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The Venus de Milo was discovered on April 8, 1820 on the Aegean island of Melos, then a backwater under the indifferent rule of the Ottoman Turks but subject politically to the influence of France. Olivier Voutier, an ensign in the French navy, whose warship had been idling in port, was searching for Greek antiquities when a local farmer, while removing stones from an ancient wall nearby, uncovered the statue. It was found in several pieces—a nude upper torso, a draped lower body, and part of the right hip that, when put in place, allowed both parts to fit together without toppling over. The arms were missing but Voutier was convinced that the sculpture was a masterpiece and hurriedly returned with the local vice-consul to persuade him to buy it. Meanwhile, the farmer had continued to dig and found a hand holding an apple, two herms standing on inscribed bases, and a fragment of an upper arm.
A week or so later, another French ship arrived at Melos—with another ensign, Dumont d'Urville, this time looking for botanical specimens. Introducing himself to the vice-consul and taken to see the statue, D'Urville was as excited at the discovery as Voutier had been, but neither man was in a position to buy the Venus. They had not the permission or the means; nor was there room on board the ships, which continued their journey to Constantinople. D'Urville arrived first, where he met the Comte de Marcellus, secretary to the Marquis de Rivière, the French ambassador. Hearing his story of the recent discovery, Marcellus, who himself was soon to leave on a tour of the Mediterranean, convinced the ambassador that he first should stop at Melos and buy the statue on behalf of Rivière, who, he suggested, then could present it to the king. By now, Voutier's ship also had arrived, which was tasked with transporting Marcellus on his diplomatic mission.
When it finally reached Melos on May 22, Voutier and Marcellus discovered that, even though the French had made the first offer, the statue apparently had been sold to a representative of the provincial pasha and was being loaded on board for shipment to Constantinople as they arrived. Marcellus intervened, first threatening local officials for breaking their agreement with the vice-consul and then paying them 250 francs, and the farmer another 750. The statue would go to Constantinople but to Rivière, who would accompany it to France, leaving his hated posting and returning in triumph. The local officials on Melos were fined by the Turks for not holding the statue but later reimbursed by Rivière. They, in turn, signed a quittance, and it was this agreement that spared the Venus de Milo from any later claims of patrimony.
The Venus arrived in Paris and was presented to Louis XVIII on March 1, 1821, although the king was so obese that it would be almost a year before he actually saw it. Placed in the Louvre, its restoration was to be supervised by the Comte de Forbin. He had become director in 1816, the same year that the British parliament had voted to purchase the Parthenon marbles acquired by Lord Elgin. The year before, after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, the Apollo Belvedere had been returned to the Vatican and the Venus de' Medici to Florence. For the pride of France, the Venus de Milo had to rival the recent acquisition by the British Museum and compensate for those works of art reclaimed from the Louvre.
By now, D'Urville was back in France and read a paper in which he himself took credit for having discovered the statue. It was the first published report of the Venus and obliged Forbin to make his own official announcement, which he did several months later. But there were problems. The statue comprises two blocks of marble that had been sculpted separately and then joined at the hip. The left arm and foot also were fashioned as separate pieces and fixed in place with tenons. Aside from the fragment of the right hip, three other pieces had broken away in shipment—another from the right hip and two from the left, all of which had broken sometime after the statue was created originally, but now the sections from the left hip were imperfectly restored.
More problematic was the broken base of one of the herms that had been found with the statue. It fit perfectly with the fractured base of the Venus, which meant that both were part of the same marble slab and comprised a single work of art. Equally disconcerting to Forbin, the base of this herm was inscribed in Greek <Alex>andros son of <M>enides citizen of <Ant>ioch at Meander made <it>. Antioch had not been founded until about 280 BC, a hundred years after the classical age in Greece had ended. Instead of a presumed masterpiece by the hand of Phidias or Praxiteles, the Venus de Milo was a late Hellenistic creation and so, as it seemed at the time, a devalued example of an inferior age.
So incongruous did it seem to Forbin that the two pieces should belong together (and so inconvenient the date if they did) that the inscribed base must have been fitted later. And, since it obviously did not belong to the Venus, it need not be displayed. Indeed, the base of the herm then disappeared and has never been found. Its existence may not even have been known were it not for Forbin's former art teacher, the neoclassic painter Jacques-Louis David. Having read the notice of the acquisition, he wrote another student of his (and classmate of Forbin) at the Louvre, asking that a drawing of it be made.
All that now remained was an authoritative declaration that the Venus was a product of the classical age. It came two months later from Quatremère de Quincy, secretary of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, who, persuaded by Forbin, pronounced that it was from the school of Praxiteles, himself. He also argued that the missing arms should not be restored, if only because a statue of Mars, which he believed had accompanied the Venus, could not be recreated as well (advice which Forbin followed; indeed, the statue likely would have been restored, as was the fashion at the time, had there been any certainty as to the position of the missing arms). In May, the Venus de Milo was put on public display, which, now that it could be studied more closely, prompted a response from the Comte de Clarac, conservator of antiquities at the Louvre, who, having been studiously ignored by Forbin and upset that Quatremère had presumed to comment on the authenticity of the Venus, insisted that it had been executed by Alexandros of Antioch, as proclaimed by the inscribed base. And gracing the cover of his pamphlet was the drawing that had been requested by David.
If Clarac's paper was largely ignored by the French, it was embraced by the Germans, who felt that they were the rightful owners of the statue. Several years before it had been discovered, Crown Prince Ludwig I of Bavaria (who commissioned the Glyptotek in Munich) had purchased the nearby ruins of an ancient theater on Melos and now insisted that the statue had been found on his land. The debate between French and German scholars would continue into the twentieth century. But it effectively ended in 1893, when Adolf Furtwängler published Meisterwerke der Griechischen Plastik, in which, based on the epigraphy of the inscription, he dated the statue to the late Hellenistic period, between 150 and 50 BC. An inscription from Thespiae, where poetry and theater competitions were held every five years, mentions Alexandros of Antioch as victor in singing and composing and, if the same person, narrows the date to about 150-100 BC (Maggidis posits 150-110 BC; the Louvre says "about 120 BC").
As to the restoration of the arms, the right extended across the stomach, pulling at the gathered drapery that is slipping from the hips and which also is being held in place by the raised left leg. The left arm is more problematic, at least how it was supported. From Voutier's drawing, the Venus must have been placed next to the herm, as incongruous as the pairing looks from a modern perspective. Found in a niche in a wall of the civic gymnasium, an inscription indicated that the assistant gymnasiarch had dedicated "this exedra and this <statue> to Hermes and Hercules," the herms found with the statue. The arm extends away from the body and, as there is no evidence of a strut, it must have been supported by the herm to which the statue was dedicated.
The fragmentary left hand holds an apple, which was awarded to Venus in the Judgment of Paris (e.g., Cypria, I; Ovid, Heroides, XVI.51ff). It is a particularly appropriate gesture. An attribute of Venus, it also alludes to the island, itself, which was in the shape of an apple, melon, hence its name and that of the statue, itself (de Milo). This prize may have reminded those who gazed upon the Venus why she had defeated her rivals Hera and Athena (in spite of their bribes) and what choices the young gymnasts, themselves, eventually would have to make—whether political power, military success, or love.
The Comte de Forbin had an affair with Pauline, the impulsive and flirtatious younger sister of Napoleon and openly lived with her, until in 1807 she tired of him. Sent off to the army, Forbin fought so bravely that he was awarded the Legion of Honor. There also was a long flirtation with Madame Récamier. The beauty of both women still is on display: Canova's marble statue of Pauline in the Galleria Borghese (Rome) reclining nude as Venus Victrix, also holding an apple to signify her victory, and the unfinished painting of Madame Récamier by David in the Louvre. A neoclassicist and ardent Bonapartist, David also painted Napoleon Crossing the Alps that same year. Dumont d'Urville, who was renowned as an explorer, is mentioned by Jules Verne in 20,000 League under the Sea (I.18).
In 1854, John Murray still could describe Melos in A Handbook for Travelers in Greece as "almost depopulated, and nearly a desert; a result that is to be ascribed to the ravages of the plague in former times, to the badness of the water, which is generally brackish, to the prevalence of maleria, and to the many outrages and exactions to which the island was exposed under the Turkish rule."
In the sixteenth year of the Peloponnesian War (416 BC), Athens sent an expeditionary force to Melos, which, although a colony of Sparta, had tried to remain neutral. In the Melian Dialogue, Thucydides dramatizes the arrogance of the Athenians (who themselves would suffer the next year in the disastrous Sicilian campaign) and the sophistry of their contention "that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must" and that "Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule whenever they can." When the inhabitants of Melos rejected these specious arguments, trusting in fortune to defend their liberty, they were defeated and forced to surrender to the Athenians, "who put to death all the grown men whom they took, and sold the women and children for slaves, and subsequently sent out five hundred colonists and inhabited the place themselves" (XVII, trans. Crawley).
References: "Creating the Past: The Vénus de Milo and the Hellenistic Reception of Classical Greece" (2005) by Rachel Kousser, American Journal of Archaeology, 109(2), 227-250; "The Aphrodite and the Poseidon of Melos" (1998) by Christofilis Maggidis, Acta Aarchaeologica, 69, 175-197; "Base Deception" (2003, October) by Gregory Curtis, Smithsonian Magazine, 101-107; Disarmed: The Story of the Venus de Milo (2003) by Gregory Curtis; Masterpieces of Greek Sculpture (1895) by Adolf Furtwängler and edited by Eugénie Sellers.
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