Venus of Milo

Venus of Milo (Louvre, Paris)

She is among the most famous statues in the world, the Venus of Milo. Or perhaps we should say: the Aphrodite of Melos, because it’s a Greek statue. After all, it was discovered on a Greek isle (Melos, of course), and it played a role in a debate about Greek art.

This debate started with one of the superheroes of the study of Antiquity: the German art historian Winckelmann. In the eighteenth century he stressed that the Greeks had been the first to understand human anatomy and render the body perfectly. His explanation may strike us as a bit unusual: Greece’s moderate climate allowed people to sport naked. And because a healthy spirit resides in a healthy body, Greek sculptors could develop better techniques and gradually acquire true artistic mastery. Moreover, this healthy spirit liberated the Greeks not just from oppressive artistic conventions, but also – and this was why Greece was different from the civilizations of the ancient Near East – from oppressive political thought. Artistic innovation and political freedom were two sides of the same coin.

Winckelmann’s advice to the artists of his own age has become famous: “The only way for us to become great, yes, inimitable, if it is possible, is the imitation of the Greeks”. More precisely, his advice was to emulate Classical art. Not Archaic art, which had great vitality but was still imperfect; not the late art that we call ‘Hellenistic’, because Hellenistic art, although the artists knew perfection, lacked vitality. Greek art from the Classical period, however, was both vital and perfect.

Winckelmann was incredibly influential: the eighteenth century witnessed the rise of Classicist art. The idea that art could help people liberate themselves, became popular was well. In the nineteenth century, every country wanted to have a large museum with ancient sculpture where artists could learn their crafts, could find inspiration, and could develop into guides that might improve society. The Louvre in Paris set the example after Napoleon had seized in Italy every ancient work of art he could seize.

When, after Waterloo, the loot had to be returned to its lawful owners, the French considered it a national disaster. As if to rub salt in the wound, the British acquired the Elgin Marbles, Bavaria built its Glyptothek in Munich, Prussia was dreaming of what was to become the Altes Museum, the newly created kingdom of the Netherlands founded a Museum of Antiquities, while in Petersburg, the Russian czar expanded the Hermitage. France desperately needed to obtain a splendid work of Classical Greek art just to keep up with the other nations.

Fortune favored the French. In February 1820, a young officer named Oliver Voutier learned that on the Greek isle of Melos a splendid statue of Aphrodite had been discovered. Acting in the nation’s interest, he managed to acquire it and ever since the statue has been on display in the Louvre. France had its classical sculpture again.

Or had it? There were scholars – to make things worse: there were German scholars – who denied that the Venus of Milo dated back to the Classical period. It was Hellenistic, they said, and it belonged to that degenerate period in which Greek art was in decline. There were beautiful debates, in which art historians were forced to explain the defining qualities of Classical and Hellenistic art. For the first time, scholars really started to comprehend Greek sculpture.

Meanwhile, the answer had always been available. In 1821, a sculptor named Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Debay had made a drawing of the Venus of Milo, which contained two parts of the sculpture that are now missing. One of them is an arm.

Debay’s drawing

The other part that is now missing, is the Greek sculptor’s signature (bottom right):

…andros, son of Menides, from
…ioch on the Meander,
made this.

We do not know the artist’s name, which may have been Alexandros or Agesandros, but there is only one town that can have been his place of birth: Antioch on the Meander, a city that had been founded by Seleucid king Antiochus I Soter (r.281-261). In other words, the Venus of Milo was Hellenistic.

Of course, the date of the Venus of Milo is no issue any more. It was easy for the French art historians to admit that they had been wrong, because in the course of the nineteenth century, artistic taste changed. Classicism’s imitation was abandoned, what mattered was the creation of new forms. Once everybody loved the Impressionists, it could easily be admitted that the Melian Aphrodite was Hellenistic.

So, the interpretation changed. What has remained is a piece of sculpture of breathtaking beauty - and a fitting subject for the hundredth post on the blog of Ancient History Magazine.

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