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This Week In History

The Venus de Milo is found. April 8, 1820.

The Venus de Milo is an ancient Greek statue and one of the most famous works of ancient Greek sculpture. Initially it was attributed to the sculptor Praxiteles, but from an inscription that was on its plinth, the statue is thought to be the work of Alexandros of Antioch. Created sometime between 130 and 100 BC, the statue is believed to depict Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty; however, some scholars claim it is the sea-goddess Amphitrite, venerated on Milos. It is a marble sculpture, slightly larger than life size at 203 cm high. Part of an arm and the original plinth were lost following its discovery. It is currently on permanent display at the Louvre Museum in Paris. The statue is named after the Greek island of Milos, where it was discovered.

It is generally asserted that the Venus de Milo was discovered on 8 April 1820 by a peasant named Yorgos Kentrotas, inside a buried niche within the ancient city ruins of Milos, the current village of Trypiti, on the island of Milos (also Melos, or Milo) in the Aegean, which was then a part of the Ottoman Empire.

Elsewhere the discoverers are identified as Yorgos Bottonis and his son Antonio. Paul Carus gave the site of discovery as “the ruins of an ancient theater in the vicinity of Castro, the capital of the island”, adding that Bottonis and his son “came accidentally across a small cave, carefully covered with a heavy slab and concealed, which contained a fine marble statue in two pieces, together with several other marble fragments”. He apparently based these assertions on an article he had read in the Century Magazine.

The Australian historian Edward Duyker, citing a letter written by Louis Brest who was the French consul in Milos in 1820, asserts the discoverer of the statue was Theodoros Kendrotas and that he has been confused with his younger son Giorgios (known phonetically as Yorgos) who later claimed credit for the find. Duyker asserts that Kendrotas was taking stone from a ruined chapel on the edge of his property – terraced land that had once formed part of a Roman gymnasium – and that he discovered an oblong cavity some 1.2 x 1.5 metres deep in the volcanic tuff. It was in this cavity, which had three wings, that Kendrotas first noticed the upper part of the statue.

Notwithstanding these anomalies, the consensus is that the statue was found in two large pieces (the upper torso and the lower draped legs) along with several herms (pillars topped with heads), fragments of the upper left arm and left hand holding an apple, and an inscribed plinth.

Upon arrival at the Louvre, the statue was reassembled, but the fragments of the left hand and arm were dismissed initially as being a later restoration because of the rougher workmanship. It now is accepted that the left hand holding the apple and the left arm are in fact original to the statue, but were not so well finished as the rest of the statue since they would have been somewhat above visible level and difficult to see. This was a standard practice for many sculptors of the era—less visible parts of statues often were not so well finished since typically, they would be invisible to the casual observer. Sculptures and statues from this era normally were carved out of several blocks of stone and carefully pieced together. The Venus de Milo was found to have been carved from at least six or seven blocks of Parian marble: one block for the nude torso, another block for the draped legs, another block apiece for each arm, another small block for the left foot, another block for the inscribed plinth, and finally, the separately carved herm that stood beside the statue.

Initially, the plinth was found to fit perfectly as part of the statue, but after its inscription was translated and dated, the embarrassed experts who had publicized the statue as a possible original work by the artist Praxiteles dismissed the plinth as a later addition. The inscription read: “…(Alex)andros son of Menides, citizen of Antioch on the Maeander made this (statue)…”. The inscribed plinth would have moved the dating of the statue from the Classical period to the Hellenistic period because of the style of lettering and the mention of the ancient city of Antioch on the Maeander, which did not exist in the early fourth century BC, when Praxiteles lived. At that time the Hellenistic Age was considered a period of decline for Greek art. The quality workmanship in the carving would not have fit into the incorrect assessment of Hellenistic art and the plinth mysteriously disappeared shortly before the statue was presented to King Louis XVIII in 1821 and evidence of it only survives in two drawings and an early description. The king eventually presented the statue to the Louvre museum in Paris.

In the autumn of 1939, the Venus was packed for removal from the Louvre in anticipation of the outbreak of war. Scenery trucks from the Comédie-Française transported the masterpieces of the Louvre to safer locations in the countryside. During the years of World War II, the statue was sheltered safely in the Château de Valençay along with the Winged Victory of Samothrace and Michelangelo’s Slaves.

The great fame of the Aphrodite of Milos during the nineteenth century was not simply the result of its admitted beauty, but also owed much to a major propaganda effort by the French authorities. In 1815, France had returned the Medici Venus to the Italians after it had been looted from Italy by Napoleon Bonaparte. The Medici Venus, regarded as one of the finest Classical sculptures in existence, caused the French to promote the Venus de Milo as a greater treasure than that which they recently had lost. The de Milo statue was praised dutifully by many artists and critics as the epitome of graceful female beauty. However, Pierre-Auguste Renoir was among its detractors, labeling it a “big gendarme”.

 

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