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, the Greek goddess of love and beauty. It is a marble sculpture, slightly larger than life size at 203cm high. The famous Venus statue is housed in the Louvre in France. Although the sculptor is unknown and the date of origin can only be estimated the second century B.C., it remains a masterpiece with few equals.

In the early 19th Century the statue was discovered in an underground cavern on the Aegean island of Melos by a farmer digging in his field. It was missing its arms but it is believed that one held a shield while the other held a mirror so that she could admire her own beauty. After a unique series of events, the French acquired the statue and renamed it the Venus de Milo.

The statue was discovered 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 inside a buried niche within the ancient city ruins of Milos in 1820 on the Aegean island of Milos, by a peasant named Yorgos Kentrotas. At the moment of discovery a French naval officer, Jules Dumont d’Urville, recognized its significance and arranged for a purchase by the French ambassador to Turkey, the Marquis de Riviere.

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

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

The statue was presented to King Louis XVIII in 1821 and then to the Louvre museum in Paris, where it still stands on public display. The statue’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, who regarded it 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”.