"It was, of course, the Venus de Milo" - The Rediscovery of an Icon of Western Aesthetics

8 April 1820, The young farmer Georgios Kentrotas, looking for construction material in the ruins of the old capital of the island of Melos, found the Aphrodite of Milos, better known as Venus de Milo.

"You are so careful of your boy's morals, knowing how troublesome they may be, that you keep him away from the Venus of Milo only to find him in the arms of the scullery maid or someone much worse. You decide that the Hermes of Praxiteles and Wagner's Tristan are not suited for young girls; and your daughter marries somebody appallingly unlike either Hermes or Tristan solely to escape from your parental protection. You have not stifled a single passion nor averted a single danger: you have depraved the passions by starving them, and broken down all the defences which so effectively protect children brought up in freedom." (George Bernard Shaw)

Jean-Baptiste Mauzaisse's ceiling panel of the Louvre's Salle des Bijoux, where the Venus is exhibited (1822), showing Father Chronos (Time) with his scythe, giving back the lost masterpiece.    

 Viewing the naked female form meant certain death. As Actaeon witnessed much to his chagrin. Stumbling across Artemis and her entourage of shapely nymphs bathing in a secret spot of lake in the woods, the enraged goddess turned the Peeping Tom into a stag to be torn apart by his own hounds. But then, the female of the species was “kalon kakon”, a beautiful evil, ever since Pandora, the first of her kind, met Epimetheus and opened her fateful box. For centuries, “beauty” and “perfection” in Greek art, mother of Western aesthetics, was epitomised and idealised in adoration of the naked male body, climaxing in the perfection of the sculptures of the Classical period around 450 BCE in the Belle Époque of Periclean Athens. “Kalos kagathos” was the watchword of the age. Being beautiful naturally meant being good. And naked and male, of course, the counterpoint of the female “kalon kakon”. Girls and goddesses still were subjects of Greek art, but decently clothed, goes without saying. Until the age’s greatest artist, the sculptor Praxiteles, revolutionised the Greek ideal of beauty over night. He unveiled his “Aphrodite of Knidos”, moulded to the perfection of the Classical period’s golden ratio. And the lady didn’t wear a stitch. It was the first depiction of the naked female form in Greek art since the Bronze Age. Nevertheless, it was “kalos kagathos”, beautiful and good, and while Plato himself epigrammatically quipped “When Cypris saw Cypris at Cnidus, "Alas!" said she; "where did Praxiteles see me naked?", Aphrodite’s avatar, the courtesan Phryne who had modelled for the sculptor, was accused of impiety, Hypereides, her counsel for the defence, just skipped his closing argument, bared his charge’s breast before the assembled Areopagus and the judges, seized by sacred dread, simply could not condemn something so beautiful and consequently good. “Kalos kagathos” had become a female aspect as well. But the days of the pure ideal of the Classical period of ancient Greece were numbered anyway. In the wake of Alexander’s conquests, a new perspective displaced the focus of Greek artists, who now worked in a Hellenistic world reaching from Italy to India, away from goddesses and heroes and godlike athletes towards the picturesque beauty of everyday life. Drunken crones, old wrestlers, prostitutes and what not were sculpted with the same life-like perfection as deities and deified rulers. And Praxiteles’ Caravaggio-like idea of having sinners pose as saints may well have caught on.

A Roman copy of Praxiteles' now lost Aphrodite of Knidos

Jules Dumont d’Urville was a bit of a tragic figure. He wanted to become a naval officer, but with Napoleon’s ships bottled up in their ports by the overly powerful Royal Navy, the young first class graduate of the French Naval Academy of 1808 was condemned to sit on the beach until the end of the war before he would embark on his first mission. However, Jules did not waste his time, learned several languages and developed a keen interest and considerable knowledge in cultural and scientific matters. When His Catholic Majesty Louis XVII’s corvette “Chevrette” finally left Toulon in 1819 to carry out a hydrographic survey of islands in the Aegean Sea, back then still a part of the Ottoman Empire, it was a bit of luck for the art world to have d’Urville on board as one of her officers. After a couple of months of sailing and surveying the Cyclades, the “Chevrette” finally lay off the island of Melos. And as chance would have it, another classically educated French officer, Lt Olivier Voutier from the schooner “Estafette” was exploring the island and had dug in the ruins of the theatre of Melos’ ancient settlement, high on a hill overlooking the island’s anchorage. And while the French lieutenant, accompanied by two of the schooner’s crew, busied themselves in the dirt and dust searching for antiquities, a local farmer, one Georgios Ketrotas, looted the place for construction material and had stumbled across a chamber. The three Frenchmen became interested, joined the local and saw him covering a statue with dirt. They insisted in further excavating the object instead, gazed first at a charming face with the hair tied into a bun and then the famously disarmed torso and a marvellous bust and by nightfall, the four men had excavated the lower, draped half of the slightly larger than life-sized statue. It was, of course, the Venus de Milo. Obviously, the lady was a bit too heavy to carry her away in the tiny “Estafette” and while Voutier desperately looked for means of transporting her back home to France anyway, “Chevrette” arrived on the scene. Dumont d’Urville immediately agreed with Voutier about the find’s significance when he saw the statue while the farmer Ketrotas now demanded his finder’s fee in earnest. But neither would “Chevrette’s” captain take the lady on board and the corvette sailed on to Constantinople sans Venus. D’Urville hurried towards the French embassy and persuaded King Louis’ ambassador to the High Porte, Charles François de Riffardeau, marquis de Rivière, to buy the lady for France. Together with the marquis’ secretary, the Comte de Marcellus, D’Urville sailed back to Milos and arrived just about the time when she was loaded on board of another vessel after Ketrotas had sold her to a local Ottoman dignitary. D’Urville and the secretary persuaded the local pasha to annul the transaction and sell the lady to them and ambassador de Rivière accompanied her in person to her new home in the Louvre.

An engraving of the Venus de Milo made shortly after her arrival in Paris, still mounted on her plinth bearing the inscription of her creator's name, Alexandros of Antioch

After Napoleon’s defeat and the end of the First Empire, the Louvre had to return a couple of artworks to their previous owners. Among them was the Venus de’ Medici, shipped back to the Uffizi in Florence already in December 1815. This particular Venus is not quite a work by famed Praxiteles, the inscription on her plinth clearly states that she was created by one Cleomenes of Athens who lived around the 1st century BCE, but she was modelled along the lines of the groundbreaking Aphrodite of Knidos. In March 1821, when the Venus the Milo arrived, the Louvre was not quite Venus-less, but lacked a few highlights, especially after the rival British Museum had just acquired the infamous Elgin Marbles and the curators were all too happy to pronounce their new arrival to be a work of Praxiteles himself. Even though the inscription on her plinth read (Alex)andros, son of (M)enides, citizen of (Ant)ioch at Meander made (it). Since the place in Asia Minor received his new name after one of Alexander’s diadochi not before 301 BCE, it was quite obvious that she didn’t even come from the School of Praxiteles who died some 20 years earlier. However, over and above the pedigree of Praxiteles as one of the top artists of antiquity, it would link the statue to the Classical period and not Hellenism, still viewed along the lines set by Winckelmann almost a century before as a decadent end of days of Greek culture. Thus, the plinth mysteriously disappeared and for a long while, she was claimed to be a work by the classical master sculptor, just to outdo the lost Hellenistic Venus de’ Medici, the Florentines and the British anyway. La Milo’s arms were never found and if she even is a Venus has been hotly debated ever since her rediscovery back in 1820. She might have held an apple, Paris’ gift that caused the Trojan War, which would clearly be a venereal hallmark, so to speak. A lance and shield might imply a Nike, commemorating a forgotten victory in a forgotten war like the other Hellenistic masterpiece in the Louvre, the Winged Victory of Samothrace. Maybe she even cradled a baby in her arms or just admired herself holding a mirror. A convincing theory has been brought up quite recently by archaeology professor and textiles expert Elizabeth Wayland Barber explaining the rather curios position of the lady’s arm stumps. She might have held up a distaff with a ball of wool in her left and spun the thread with her right hand, a scene often depicted in vase painting and clearly associated with prostitution, since the ladies of the trade spun wool while they waited for their customers. In a Hellenistic context, the Venus de Milo might actually have been not a goddess but a prostitute. But this only adds to her beautiful, armless imperfection, making her an iconic part of the picturesque heap of broken images Western civilisation gathered after the discovery of how boring and lifeless classical perfection is at some point during the Romantic Movement, around the time the Venus de Milo arrived at the Louvre.

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