Saturday, December 20, 2008

Venus de Milo

The Aphrodite of Milos, better known as the Venus de Milo, is an ancient Greek statue and one of the most famous works of ancient Greek sculpture. It is believed to depict Aphrodite (called Venus by the Romans), the Greek goddess of love and beauty. It is a marble sculpture, slightly larger than life size at 203 cm (6.7 ft) high. Its arms and original plinth have been lost. From an inscription that was on its plinth, it is thought to be the work of Alexandros of Antioch; it was earlier mistakenly attributed to the master sculptor Praxiteles. It is at present on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris.
Although the Venus de Milo is widely renowned for the mystery of her missing arms among people unfamiliar with any other incomplete Greek or Roman sculpture,[1] enough evidence remains to prove that the right arm of the goddess was lowered across the torso with the right hand resting on the raised left knee so the sliding drapery wrapped around the hips and legs could be held in place.[citation needed] There is a filled hole below the right breast that originally contained a metal tenon that would have supported the separately carved right arm.

The left arm was held at just below the eye level of the statue above a herm while holding an apple. The right side of the statue is more carefully worked and finished than the left side or back, indicating that the statue was intended to be seen mainly as a profile from its right. The left hand would have held the apple up into the air further back inside the niche the statue was set in. When the left hand was still attached, it would have been clear to an observer that the goddess was looking at the apple she held up in her left hand.

The statue would have been tinted as was the custom of the era, adorned with jewellery and positioned in a niche inside of a gymnasium. The painting of the statue along with the bedecking in jewellery were intended to make it appear more lifelike. Today, all traces of any paint have disappeared and the only signs of the armbands, necklace, earrings and crown are the attachment holes.

The twisting stance and strong projection of the knee, as well as the rich, three-dimensional quality of the drapery, are typical of Hellenistic art of the third century BCE and later. Moreover, the sensuous juxtaposition of flesh with the texture of drapery, which seems about to slip off the figure, adds an insistent note of erotic tension that is thoroughly Hellenistic in concept and intent.

At first glance she seems to represent an old market woman; however, the disarray of her dress and her unfocused stare suggest that she represents an ageing, dissolute follower of Dionysus, god of wine. We may assume that she is on her way to make an offering, since she seems to step out assertively into the space around her. This representation of people from all levels of society, as well as unusual physical types, became popular during the Hellenistic period.
The Venus de Milo was discovered by a peasant named Yorgos Kentrotas in 1820, inside a buried niche within the ancient city ruins of Milos, on the Aegean island of Milos, (also Melos or Milo). The statue was found in two main 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. Olivier Voutier, a French naval officer, was exploring the island. With the help of the young farmer, Voutier began to dig around what were clearly ancient ruins. Within a few hours Voutier had uncovered a piece of art that would become renowned throughout the world. About ten days later, another French naval officer, Jules Dumont d'Urville, recognized its significance and arranged for a purchase by the French ambassador to Turkey, Charles-François de Riffardeau, marquis, later duc de Rivière.

Twelve days out of Touloun the ship was anchored off the island of Melos. Ashore, d'Urville and [fellow officer] Matterer met a Greek peasant, who a few days earlier while ploughing had uncovered blocks of marble and a statue in two pieces, which he offered cheaply to the two young men. It was of a naked woman with an apple in her raised left hand, the right hand holding a draped sash falling from hips to feet, both hands damaged and separated from the body. Even with a broken nose, the face was beautiful. D'Urville the classicist recognized the Venus of the Judgement of Paris. It was, of course, the Venus de Milo. He was eager to acquire it, but his practical captain, apparently uninterested in antiquities, said there was nowhere to store it on the ship, so the transaction lapsed. The tenacious d'Urville on arrival at Constantinople showed the sketches he had made to the French ambassador, the Marquis de Riviére, who sent his secretary in a French Navy vessel to buy it for France. Before he could take delivery, French sailors had to fight Greek brigands for possession. In the mêlée the statue was roughly dragged across rocks to the ship, breaking off both arms, and the sailors refused to go back to search for them.[2]

News of the discovery took longer than normal to get to the French ambassador. The peasant grew tired of waiting for payment and was pressured into selling to a local priest, who planned to present the statue as a gift to a translator working for the Sultan in Constantinople (present day Istanbul, Turkey).

The French ambassador's representative arrived just as the statue was being loaded aboard a ship bound for Constantinople and persuaded the island's chief citizens to annul the sale and honor the first offer.

Upon learning of the reversal of the sale, the translator had the chiefs whipped and fined but was eventually reprimanded by the Sultan after the French ambassador complained to him about the mistreatment of the island citizenry. The citizens were reimbursed and ceded all future claims to the statue in gratitude.

front view three-quarter view back view

Upon arrival at the Louvre, the statue was reassembled, but the fragments of the left hand and arm were initially dismissed as being a later restoration because of the rougher workmanship.[citation needed] It is now accepted that the left hand holding the apple and the left arm are in fact original to the statue but were not as well finished as the rest of the statue since they would have been somewhat above eye level and difficult to see.[citation needed] This was a standard practice for many sculptors of the era—less visible parts of statues were often not as well finished since they would typically be invisible to the casual observer.[citation needed] Sculptures and statues from this era were normally carved out of several blocks of stone and carefully pieced together.[citation needed] The Venus de Milo turns out to have been carved from at least six to 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 goddess.

The controversial plinth was initially found to fit perfectly as part of the statue, but after it was translated and dated, the embarrassed experts who had publicized the statue as a possible original work by the artist Praxiteles dismissed it as another later addition to the statue. 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 at the time Praxiteles lived.[citation needed] The Hellenistic Age was at that time considered a period of decline for Greek art. The plinth mysteriously disappeared shortly before the statue was presented to King Louis XVIII in 1821 and only survives in two drawings and an early description. The king eventually presented the statue to the Louvre museum in Paris, where it still stands on public display.

The Venus de Milo's great fame in the 19th 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 consciously promote the Venus de Milo as a greater treasure than that which they had recently lost. It was duly praised by artists and critics as the epitome of graceful female beauty; however, Pierre-Auguste Renoir was clearly not following the script when he dismissed it as a "big gendarme".

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