The Venus de Milo is one of the famous artworks of the Louvre. But after a quick glance, most visitors move on without realizing what's unique about it.
The Venus de Milo, photo © 2010 RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre) / Hervé Lewandowski.
Tackling the Louvre, if attempting to look, for one minute each, all the artworks on display would take nearly three months, eight hours a day… As for most people, a visit is the only one of their lives, there's a rush for the "must-sees." The first masterpiece visitors discover is the Venus de Milo.
For the 200th anniversary of the arrival of Venus in the Louvre, here is her story.
The ancient theater of Melos (Milo) at the time when Yorgos Kentrotas and Olivier Voutier discovered the Venus de Milo nearby.
For one and a half thousand years, temples and statues slowly disappeared. The reason was that ancient wonders were dismantled and used to build homes or walls. Particularly sculptures, as cooking the fine marble used for statues produced the best lime.
Various marble fragments spent centuries in a cave-like niche, forgotten, possibly set aside for the limekiln. Then, in the spring of 1820, French navy ships anchored on the island of Milo.
Olivier Voutier, a young navy officer with a passion for ancient Greece, walked around the theater's ruins. In his own words, here is what he saw.
"Soon I encountered an infinite number of fragments of the most beautiful marble of Paros. Architecture, sculpture, a bust whose head had been changed several times, a well worked foot, two draped statues of the best style, without head, hands or feet".
Nearby, Yorgos Kentrotas, a peasant, searched for stones to reinforce the wall around his field.
Sketch by Voutier depicting how the statue of the Venus de Milo was found, in two parts, without arms.
"Twenty steps away from us, a peasant was pulling stones from the ruins of a small chapel buried by the rising ground. Seeing him stop and look carefully at the bottom of his hole, I approached. He had just uncovered the upper part of a statue in poor condition and, as it could not be used for its construction, was going to cover it with rubble.
With a tip of a few piasters, I made it instead come out. It had no arms, the nose and the knot of the hair were broken, it was horribly dirtied. Nevertheless, at first glance, one recognizes a remarkable piece.
I urged my man to look for the other part. Soon, he came across it. Then I had the statue assembled. Who has seen the Venus de Milo can imagine my amazement!"
Yorgos carted the upper part of the statue to his cowshed, where French officers came to see it. The first exhibition of the Venus of Milo took place in a barn.
"Some of the officers who have observed it say that it is 'not that much'. Others, on the contrary, say that it is a very fine piece of work".
The opinion that it was a very fine statue prevailed, and further search in the cavity revealed carved pillars and various marble fragments.
Reconstitution of the niche where the Venus de Milo was found. Olivier Voutier, as Colonel in the Greek Army.
The rest of the story gets confusing, with a dozen people playing a part in the acquisition. Yorgos, the shepherd, offered the French consul, who spoke fluent Greek, to buy the statue. A deal was agreed upon, but none of the French officials on the island had enough money or authority to complete the purchase. While they referred to their superiors, Yorgos, who needed stones for his wall, waited for his reward.
In the meantime, the shepherd received another offer. The statue would be gifted to an Ottoman official in Constantinople, as the island was part of the Ottoman Empire. The modern, independent Greek state only came to be in 1828.
When the French returned to complete the purchase, Venus was about to be loaded on a ship bound for Constantinople. After two days of arguments and negotiations, the situation was resolved, and Yorgos received his payment.
The Venus de Milo sailed towards France, was presented to King Louis XVIII, who offered it to the Louvre museum. Olivier Voutier joined the fight for Greek independence and became Colonel in the Greek army.
Who is the Venus de Milo? A goddess, a woman? Aphrodite, goddess of love, the sea goddess Amphitrite? Photo © 2011 Musée du Louvre / Thierry Ollivier.
We don't know who she is. Milo only is the name of the Greek island where the discovery took place. The features that would have helped identify her, held in her arms, are lost. But, to state the obvious, this is the body of a half-naked woman. In ancient Greece, the gods took human form. To the point that gods and mortals could even love each other, and have children. Hercules and Achilles were born the union between gods and mortals.
If the gods had the same appearance than humans, how does one know if a sculpture depicts a divine or human figure? Size, gods are depicted taller than humans, and the Venus de Milo is larger-than-life, at 6 ft 6. The best materials are used for gods, solid gold and elephant ivory, gilded bronze, or fine marble.
Her body might be that of a woman, but unlike us, gods are immortal. The divine serenity that emanates from her idealized face is that of an immortal being.
Since she is a goddess, which one could she be? Being half-naked, probably Aphrodite, the goddess of love, pleasure and fertility. And beauty, of course, being the most handsome among divinities. Aphrodite being Venus to the Romans, a Greek statue ended with a Roman name.
Another possibility is that she might be Amphitrite, goddess of the sea, wife of Poseidon. Thus her name is likely to be "Aphrodite of Melos", or "Amphitrite of Melos".
Different proposals of how the Venus de Milo would look like with her arms, holding an apple or writing on a shield.
Her arms are missing because she was manufactured like a jigsaw puzzle. Starting with two major parts, a base, the dress, with on top the bust and head. Then, the arms were attached to the bust with tenons, the hole for the left arm is easily visible. Other fixation holes are still present, because Aphrodite was covered in gold or gilded bronze jewelry, as befits a goddess.
To imagine what the Venus de Milo looked like two millennia ago, we must forget the idea that Greek statues were white as porcelain. Marble statues were brightly painted, and gods and goddesses often had gold hair. Venus had gold hearings, why a thief destroyed her earlobes.
So we can envision the Venus de Milo with gold highlights, and most likely brightly colored skin and dress.
When she arrived in the Louvre, a debate occurred between adding new arms, as was usually done, or leaving the statue as it was. Aside from the tip of her nose, restored with plaster, and slight restorations, Venus is as she was found.
The drawing showing the Venus de Milo with the lost plinth. The Poseidon of Melos, discovered in 1877.
There is a lot of confusion about missing limbs, a foot, a hand holding an apple. And several missing inscriptions. In particular, a signed plinth, inscribed " …andros son of …enides citizen of …ioch at Meander made".
Is it the signature of an unknown artist named "Alexandros [or Agesandros], son of Menides, from Antioch"? Could it be the base of the Venus de Milo, or something meant for another statue?
The plinth has since disappeared. Was it because the curators of the time were unable to admit the statue wasn't as old as they thought? Therefore that Venus wasn't created by the great master they dreamt of? And that the dilemma was solved by 'misplacing' the inconvenient evidence?
And if she is Amphitrite, then a comparable marble statue, of similar size and manufacture was later found. Poseidon, today in the National Museum of Athens. Although it might be by the same workshop or even the same artist that created the Venus de Milo, few people pay attention to this statue.
The name "Alexandros, son of Menides" resurfaced as winner of a poetry competition. A poet certainly can also be a talented sculptor. Sadly, the name of the artist who carved the Venus de Milo is probably lost to time.
For two reasons. First, most museum labels for Greek statues state 'Roman copy of a lost Greek original'. Genuine Greek statues are so rare that museums have to display Roman copies instead. The Romans were so eager to decorate their cities and homes with Greek masterpieces that they ended producing thousands of marble copies. But here copy doesn't mean fake, but quality replica.
When we consider how fragile marble is, then we realize this is not any random broken statue. The Venus de Milo isn't one of those Roman copies made with varying degrees of quality. She is the real deal, a Greek masterpiece, created around 100 BC. The Venus de Milo is one of the best-preserved Greek statues in existence.
Second reason, her fame was intentionally manufactured. In 1821 the Louvre seemed empty, as France had just returned the massive art booty confiscated during the Napoleonic wars. The Victory of Samothrace hadn't been found yet. The Mona Lisa only was one of the five Leonardo da Vinci in the Louvre, among thousands of paintings.
In terms of Greek masterpieces, the British Museum could boast displaying an ancient Greek wonder, the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon. The Louvre had almost nothing to compete with. Until the Venus de Milo arrived.
Wounded pride was healed by repeatedly claiming that there was an illustrious Greek masterpiece. Some even claimed that it was created by Phidias or Praxiteles, two of the greatest sculptors of ancient times. The more it was said, the more she became famous.
The Venus de Milo prepared for her evacuation in September 1939. German soldiers admiring the 'Venus de Plaster' in the Louvre.
Now the Venus of Milo was world-famous, what happened during the biggest art theft in history, when the Nazis looted hundreds of thousands of artworks?
In 1940, the German occupying forces reopened the Louvre, and Nazi dignitaries came to visit and admire its masterpieces. They thought to be looking at the famous Venus de Milo, while they were instead admiring a lump of plaster.
This was thanks to Jacques Jaujard, the director of the Louvre. He had managed the most daring art salvation operation, emptying the museum of its treasures before the arrival of the Nazis. The Venus de Milo left the Louvre soon after the war declaration, spending the war hidden away. Venus returned to the Louvre in 1945, but it wasn't to be her last travel.
Mona Lisa visited Washington and New York in 1963, while the Venus de Milo sailed for Japan. In 1964, 1.7 million Japanese visitors came to see Venus, even more than the Mona Lisa managed in the United States.
Venus was slightly damaged during the journey across the seas, meaning she might not be Amphitrite, after all. And as a result, it's unlikely she would ever leave the Louvre again.
Aphrodite arrived in the Louvre in 1821, and in the ensuing 200 years, became an icon. One reason is Paris itself. As center of the arts, many artists came to the Louvre, admired Venus, sketched and copied her. Thousands of pages have been written about her.
Marlene Dietrich posed like her in 'Blonde Venus'. Artists like Magritte, Dali and Arman created their own 'Venus de Milo'. Miles Davis and Prince composed music for her. She appeared in the TV series Twin Peaks and the Simpsons. Homer ate her, or rather the 'Gummy de Milo'…
We may never know who she is, what happened to her, and who created her. That certainly won't stop her being fascinating, due to a very simple question. Are we looking at Aphrodite, most beautiful among goddesses, or at a woman raised on a divine pedestal?
According to the Greek poet,
"as soon as ever I saw you with my eyes, goddess, I knew that you were divine".
Or to Rodin, in his book about the Venus de Milo:
"You are no vain or sterile statue, image of some unreal goddess.
Ready for action, you breathe, you are Woman, and there lies your glory.
What is divine in you is the infinite love of your sculptor for nature".
— Among the people involved in the discovery of the Venus de Milo are Louis Brest, Jules Dumont d'Urville, marquis de Rivière, comte de Marcellus, Capitaine Dauriac, Commandant Duval d'Ailly, Pierre David. The monk Oikonomos Verghi, the Prince Nicolas Mourousy, Arsenal Grand Dragoman.
— Olivier Voutier, translated, and edited for clarity, for this article in English from "Découverte et acquisition de la Vénus de Milo, 1874".
— Frédéric de Clarac, Sur la statue antique de Vénus Victrix découverte dans l'île de Milo en 1820 transportée à Paris et donnée au roi par M. le marquis de Rivière.
— Félix Ravaisson, La Vénus de Milo.
— Etienne Michon, La Vénus de Milo.
— M. de Vogüé, Sur la découverte de la Vénus de Milo. Comptes rendus de l'académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres, 1874.
— Salomon Reinach. Amalthée, mélanges d'archéologie et d'histoire. 1930, Tome 1.
— American Journal of Archaeology. Creating the Past: The Vénus de Milo and the Hellenistic Reception of Classical Greece.
— Marianne Hamiaux, Le type statuaire de la Vénus de Milo.
— The Aphrodite and the Poseidon of Melos: A Synthesis; Christofilis Maggidis.
— The Venus de Milo: Genesis of a Modern Myth; Philippe Jockey.
— Rodin translated for this article in English from Auguste Rodin "A La Venus de Milo".
Photos: Musée du Louvre, Gallica, Archives Nationales, Wikimedia, Flickr; "A Paris Sous La Botte Des Nazis, Jean Eparvier, Raymond Schall, 1944"; Met museum. Text is © Art Journey Paris.