“The whole truth about the Venus de Milo is not known, but I know it.” So wrote an 87-year-old French sailor named Matterer who died in 1868.
As Napoleon’s military conquered new territories, removing art was “simply part of his mission”. In fact, Dominique-Vivant Denon (a wing in the Louvre is named after him) had an official role in choosing which masterpieces to send back to Paris.
When Napoleon abdicated the throne in 1814, thousands of artworks were reclaimed by allied troops. Two years later, England added insult to France’s injury.
In 1816, the British parliament voted to purchase the classical Greek marble reliefs ripped from the Parthenon and shipped to London by Lord Elgin. (While historically known as the “Elgin Marbles,” these treasures are now called the Parthenon Marbles, as Lord Elgin’s acquisition was – and is – controversial.)
In 1820, the Greek island of Milos had a population of 5,000. When one of its inhabitants sailed away from the island, her fame would rival the Mona Lisa.
“Three days ago a peasant who was digging in his field found a white marble statue representing Venus receiving the apple of Paris. She is larger than life-size...I have been to see her.” -April 10, 1820 letter from Captain Dauriac to the French consul general
At this time, Milos was part of the Ottoman Empire, though no Turkish citizen or official lived on the island. The French authorities paid the Greek farmer 1,000 francs ($11,000 today) for the statue of Venus.
“The statue is fragile and lined with fractures. It was carved from two large blocks of marble, one set on top of the other. The line where the two blocks meet is visible, even though somewhat hidden by the roll of drapery around her pelvis.”
The Venus de Milo stands 6’ 8” tall (more than 2 meters of marble). The drapery around Venus’ hips might be a concession to modesty, but its artistry serves a purpose: giving stable support to the torso above.
“One reason the Venus de Milo became so famous so quickly is that she arrived in France at the precise moment when the neoclassicism of the past gave way to the romanticism of the future.”
The neoclassicists believed in imitating classical art and the romantics believed that great art was the result of personal and political freedom.
There are so many real-life characters in Gregory Curtis’ book, it can be difficult to keep all the names straight. But it is easy to recognize their transparent self-interest which is almost comical. Suffice to say that pride – national and personal – was behind every decision made about the Venus.
Sometimes, pride pushed people out of the story. Sometimes, arrogance prevented harm to the statue. While art restoration was common in the early 19th century, one scholar had determined that the Venus should be left as she was; her two missing arms should not be restored.
The book’s author believes this lack of significant restoration brings the goddess down to earth and sustains her popularity among us mortals.
See more Books to Read:
The Reader on the 6.27
No Time to Spare
Read This for Inspiration
Vivian Maier Developed
Once Upon a Tome
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