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Aphrodite of Cnidus

"...have no fear; for you have wrought a very beautiful work of art, such as nobody, in fact, has ever seen before among all things fashioned by men's hands: you have set up a statue of your own mistress in the sacred precinct....And do not begrudge me this honour. For it is Praxiteles that people praise when they have gazed at me..."

Alciphron, Letters of the Courtesans: Phrynę to Praxiteles

The Aphrodite of Cnidus (Knidos) by Praxiteles (c.350 BC) is the first monumental female nude in classical sculpture. Upon seeing it, the Greek Anthology (VI.160) has Aphrodite herself remark, "Where did Praxiteles see me naked?" Of it, Pliny says "...and yet superior to anything not merely by Praxiteles, but in the whole world, is the Venus." In the Amores (13-14), attributed to Lucian but likely a later imitation, the Knidia is described.

"...we entered the temple. In the midst thereof sits the goddess—she's a most beautiful statue of Parian marble—arrogantly smiling a little as a grin parts her lips. Draped by no garment, all her beauty is uncovered and revealed, except in so far as she unobtrusively uses one hand to hide her private parts. So great was the power of the craftsman's art that the hard unyielding marble did justice to every limb....The temple had a door on both sides for the benefit of those also who wish to have a good view of the goddess from behind, so that no part of her be left unadmired. It's easy therefor for people to enter by the other door and survey the beauty of her back. And so we decided to see all of the goddess and went round to the back of the precinct. Then, when the door had been opened by the woman responsible for keeping the keys, we were filled with an immediate wonder for the beauty we beheld."

This passage is the first instance in which the placement of the hand is mentioned, although which one is not specified. In that gesture, which had not appeared in Greek art before, the divine authority of the goddess is both hidden and revealed, the hand that decorously covers her modesty (aidôs) also drawing the viewer's attention to it, to the mystery of her power over those who worship her. (The representation of the pubes is equally modest, with none of the explicitness of the male, an aesthetic that was adhered to in later copies and variations.)

In the Imagines (VI), Lucian comments on the head alone. Imagining the perfect woman, constructed from the most beautiful parts of other statues, it is the head of the Knidia that he would use, keeping the area around the hair and forehead; the line of the eyebrows; as well as the eyes "that gaze so liquid, and at the same time so clear and winsome." Even the age of this ideal woman, says the poet, should be the same as that of Praxiteles' statue. (As to wisdom and understanding, Lucian goes on to say that those qualities, as well as experience in affairs, acumen in politics, and quickness of wit, should be represented by Aspasia.)

It is the Capitoline Venus, however, where both the breasts and pubis are self-consciously covered, that is the archetype of so many representations of the female nude that follow, including Masaccio's "The Expulsion" and Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus." This is the pose of the Venus Pudica or "modest Venus," in which the arms envelope a body that is both sensuous and distant.


The Colonna Venus is located in the Mask Room off the Gallery of Statues in the Pio-Clementine Museum (Vatican). Maddenly, the room often is closed.  

  The statue of the goddess established a canon for the female nude, and inspired many derivatives and variants, the best of which is considered to be the Colonna Knidia, which is in the Vatican's Pio-Clementine Museum. Here she stands in a contrapposto pose, her weight on her right leg, her left knee slightly bent. A Roman copy, it is not thought to match the polished beauty of the original, which was destroyed in a disastrous fire at Constantinople in AD 475.

Rather than Aphrodite being surprised at her bath, embarrassed and ashamed, Havelock demonstrates that the nudity of the goddess signifies her divine birth from the sea and her role at Cnidus as Aphrodite Euploia ("fair voyage"), protectress of seafarers. The pudica gesture is not indicative of her shame, he contends, but her fertility; the hydria, not the bath, but her eternal youth through ritual cleansing and renewal; and the drapery, not that Aphrodite has disrobed, but a link in the composition of the water vessel and figure.

Pausanias relates that the original sanctuary to Aphrodite commemorated an Athenians naval victory over the Spartans in 394 BC off Cnidus, which is on a narrow peninsula on the southern coast of Turkey. "For the Cnidians hold Aphrodite in very great honor, and they have sanctuaries of the goddess...the newest is to the Aphrodite called Cnidian by men generally, but Euploia (Fair Voyage) by the Cnidians themselves" (I.1.3). It is this shrine that was copied at Hadrian's villa at Tivoli.

Athenaeus says that Praxiteles offered Phrynę her choice of his statues, to see whether she would take the Eros or the Satyr. She choose the Eros and offered it as a votive gift to Thespiae in Boeotia, where she was born. As a result, the city became famous, the "city otherwise not worth seeing," says Strabo (IX.2.25). In his Description of Greece (I.20.1-2), Pausanias tells how she came to make her choice:

"Phryne once asked of him the most beautiful of his works, and the story goes that lover-like he agreed to give it, but refused to say which he thought the most beautiful. So a slave of Phryne rushed in saying that a fire had broken out in the studio of Praxiteles, and the greater number of his works were lost, thought not all were destroyed. Praxiteles at once started to rush through the door crying that his labour was all wasted if indeed the flames had caught his Satyr and his Love. But Phryne bade him stay and be of good courage, for he had suffered no grievous loss, but had been trapped into confessing which were the most beautiful of his works. So Phryne chose the statue of Love..."

Pausanias (IX.27.3-4) also relates that the Eros was ordered to Rome by Caligula when he became emperor and that Claudius had it returned to the Thespians, only to have Nero take it to Rome a second time, where it was destroyed in a fire. (Indeed, Lucian's companion on the voyage to Cnidus would have preferred to visit the Eros.)


Caius Verres

Governor of Sicily, Verres, was even more acquisitive. So thoroughly did he plunder the island of its art that the Sicilians, unable to plead in court, themselves, appealed to the Senate for relief. Cicero, who, himself, had been quaestor in Sicily five years before, prosecuted the case in 70 BC (the same year he stood for aedile, the next office in the cursus honorum). Any number of obstacles were put in the way. Quintus Hortensius, the most celebrated advocate in Rome, was hired for the defense. An attempt also was made to replace Cicero by putting forward another prosecutor, who would be more sympathetic to the defendant and, if possible, delay the trial. And when Cicero, who was allowed to continue with the case, sailed to Sicily to gather evidence, he was thwarted at every turn. Returning to Rome, he then discovered that another trial had put on the calendar, forcing his own case to be delayed until August, when the number of holidays (and the opening of Pompey's votive games celebrating his victory in Spain) meant that few days would be left for a trial even to be heard. Too, friends and patrons of Verres by now had been elected to positions of influence for the next year. If the case were to drag through autumn, they would be able to affect the outcome.

Cicero proceeded directly to a presentation of the evidence, convincingly demonstrating the extent of Verres' rapacity, in which he was able to amass forty million sesterces during his three years in Sicily. Hortensius (who was to be consul the next year) withdrew from the case and Verres was forced into exile, taking much of his fortune with him. The next day, despite having been bribed, the jury brought in a verdict of guilty. Cicero, with this, his first prosecution, was established as the leading advocate in Rome. The Verrine Orations convey some idea of the character of Verres, who, when he did actually purchase a work of art, determined the selling price himself.

"It delights me that the renowned names of these artists, which the experts praise to the heavens, fall so low in the estimation of Verres. A Cupid by Praxiteles for 1,600 sesterces!....What can I say? Do you think that they [the Sicilians] have been afflicted with only moderate grief? It is not so, judges....Greeks delight in this kind of ornamentation, in works of art and artistry, in statues and paintings, more than anything else. And consequently, from their mournful complaints we are able to understand how these things seem so terribly bitter to them which to us might seem less serious and hardly so worrisome."

Against Verres II

In 43 BC, both Cicero and Verres died in the proscriptions of Mark Antony: Cicero for his Philippics and Verres, it was said, because Antony coveted his collection of Corinthian bronze artifacts (Pliny, XXXIV.6).


References: The Aphrodite of Knidos and Her Successors: A Historical Review of the Female Nude in Greek Art (1995) by Christine Mitchell Havelock; The Art of Greece, 1400-31 BC: Sources and Documents (1965) by J. J. Pollitt; Art, Desire, and the Body in Ancient Greece (1997) by Andrew Stewart; Roman Sculpture (1992) by Diana E. E. Kleiner; Cicero (2001) by Anthony Everitt.

The Letters of Alciphron, Aelian and Philostratus (1949) translated by Allen Rogers Benner and Francis H. Fobes (Loeb Classical Library); Greek Anthology (1916-) translated by W. R. Paton (Loeb Classical Library); Lucian: Amores (1913) translated by M. D. Macleod (Loeb Classical Library); Lucian: Essays in Portraiture [Imagines] (1925) translated by A. M. Harmon (Loeb Classical Library); Athenaeus: The Deipnosophists (1937) translated by Charles Burton Gulick (Loeb Classical Library); The Geography of Strabo (1929) translated by Horace Leonard Jones (Loeb Classical Library); Pausanias: Description of Greece (1918) translated by W. H. S. Jones (Loeb Classical Library); Cicero: The Verrine Orations II: Against Verres (1935) translated by L. H. G. Greenwood (Loeb Classical Library); Lives of the Later Caesars (1976) translated by Anthony Birley (Penguin Classics); Pliny: Natural History (1938-) translated by H. Rackham et al. (Loeb Classical Library); Ovid: The Erotic Poems (1983) translated by Peter Green (Penguin Classics); Strabo: Geography (1917-) translated by H. L. Jones (Loeb Classical Library).

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