The Aphrodite of Milos, better known to us all as the Venus de Milo, is one of the better known of the many ancient Greek sculptures now in museums all around the World. The statue was found by a farmer on a small Greek island in 1820, and is one of the Louvre Museum’s star attractions. As with many of the well known ancient artefacts in our museums, there is a very interesting history behind this object; histories that are often glossed over in favour of artistic merits. After a few twists and turns the statue ended up in Paris, around the same time as the so-called Elgin Marbles were purchased for the British Museum. So although immediately recognisable because of her missing arms and undeniable beauty, the real reason for her ‘fame’ has more to do with museum rivalry than the artistic quality of the statue.
The statue is generally accepted to be a representation of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty (the goddess’s Roman counterpart is Venus). Carved sometime between 130 and 100 BC, it is thought to be the work of a relatively unknown ancient Greek artist Alexandros of Antioch. Little is known of this man, but he may also have carved a statue of Alexander the Great also in the Louvre, originally from a nearby island.
On 8 April 1820 a farmer uncovered a number of carved fragments while he was removing stones from an ancient wall. The pieces included a nude upper torso, a draped lower body, and part of the right hip. Later, he found a hand holding an apple, a fragment of an upper arm, the chignon (the knot of hair at the back of the head), as well as two herms on inscribed bases.
At this time, Milos was under Ottoman rule, with a heavy French presence in the Aegean. Two ensigns in the French Navy, Olivier Voutier and Dumont d’Urville, were the first foreigners to see the fragments. Immediately they appreciated its significance and set off for Constantinople and the French Ambassador so that they could buy the statue. With the necessary permissions and resources cleared, Voutier and the Ambassador’s secretary returned to Milos to acquire the statue for the Ambassador on behalf of the King of France.
Another Contested Artefact
As is so often the case, events did not go according to plan. When Voutier and the Secretary arrived back on Milos the statue had been sold to a Turk and was being loaded on to a ship. After a series of payments (and no doubt a few bribes, here and there) and diplomatic interventions, the fragments arrived in Paris and were presented to Louis XVIII at the beginning of March in 1821. The fragments came under the care of the Louvre, and restoration of the statue began. The statue, once reconstructed, challenged certain accepted understandings about Greek statues. The base, with its Greek inscription of the artist’s name, was thought to be a later addition and was removed and eventually lost.
The British Museum had only just recently acquired the collections of sculptures that Lord Elgin had taken from the Parthenon in Athens. And the Louvre had just been forced to return the Apollo Belvedere to the Vatican and the Venus de’ Medici to Florence, which had been looted by Napoleon. For the Louvre then, the Venus de Milo had to both compensate for the loss of certain works while also rivalling the British Museums recent acquisitions from Greece. If the crowds of people visiting and photographing the statue are anything to go by, this has worked.
Just as the ownership of the ‘Elgin Marbles’ is contested, so too is the ownership of the Venus de Milo. Not surprisingly, there is an albeit much less vocal call for the Aphrodite to be return to Greece. But in the nineteenth century the Germans believed that the statue had been wrongly sold to the French. The German Crown Prince Ludwig I of Bavaria purchased the ruins of the ancient theatre on Milos. The Germans believed the fragments had been found on what was the Prince’s land.
As aesthetically appealing as this statue so clearly is, there is so much more to Aphrodite than her beauty. We flock in our thousands each day to see her now in part because of historical events that have made her so famous, not because of any understanding her discovery has given us about ancient Greek art.
Where is the Venus de Milo?
The Aphrodite of Milos is now in the collection of the Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities Department of the Louvre Museum. She has permanent pride of place in gallery 16, which is on the ground floor of the Sully Wing, along with some other fine Greek antiquities.
In April 2014 I visited Milos, and went in search of where the Aphrodite of Milos was found.
Gregory Curtis has written a fascinating account of the history of this much-loved popular icon, Disarmed: The Story of the Venus de Milo was first published in 2003 and has been reprinted many times since. The book is available on amazon.com and amazon.co.uk