Zulu was responsible for transforming the Zulu military into a formidable fighting force.
Saladin said that many of her followers had requested a recreation of Shaka Zulu — but she had been hesitant. The reason? "This statue is the only good depiction I found to work from, but wasn’t sculpted from life," she said, adding, "There are drawings and depictions of him (none contemporary that I know of)."
7. Louis XIV
The King of France for 72 years, Louis XIV was once the longest-reigning known European sovereign in history. While France was weakened by several wars near the end of his reign, Louis XIV was celebrated for bringing his country into a golden era of art and literature.
"Louis was focused more on projecting a mythical image of himself rather than reality (which is similar to most kings and queens throughout the ages)," Saladin said. "Who knows how close the original portrait I worked from even resembles the king, but it’s a fun exercise nonetheless."
Born around 1596, Pocahontas was a Native American woman most widely known for her association with the colonial settlement of Jamestown. Many pop culture depictions have fictionalized her life, though. In reality, she was the daughter of the Chief Powhatan who ended up marrying tobacco planter John Rolfe in 1614 and dying at age 21 after visiting England.
"The representation I’ve worked from here is a painted copy of an original engraving — the only portrait made of Pocahontas during her lifetime," Saladin revealed on her blog, adding, "The portrait was made by an English artist, hence why she looks so Anglicized."
Originally known as Amenhotep IV, Akhenaten was Pharaoh from approximately 1353-1336 BC. The husband of Nefertiti, Akhenaten was ultimately unsuccessful in his attempt to shift Egypt to the monotheistic worship of Aten, the sun god.
"The art of the Amarna period deviated drastically from the previous art style — it was much less formal and full of curvier, more realistic portrayals of the rulers, which is why we have such beautiful portraits of both Akhenaten and Nefertiti," Saladin said.
10. Queen Mother Idia
Idia was the mother of Esigie, the Oba (ruler) of Benin from 1504 until 1540. Hailing from what is now the modern-day Edo State in Nigeria, Idia was described as being a fearless warrior who groomed her son to become an effective ruler in his own right.
According to Saladin, "So many traditional African portraits are very stylized as that was the preferred method of depicting rulers... which makes them incredibly difficult to work from in terms of creating a realistic likeness. I had some wonderful followers of the Benin/Edo culture help me out on the styling with this one."
11. Genghis Khan
Genghis Khan was responsible for millions of deaths — but was nevertheless one of the most effective rulers in human history. The founder of the Mongol Empire, the Khan's kingdom stretched from Poland in the west to the Levant and China in the east.
"This is the only portrait of Genghis Khan that was supervised by someone who knew what he looked like - his grandson Khubilai Khan," Saladin revealed on Facebook. "There are no contemporary portraits of the great Khan."
12. Mary I Of England
Also known as "Mary Tudor," Mary I was Queen of England and Ireland from July 1553 until her death in 1558. This determined ruler is most prominently remembered for overturning the English Reformation of the Church... even though that change was undone after she died.
Saladin described her portrait of Mary I as "one of the first of these I ever created." She added, "If you look through my other Tudor portraits, it’s easy to see some resemblance between the members of this family!"
The third Roman Emperor, Caligula's rule spanned just four years, from 37-41 AD. Despite being the son of a great military leader, Caligula was an incompetent ruler. After infuriating his subjects with his selfishness and lack of leadership, Caligula was the first-ever Roman emperor to be assassinated, stabbed to death by his own guards.
Saladin described Caligula as the "infamous brat and Roman Emperor" — and that seems pretty accurate! The artist has also recreated a portrait of Agrippina the Younger, "the ruthless sister of Caligula and the mother of Nero."
14. Eleanor of Toledo
Born in Toledo, Spain in 1522, Eleanor of Toledano was married to Cosimo I de Medici, the son of an Italian clan famous for their banking and political exploits. Eleanor too was a keen businesswoman, financing many of her husband's political campaigns and even serving as regent of Florence during his absence.
Saladin has noted that Eleanor "lived before the time of realistic portraits" and only "romantic images" of her have grown popular. So the artist used the effigy on Eleanor's tomb to "create an artistic interpretation of her, based on several of these images of her."
15. Shah Jahan
Shah Jahan, born in Lahore in 1592, was the fifth Emperor of the Mughal Empire. On top of being a strong military leader, Shah Jahan was most celebrated for being an outstanding architect. He most notably commissioned the construction of the Taj Mahal in 1632.
"I wanted to try something I’ve never tried before on this version of Shah Jahan," Saladin said on her blog. "Instead of creating this portrait purely from the profile view, I tried to kind of extrapolate his features onto a more revealing angle."
16. Caesar Augustus
The great-nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar, Augustus was officially the first Emperor of the newly-formed Roman Empire. A controversial figure due to his ruthless leadership, Augustus was a tactical genius who laid down the groundwork for the 200-year Pax Romana (Roman Peace).
"There are dozens of statues of Augustus that were created during his lifetime, and they all share very similar features, so it’s quite easy to imagine his facial structure," Saladin revealed.
17. Simón Bolívar
Born in Caracas, Venezuela in 1783, Simón Bolívar was the military leader who led the nations of Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Panama to independence from the Spanish Empire in the early 1800s. Today, he continues to be widely revered as a hero of the people, particularly in the Latin American world.
"Simón Bolívar has been one of my most requested works, right up there with Cleopatra and Mary, Queen of Scots. So glad I finally got around to researching and creating his portrait," Saladin said on her blog.
18. Mona Lisa
Recognize that famous smile? Since being painted by Leonardo da Vinci, the Mona Lisa has become arguably the world's most famous painting. It is widely believed that the subject of this painting is Lisa del Giocondo, an Italian noblewoman and a member of the famous Gherardini family.
This was actually artist Becca Saladin's second attempt at rendering the subject of the Mona Lisa. She said she had been "itching to redo" her first effort and that she liked "this new version of Mona Lisa as a modern-day Italian woman."
19. Suleiman The Magnificent
Suleiman I was the longest-reigning Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, ruling from 1520 until his death in 1566. During his reign, the Ottoman Empire grew to include over 25 million people across the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe.
"This is my first portrait from a profile view which I actually enjoyed a lot," said Saladin. "The best portraits of many Ottoman sultans use this style instead of the typical three-quarters portrait we see in Europe."
20. Henry VIII
The King of England from 1509 until 1547, Henry VIII was best known for his six marriages that tested the power of his throne. In addition to starting the English Reformation, Henry VII also became known as "the father of the Royal Navy," due to greatly expanding the English fleet.
"I never thought I would spend so much time in my life trying to figure out *exactly* how bald King Henry VIII was in his 40s, but here we are," Saladin joked.
21. Catherine Howard
Catherine Howard became Henry VIII's fifth wife just 19 days after his marriage to Anne of Cleves ended. She was at least 28 years his junior — and possibly even a teenager — when they married. He was 49, and she was between 15 and 21 years old. She was beheaded 19 months later for having an affair with a distant cousin.
"I've re-created Catherine from two of the most likely portrait contenders," Saladin explained on Instagram. One of them was a miniature image from Hans Holbein — even though some people argue the image might be of Anne of Cleves.
22. George Washington
If you were paying attention in history class, you probably know all there is to know about George Washington. The man was a Founding Father, after all! But did you know he apparently wasn't a fan of posing for portraits?
This is why Saladin based her recreation of George Washington on a life mask sculpted by Jean-Antoine Houdon in 1875. "Many images we see of [Washington] today are copies, and many of them look quite different from each other," the artist said.
23. Maria Romanov
Or the Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna of Russia, to give her her proper name. She was the third daughter of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, and she was murdered along with the rest of her family in 1918.
"I have such a soft spot for the sweet, kind face of Maria. Although scholars still debate, I believe Maria was the body found in the second Romanov gravesite, found in 2007," Saladin wrote on Instagram.
24. Anastasia Romanov
The Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia died with the rest of her family in the murders of 1918. But Anastasia was long the subject of rumors that said she had escaped the killings and gone on to live a life in anonymity. These rumors, however, are not true.
The reaction proved a difficult one for Saladin. "Anastasia was only 15 when the family was moved into captivity, so the young girl we see in photographs probably looks different from what she would look like as a more mature adult," she explained on Instagram.
25. Tatiana Romanov
The Grand Duchess Tatiana Nikolaevna of Russia was apparently thought of as the prettiest of all the Romanovs. She was also reportedly nicknamed "the governess" by her sisters because she had a habit of bossing them about.
For Saladin's purposes, though, Tatiana proved a little elusive. "I’ve made two re-creations for her — one that matches the forensic reconstruction, and one that is more of a photo composite," she said.
26. Olga Romanov
Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna of Russia was the oldest of the Romanov children. And like others in her family, she served as a nurse during World War I. She eventually found the work too much, though, and had to take a backseat from the front.
"It’s emotional to make these lifelike reconstructions," Saladin admitted on Instrag. "While we have many photos of the whole family, they are surprisingly low quality and grainy."
27. Elizabeth I
Elizabeth I served as the Queen of England and Ireland from November 17, 1558, until she passed away in 1603. She was the final ruler to come from the House of Tudor and has been called the "Virgin Queen."
"For my interpretation of Queen Elizabeth, I’ve used one of my [favorite portraits], painted in the 1560s," Saladin said on Instagram. "This was painted by an unidentified painter shortly after she had ascended the throne and was in private hands for a long time."
28. William Shakespeare
What can we tell you about Shakespeare that you don't already know? He has written some of the most beloved and long-lasting plays of all time. And people all over the world have been studying his literature almost ever since.
"I’ve always been thrown off by the lack of portraiture for him," Saladin explained on Instagram. "We don't have a single verified description or portrait of William Shakespeare from life — we pretty much only know what we know about him thanks to his friends gathering and publishing his works after his death."
29. Empress Joséphine
Joséphine Bonaparte — as you might have guessed from that last name — was Emperor Napoleon I's first wife and served as the Empress of the French from May 18, 1804, until January 10, 1810. This included almost five years as the Queen of Italy, and she is otherwise known as Joséphine de Beauharnais.
"Despite having many portraits created, Joséphine’s appearance is a bit mysterious. Each portrait of her looks just slightly different," Saladin said on Instagram, adding, "For my recreation, I used this version of her by Robert Lefevre, painted in 1805."
30. Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon Bonaparte blazed a trail during the French Revolution and the Revolutionary Wars and ruled as Emperor of the French from 1804 until 1814. Many historians still regard Napoleon as up there with the best military leaders in history.
Saladin revealed she found in her research of Napoleon that a friend once wrote, “No one that ever lived had so many likenesses which generally bear some resemblance of feature and form. It was extremely difficult to portray or delineate Napoleon's look.”
31. Lady Jane Grey
Lady Jane Grey is perhaps best known as the "Nine Days' Queen" — precisely because she ruled England and Ireland from July 10 to 19, 1553. She was deposed by "Bloody Mary" and spent the rest of her time in the Tower of London before being beheaded. Amazing, she was still a teenager when she died.
"Jane Grey is a subject I’ve been wanting to tackle for a while, but there weren’t contemporary depictions of her to work from," Saladin wrote on her blog. "I landed on using this 18th-century engraving of her, which is said to be a copy of a lost contemporary work."
Antinous died before he'd even turned 20 years old, but his short life had a profound impact on his lover, the Roman emperor Hadrian. So much so that Hadrian deified Antinous, leading to him being worshipped as a literal god or hero in some cultures.
"Surprisingly little exists about Antinous’ appearance," Saladin said. "One source described his hair as “near-purple,” which means either reddish or very dark black to me. I went with dark with a reddish tint for my depiction."
33. Emperor Hadrian
It seems that Hadrian was a man of many contradictions. His people reportedly found him distant, but some historians have called him a compassionate ruler. Some sources say he was mysterious but open-hearted, while others say he could be cruel and vain. He was the Roman emperor from 117 to 138.
"We don’t know too much about Hadrian’s hair or eye color, but it’s possible he had brown hair and gray eyes, according to pigments remaining on some statues," Saladin said. "There were dozens of images of Hadrian made, and they all look remarkably consistent with each other."
34. Queen Nzinga
Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba was queen of the Ambundu Kingdoms of Ndongo between 1624 and 1663) and ruler of Matamba between 1631 and 1663. And since she passed away in the 17th century, her role in history has only grown more important to the culture.
"Nzinga is one of my favorite women in history," Saladin explained. "She lived a fascinating life that is not recounted nearly as often as it should be." That's probably why the artist has tried to capture her image a couple of times.
35. Chevalier de Saint-Georges
If you're unfamiliar with Chevalier de Saint-Georges, it's worth spending a bit of time researching him. This free man of color is thought to be the first critically acclaimed classical composer of African descent. And besides writing violin concertos, Saint-Georges was also a bad hand at fencing, dancing, and sports.
Saladin seemed to be taken with Saint-Georges, too. "It is rare in history to find a man with such a broad range of talents, and I had a great time creating his modern portrait," she wrote on her blog.
36. Catherine of Aragon
It was Henry VIII's unhappiness with his marriage to Catherine of Aragon that brought about England's split with the Catholic Church. Pope Clement VII wouldn't allow Henry to simply annul his union with Catherine, so the king ended up passing the Acts of Supremacy.
In this image, Saladin was trying to recreate Catherine of Aragon as she might have appeared in her mid to late 30s. "I actually love the older portraits of Catherine, I think they show her determination and steadfastness," the artist said.
37. Anne Boleyn
Henry VIII broke down the power of the Catholic Church partly so that he could marry Anne Boleyn — but that doesn't mean their story had a happy ending. Just three years after their wedding, Henry had Anne charged with treason and beheaded. Modern-day historians are skeptical of these accusations.
"Anne Boleyn is my absolute favorite historical figure," Saladin informed her followers. In this image — the second one by Saladin — she added "some extra substance to the lips" because "they are always painted so unreasonably tiny."
38. Lady of Elche
The Lady of Elche is a sculpture and not a person — and that's about as much as we know about the piece. It was discovered in 1897 and some believe it is a representation of Tanit, a goddess worshiped by the Punic-Iberians.
"The Lady of Elche has always fascinated me, with her interesting headdress and delicately carved face," Saladin said on her blog. "It turns out the statue is quite mysterious as well." And so the artist set about bringing the mystery to life.
39. Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus ruled the Roman emperor from 161 to 180 AD and is famous for being a Stoic philosopher. He oversaw the end of a period of stability for the empire, and his writings in Meditations have long been a source of fascination for scholars.
Of her recreation, Saladin said, "Although we don’t know anything about his hair or eye color, we know that he is of Italian and Spanish heritage, so some guesswork definitely goes into this... Luckily there are many statues of Aurelius to work from, all sharing the same features."
40. Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton has proven popular in recent years — thanks to a certain musical taking the world by storm. But of course, the musical took certain liberties with the real life of Hamilton, and anyone truly interested in history should take a deep dive into his many important achievements.
"There are dozens of depictions of Hamilton that exist for us today," Saladin said. "In fact, he is one of the most represented American figures in monuments in the US. But not everyone agrees on which ones look the most like the real man."