The Louvre in Paris is not only known for US-Chinese architect IM Pei’s glass pyramid sitting in the stately forecourt, it also has an impressive gallery of Roman history, including mosaics, statuary and my particular favourite, amphorae.
The Louvre is also now home to perhaps the world’s most favourite statue, the Venus de Milo – the half-naked, armless beauty who has the bearing of a goddess. Like any self-respecting goddess, she is tall – a stunning six foot eight inches (203cm).
At this stage, you might want to pour a glass of wine out of your own amphora – or make a cup of tea. The story of the Venus de Milo is a long one – and like all beautiful women, she remains almost as much of a mystery as the Mona Lisa, also on display in The Louvre.
The Venus de Milo had a chequered career en route to her resting place in The Louvre. She was found in a cave on the Greek island of Milo – also known as Milos and Melos – in 1820. Her arms were lying nearby and also a plinth she would have originally been standing on. The arms and the plinth went missing at some point between her journey from Milos to Paris. Some claim the French authorities deliberately hid the plinth to conceal her true identity and that of the sculptor – what happened to her arms is not known but perhaps they gave too much of a clue to her identity also.
From the moment she was found, the history of her journey to Paris, the details of who actually discovered her and her identity have been the subjects of debate.
It is said that she was discovered by a farmer, Yorgos Kentrotas, in 1820, who was excavating his land bordering the ancient part of Milos. He uncovered a cavity where the statue was found. There is even contention over whether she was discovered by the farmer or his son, however.
At that time, Milos was under the rule of the Ottoman Turks, but the French were busy looking for ancient artefacts in the region at the time of her discovery.
The statue has been dated to between 130 and 100 BC – but the sculptor who made her has also been open to debate. She is made of white marble and at first the work was attributed to Praxiteles of Athens, who was the first-known artist to sculpt the female nude in a life-size statue. However, details from the plinth that went missing en route to Paris or in Paris indicated that the statue was the work of the Greek sculptor Alexandros of Antioch.
So already we have debate over who found the Venus de Milo – and who sculpted her. Add to this the fact that the Venus de Milo might not actually represent Venus but another goddess altogether and the plot thickens.
It is thought that the statue is actually a representation of the wife of Poseidon, Amphitrite. Poseidon is the Greek equivalent of the Roman god Neptune – god of the sea. You have probably seen the statue of Neptune on Neptune’s fountain in Piazza Navona in Rome. He is depicted as a virile male figure, often naked, as in Piazza Navona, and carries a trident.
Amphitrite was worshipped on the island of Milos – her Roman equivalent who was married to Neptune is Salacia, whose name is derived from the Latin for “salt” to represent the sea. It seems more likely that the statue found on Milos is not Venus, but actually Amphitrite, goddess of the sea and wife of Poseidon.
So how did she end up in The Louvre as the Venus de Milo – and what have the Romans got to do with the island of Milos?
It is actually hard to find any corner of the world where the Roman Empire did not poke its fingers and Milos was no different. The island is now known for a beautiful Roman amphitheatre which was originally built during the Hellenistic period, but which the Romans destroyed and rebuilt using white marble and which is now the main sightseeing excursion on Milos. The Romans had driven Philip V of Macedonia out of Milos and established their own rule there in 197 BC. The Romans are known for adopting the beliefs and influences of other cultures such as the Greeks and Egyptians, and Roman statuary reflects this – many, if not all, ancient Roman statues adopt Greek classicism or influences from Egypt, such as the poses of statues, as well as the draperies (clothing) and even imagery and symbolism. Roman sculpture did eventually favour naturalistic portraits, however – there is a gallery of grim-faced emperors and statesmen in the Borghese Museum.
However, if you compare the Venus de Milo with graceful Roman statues such as the statue of Ceres (goddess of the harvest and fertility), which stands in Piazza del Popolo in Rome, you will see similarities. The classical pose adopted by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans was to stand with the left leg or foot forward – and often to carry something symbolic in one hand, such as a scroll or staff in Egyptian statuary to denote power, a wheatsheaf or cornucopia symbolising the harvest and abundance in the case of Ceres – or a trident in the case of Neptune. Often statues depicted their subjects as gods, also – the Roman emperors and their female relatives liked to be depicted as gods and goddesses in statues of themselves. The Victorians also found it amusing to see themselves in portraits which depicted them as mythological figures: you can tell who they are supposed to be by their costumes and what they are carrying or are accompanied by, such as the wheatsheaf, cornucopia or basket of fruit of Ceres.
This leads up to the next mystery about the Venus de Milo – how were her arms posed? There are clear signs of support with two holes in one arm and also a hole in her breast that has been filled in at some stage. Textile expert Professor Elizabeth Barber Wayland has suggested that the stance of the statue indicates she might have been spinning. The Greek goddess Athena was a goddess of weaving who made a cloth depicting the gods sitting on Mount Olympus, but she was a goddess of battle strategy, not the sea – the Roman equivalent of Athena is Minerva. However, the ancient Greek poet Pindar from Thebes does refer to Amphitrite as “the goddess of the golden spindle”. A spindle, however, is also what operated the steering mechanism on a ship’s wheel and Amphitrite being the goddess of the sea, perhaps it is not unlikely that a ship’s spindle might be one of the symbols she is associated with. The spindle featured frequently in ancient literature and art – you can read more about some of the meaning attributed to the spindle online at Wikipedia.
But how the statue was posed is maybe the key to her identity – she is not such an important goddess that she is frequently depicted at the side of Poseidon, although was not given such a low profile as Neptune’s wife, Salacia. There is in the Louvre a statue of Amphitrite by sculptor François Théodore Devaulx (1808-1870) (see image below), which shows her nude and holding a trident. It is interesting to compare this to the ancient statue we now know as the Venus de Milo.
An interesting artefact in the argument that the Venus de Milo is actually the Amphitrite de Milo is a mosaic of Neptune and Amphitrite in the House of Neptune at the ancient roman city of Herculaneum, in which you can see that she has the same curvaceous pose of the Venus de Milo – and that the position of one arm of the Venus de Milo is not unlike the left arm of Amphitrite as she holds her trident in this mosaic. It is said that Herculaneum was founded in 1243 BC but became Roman in 89 BC after being conquered by the Roman general Sulla. In AD 79, the town was destroyed along with Pompeii in the eruption of Vesuvius.
The mosaic post-dates the statue we know as the Venus de Milo but whether there was any influence in the design of Amphitrite from the Greek statue on Milos is unknown. It is not an impossible journey from Herculaneum to Milos or vice versa and the Romans did add it to their empire, but were both the mosaic’s Amphitrite and the statue of Venus de Milo simply based on the classical trope (style or motif) of female nudity in ancient art? It is interesting to observe, however, that in the mosaic, the staff or trident she is holding does appear to be golden.
So the final mystery, how did the Milos statue end up in Paris as the Venus de Milo and on permanent exhibition at the Louvre?
It was, in a way, a matter of convenience and of being in the right place at the right time. The statue was sold to the French, who had lost many of their finest artworks looted by Napoleon, after they had been returned to their countries of origin. This included the Venus de’ Medici, which had been returned to Italy. It had been bought from Greece in 1575 by the Grand Duke of Tuscany Ferdinando de’ Medici, and is supposed to have been sculpted by Cleomenes; except the Venus de’ Medici – a statue of the goddess of beauty, Aphrodite – is said to have had the name of Cleomenes fraudulently carved on her plinth to increase her value.
The statue is a 1st century copy of a bronze Venus in the style of the Greek sculptor Praxiteles, who famusly created a statue called the Aphrodite of Knidos in around 350 BC (see image below). You can compare the Venus de Milo’s upper arm positions with those of the Venus de’ Medici’s and other statues and form your own conclusions.
The Venus de Milo ended up as a major exhibit at the Louvre with a new name when the French, grieving the loss of some of their museum exhibits, decided that, as the Milos statue was sculpted after the classical period, which ended in 323 BC in Greece, it was even more desirable – and she would be a fitting shoe-in for their missing exhibit, the Venus de’ Medici; and so the statue excavated on Milos was christened the Venus de Milo by the French and took her position on permanent display in the Louvre.
Art fraud and the difficulty of identifying a piece of art and its creator and history – known as provenance – are as old as the Pyramids. Art historians sometimes spend their entire lives trying to prove a theory on the provenance of a statue, portrait or artefact, involving extensive research of dates, mythology, where it was found, where it ended up and whether any paperwork or inscriptions are verifiable or possible forgeries in themselves. There is more science and technology available to art historians these days in dating and identifying and valuing artworks – but sometimes an artefact still remains a mystery to us and beguiles us not only for this, but for its very survival over centuries and the stories it might pass down to us if we could just solve all the riddles. The Venus de Milo holds the answers to her identity, but although nearly naked, she is still cloaked in mystery.
And it may be that there is just a little bit of Roman DNA in her bones from her home in the ancient city of Milos, where the Roman Empire once held sway.
The Venus de Milo is on permanent display at the Louvre in Paris.
Buon viaggio – et bon voyage!