The Conspiracy Behind the Iconic Statue, the Venus de Milo

The Venus de Milo is one of art’s most wide­ly rec­og­nized female forms.

The Mona Lisa may be the first stop on many Lou­vre vis­i­tors’ agen­das, but Venus, by virtue of being unclothed, sculp­tur­al, and promi­nent­ly dis­played, lends her­self beau­ti­ful­ly to all man­ner of sou­venirs, both respect­ful and pro­fane.

DelacroixMagritteDali, and The Simp­sons have all paid trib­ute, ensur­ing her con­tin­ued renown.

Renoir is that rare bird who was imper­vi­ous to her 6’7” charms, describ­ing her as the “big gen­darme.” His own Venus, sculpt­ed with the help of an assis­tant near­ly 100 years after the Venus de Milo joined the Louvre’s col­lec­tion, appears much meati­er through­out the hip and thigh region. Her celebri­ty can­not hold a can­dle to that of her arm­less sis­ter.

In the Vox Almanac episode above, host Phil Edwards delves into the Venus de Milo’s appeal, tak­ing a less deliri­ous approach than sculp­tor Auguste Rodin, who rhap­sodized:

…thou, thou art alive, and thy thoughts are the thoughts of a woman, not of some strange, supe­ri­or being, arti­fi­cial and imag­i­nary. Thou art made of truth alone, out­side of which there is nei­ther strength nor beau­ty. It is thy sin­cer­i­ty to nature which makes thee all pow­er­ful, because nature appeals to all men. Thou art the famil­iar com­pan­ion, the woman that each believes he knows, but that no man has ever under­stood, the wis­est not more than the sim­ple. Who under­stands the trees? Who can com­pre­hend the light?

Edwards opts instead for a Sharpie and a tiny 3‑D print­ed mod­el, which he marks up like a plas­tic sur­geon, draw­ing view­ers’ atten­tion to the miss­ing bits.

The arms, we know.

Also her ear­lobes, most like­ly removed by loot­ers eager to make off with her jew­el­ry.

One of her mas­sive mar­ble feet (a man’s size 15) is miss­ing.

And so is a por­tion of the plinth on which she once stood.

Inter­est­ing­ly, the plinth was among the items dis­cov­ered by acci­dent on the Greek island of Milos in 1820, along with two pil­lars topped with busts of Her­cules and Her­mes, the bisect­ed Venus, and assort­ed mar­ble frag­ments, includ­ing — maybe — an upper arm and hand hold­ing a round object (a gold­en apple, may­haps?)

Edwards doesn’t delve into the con­flict­ing accounts sur­round­ing the wheres and whys of this dis­cov­ery. Nor does he go into the com­pli­ca­tions of the sculp­ture’s acqui­si­tion, and how it very near­ly wound up on a ship bound for Con­stan­tino­ple.

What he’s most inter­est­ed in is that plinth, which would have giv­en the lie to the long-stand­ing asser­tion that the Venus de Milo was cre­at­ed in the Clas­si­cal era.

This incor­rect des­ig­na­tion made the Lou­vre’s newest res­i­dent a most wel­come replace­ment for the loot France had been com­pelled to return to the Vat­i­can in the wake of Napoleon’s first abdi­ca­tion.

The plinth may have been “lost” under mys­te­ri­ous cir­cum­stances, but its inscrip­tion was pre­served in a sketch by A. Debay, whose father had been a stu­dent of Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon’s now-ban­ished First Painter, a Neo-Clas­si­cist.

(David’s final paint­ing, Mars Dis­armed by Venus and the Three Graces, com­plet­ed a cou­ple of years after Venus de Milo was installed in the Lou­vre, was con­sid­ered a bust.)

Debay’s faith­ful recre­ation of the plinth’s inscrip­tion as part of his study of the Venus de Milo offers clues as to her cre­ator — “ …andros son of …enides cit­i­zen of …ioch at Mean­der made.”

It also dates her cre­ation to 150–50 BCE, cor­rob­o­rat­ing notes French naval offi­cer Jules d’Urville had made in Greece weeks after the dis­cov­ery.

The birth of this Venus should have been attrib­uted to the Hel­lenis­tic, not Clas­si­cal peri­od.

This would have been prob­lem­at­ic for both France and the Lou­vre, as art his­to­ri­an Jane Ursu­la Har­ris writes in The Believ­er:

Had her true author been known, she like­ly would’ve been locked away in the museum’s archive, if not sold off. Hel­lenis­tic art had by then been den­i­grat­ed by Renais­sance schol­ars who re-con­ceived it in anti-clas­si­cal terms, find­ing in its expres­sive, exper­i­men­tal form and emo­tion­al con­tent a provoca­tive real­ism that defied every­thing their era stood for: mod­esty, intel­lect, and equanimity…It helped that the Venus de Milo pos­sessed sev­er­al clas­si­cal attrib­ut­es. Her strong pro­file, short upper lip, and smooth fea­tures, for exam­ple, were in keep­ing with Clas­si­cal  fig­ur­al con­ven­tions, as was the con­tin­u­ous line con­nect­ing her nose and fore­head. The par­tial­ly-draped fig­ure with its atten­u­at­ed sil­hou­ette – which the Regency fash­ion of the day imi­tat­ed with its empire bust-line – also recalled clas­si­cal sculp­tures of Aphrodite, and her Roman coun­ter­part, Venus. Yet despite all these clas­si­cal iden­ti­fiers, the Venus de Milo flaunt­ed a defin­i­tive Hel­lenis­tic influ­ence in her provoca­tive­ly low-slung drap­ery, high waist line, and curve-enhanc­ing contrapposto—far more sen­su­al and exag­ger­at­ed than clas­si­cal ideals allowed.

It took the Lou­vre over a hun­dred years to come clean as to its star sculpture’s true prove­nance.

What hap­pened to the plinth remains any­one’s guess.

The only mys­tery the museum’s web­site seems con­cerned with is one of iden­ti­ty — is she Aphrodite, god­dess of beau­ty, or Poseidon’s wife, Amphitrite, the sea god­dess wor­shipped on the island on which she was dis­cov­ered?

For a deep­er dive into the Venus de Milo’s com­pli­cat­ed jour­ney to the Lou­vre, we rec­om­mend Rachel Kousser’s arti­cle, “Cre­at­ing the Past: The Venus de Milo and the Hel­lenis­tic Recep­tion of Clas­si­cal Greece,” which can be down­loaded free here. Or do as Vox’s Edwards sug­gests and 3‑D print a tiny Venus de Milo in a decid­ed­ly non-Clas­si­cal col­or using MyMiniFactory’s free pat­tern.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Hun­dreds of Clas­si­cal Sculp­tures from the Uffizi Gallery Now Dig­i­tized & Put Online: Explore a Col­lec­tion of 3D Inter­ac­tive Scans

The Mak­ing of a Mar­ble Sculp­ture: See Every Stage of the Process, from the Quar­ry to the Stu­dio

3D Scans of 7,500 Famous Sculp­tures, Stat­ues & Art­works: Down­load & 3D Print Rodin’s Thinker, Michelangelo’s David & More

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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