Discovered on This Day: The Vénus de Milo

Two hundred years ago today, a broken statue of a goddess was discovered by a Greek farmer on the island of Melos in the south-western Cyclades islands in the Aegean. Dated to ca. 150-50 BC, and now in the Louvre, the "Venus de Milo", as it is popularly known, is one of the most famous surviving pieces of Late Hellenistic art.

The Aphrodite of Melos is a variation on earlier nude and semi-nude images of the goddess, combining older styles with more current trends of sculpture. Her twisting pose and deep, three-dimensional drapery are characteristic of the so-called "hellenistic baroque" style common in the 2nd century BC. The drapery with its deeply cut, diagonal folds creating stark juxtapositions of light and dark, contrasts strikingly with the soft contours of the nude torso and restrained, classical style of the head, both of which hearken more to the Praxitelean aesthetic. The sculpture is not carved from a single block of marble, but rather of several parts sculpted separately and then attached with begs. She would have been adorned with metal jewelry, such as bracelet, earrings, and a headband, to judge by the wholes that remain.

How did the statue end up in the Louvre, where it attracts legions of admirers every year? In 1820, Melos was part of the Ottoman empire, but was home to French naval officers stationed there. A French diplomat purchased the statue and later Louis XVIII donated it to the Louvre. Nineteenth century connoisseurs wanted to associate the statue with the great 4th century master Praxiteles (active 370-330 BC), in order to elevate the object's pedigree. At this point there was a vigorous competition between the Louvre, the British Museum, and other western museums in building up their collections of antiquities; this is not long after the British Museum acquired the Parthenon sculptures.

However, a part of a base that was found with a statue (which was drawn before it was conveniently lost), tells us that it was made by Alexandros from Magnesia on the Meander (located on the west coast of Turkey). A recent reanalysis of the excavation records and descriptions of lost inscriptions has established that the statue was recovered from the ancient city's gymnasium. Greek gymnasia were not just places for exercising the body, but also the mind, and in the Hellenistic period, become the central educational and cultural institution of Greek cities, and was a setting for all manner of classicizing sculpture.

The Aphrodite of Melos is of course now famously missing her arms. However, fragments that were found originally with the statue strongly suggest that she held out an apple in one hand: a playful reference to both the mythological story of the Judgment of Paris, as well as to her island home, since Melos means "apple" in Greek. What would the message have been to the gymnasium visitor - this sensuous Aphrodite holding out an apple to young men about the same age as Paris? It might have elicited thoughts about the city, since the apple was the city's symbol, featured on its coins. But there would have been a meaning also connected with Paris and his subsequent actions; both of which traditionally tended to be portrayed negatively in Greek literature; the adulterer and catalyst of the Trojan war seems hardly a fitting example for youth-in-training.

As argued by Rachel Kousser, however, in this context it's not really about Paris and what happened later at Troy. The story of the Judgment of Paris had by this time taken on a different emphasis in Greek thought, and was retold with an emphasis more on the beauty contest rather than the aftermath of the fateful decision. Aphrodite's beauty in general and specifically in reference to the Judgment was an established topic in poetry of the time. Further, the Judgment was also long by Greek thinkers as an allegory for the three main choices a man faces in his life: military victory (Athena); political power (Hera); or love and domestic happiness (Aphrodite). The period in which this statue commissioned was one where not just Melos but much of the Greek world had been brought—either by force or by politics—into the dominion of the Roman empire, leaving aspiring Greek elite with restricted choices. In this respect, Aphrodite perhaps offers the most appealing future.

Further Reading:

G. Curtis, Disarmed: the Story of the Venus de Milo (Vintage Press, 2012)

R. Kousser, The Vénus de Milo and the Hellenistic Reception of Classical Greece. American Journal of Archaeology 109.2, pp. 227-250. (2005)