Return to Aphrodite

Tivoli and the Aphrodite of Cnidus

"He completed the building of his Tiburtine villa in wonderful fashion, in such a way that he inscribed the most famous of names of provinces and places there."

Historia Augusta, Life of Hadrian

Only two classical authors describe the architectural setting of Praxiteles' Aphrodite (Knidia). Pliny, writing before AD 78, says that "The shrine in which it stands is entirely open [aedicula eius tota aperitur] so as to allow the image of the goddess to be viewed from every side....[and] equally admirable from every angle" (Natural History, XXXVI.iv.21). Aedicula is the diminutive of aedes and signifies the sacred space in which a god resides (Valerius Maximus, in writing of the shrine, calls it a templum, Memorial Doings and Sayings, VIII.11.4.) That it was open is affirmed, as well, by a poem in the Greek Anthology: "Paphian Cythera came through the waves to Cnidus, wishing to see her own image, and having viewed it from all sides in its open shrine, she cried 'Where did Praxiteles see me naked'" (XVI.160; cf. 163, "Praxiteles has set her in full view of the Cnidians"). In describing the fabulous barge of Ptolemy IV Philopator, Athenaeus mentions, too, that it had on board "a rotunda-shaped shrine of Aphrodite, in which there was a marble statue of the goddess" (The Deipnosophists, V.205E).

An open shrine suggests that it was a monopteros (having a single row of columns), which Vitruvius describes as a round temple "set up with columns but without a cella" (On Architecture, IV.8.1). It is a setting that is duplicated in the monopteros at Hadrian's villa (second century AD), although there the building served as a decorative structure in a nymphaeum, in which there once were fountains in the two apses on the sides, surrounding the pavilion with water. A single ring of Doric columns supported a domed roof, in the center of which was a copy of the statue.

Early in the fourth century AD, Pseudo-Lucian (so named because his work imitates that of the second-century satirist Lucian of Samosata), provides a different description. "For the uncovered court was not for the most part paved with smooth slabs of stone to form an unproductive area but, as was to be expected in Aphrodite's temple, was all of it prolific with garden fruits. These trees, luxuriant far and wide with fresh green leaves, roofed in the air around them" (Affairs of the Heart, XII). There were myrtle, cypress and plane trees, all entwined with ivy, as well as vines thick with clusters of grapes. Within this bower was situated the temple itself, which "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 therefore for people to enter by the other door and survey the beauty of her back. And so we went 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 the the beauty we beheld" (XIII-XIV).

In Pseudo-Lucian, the implication is that the statue was in a small temple (naos, diminutive naiskos)—more specifically, a tholos like the one in the sanctuary of Athena Pronaia at Delphi. Rather than the monopteros of Pliny, which was completely open, here the colonnade surrounds an inner cella (the most sacred part of the temple) with a central door at the front and a second, locked door at the back by which the goddess could be admired from the rear.

The ruins of Cnidus (Greek Knidos) are at the very tip of the Datça peninsula in southwest Turkey. They originally had been explored for the Society of Dilettanti by Sir William Gell in 1812 and later by Sir Charles Newton, who also discovered the Mausoleum at nearby Halicarnassus. Among the artifacts brought back to England and acquired by the British Museum in 1859 was the battered head of a marble statue.

Then, in 1969, Iris Cornelia Love, socialite, breeder of champion dachshunds, and heiress of the Guggenheim fortune, reported on her third season of archaeological work at Cnidus, where, on the uppermost terrace of the city overlooking the harbor, she discovered a circular marble podium not previously remarked upon, with a crepidoma of three steps. On the uppermost step (the stylobate), there were rectangular bases for what originally had been eighteen columns that she presumed to be Doric. The remains of a marble pedestal (the dark block above), on which the statue of Aphrodite could have been placed, was found, as well as steps leading up to the podium. Given that its diameter was almost the same as that of the monopteros at Hadrian's villa, Love surmised that she had discovered the shrine that once held the Aphrodite Euploia of Praxiteles.

The next season of excavation revealed a fragmentary inscription that began with the letters PRAX, confirming her suspicion that the structure being excavated was indeed the famous shrine. A crack running through the podium, presumably damaged by an earthquake, had caused one section to subside and, on a terrace below the temple, there were fragments of drapery and a right hand, the fingers of which had been dowelled (a technique used by Praxiteles in his only surviving masterpiece, the Hermes at Olympia), which Love suggested may have belonged to the statue. An altar aligned with the steps of the shrine was found, as well as the inscription ATHANA and a large fragment of a Corinthian capital. Given that the monopteros at Hadrian's villa is Doric, it was conjectured that the capital was part of either repair or subsequent remodeling, especially since the building, which she dated as later than the fourth century BC was later than the statue itself.

On November 8, 1970, Love created another sensation when she announced in The New York Times that a marble head stored in the basement of the British Museum was that of Praxiteles' statue of Aphrodite. It was, in her words, "one of the most spectacular finds in the history of classical art." Piqued at the implication that the Museum would not know what was in its own collection, it patiently explained that the head had been found at the Temple of Demeter more than a mile away and likely was that of Persephone, her daughter. That the Knidia had been taken to Constantinople, where it was destroyed by fire in AD 475, also was dismissed by Love, who considered Georgius Cedrenus, the twelfth-century Byzantine historian who wrote of its loss, to be "an unreliable historian."

By the fifth season (1971), Love posited that the Corinthian capital and fragments of column drums belonged to an earlier building that may have been the original shrine. And, although she does not mention it, the Corinthian order would have been particularly appropriate because, as Vitruvius explained, it "imitates the slenderness of a young girl, because young girls, on account of the tenderness of their age, can be seen to have even more slender limbs and obtain even more charming effects when they adorn themselves" (On Architecture, I.1.8). The altar, too, was associated with Athana.

It is understandable that Love would think that she had discovered the Aphrodite of Praxiteles, especially when the fragmentary inscription PRAX was found. When work was continued at the site by Ramazan Özgan, however, it was shown that the building did indeed have a Corinthian colonnade and so was not related to the Doric nymphaeum at Hadrian's villa. It also had a cella wall and so was a tholos. Moreover, it was dedicated, not to Aphrodite, but to Athena. Nor was the fragmentary inscription PRAX that of the celebrated sculptor but a dedication by someone with the same name. Finally, the building dates to the second century BC, more than a century and a half after the purchase of the statue by the citizens of Cnidus.

The accounts of Pliny and Pseudo Lucian are not contemporary and, if they are to be reconciled, it may be that, as the Knidia became more renown late in the second century BC (possibly because of Roman expansion into the Mediterranean; certainly, no copies were made before then), the original fourth-century setting was renovated or completely rebuilt to allow for more unobstructed viewing. Or the temple may have been reinstalled in a new location—or its description may be an artistic embellishment to enhance the story told by Pseudo Lucian, as most cult statues were not visible from behind.

If the grey marble in the photographs seems wet, it is because the pictures were taken in the midst of an early autumn storm, with gusting wind and drenching rain. Such weather, with torrents of muddy water rushing down the hillside, can only aggravate the subsidence of the ground supporting the temple, which is described at the site as the foundation and podium of a tholos but mistakenly said to have been built in the second century AD.

The second view shows the podium slightly from above, overlooking the harbor below. One can see that the southern portion already has weakened and begun to fall away, as very well may happen to more of the temple, if the crack through the middle of the foundation and rutted, washed-out channels beneath the stone are any indication. A picture of the temple from the rocky hill that rises immediately behind the temple was not an option, as it was impossible to clamber up to the top.

The very-white marble statue of Aphrodite from Hadrian's villa is in the small museum there, watched over by an ever-present attendant. No pictures are permitted.

References: "The Architectural Setting of the Knidian Aphrodite" (2010) by Sophie Montel, in Brill's Companion to Aphrodite, edited by Amy C. Smith and Sadie Pickup; The Aphrodite of Knidos and Her Successors (1995) by Christine Mitchell Havelock; The Greek Anthology (1916) translated by W. R. Paton (Loeb Classical Library); Pseudo-Lucian: Affairs of the Heart, Vol. VIII (1913) translated by A. M. Harmon (Loeb Classical Library); "A Preliminary Report of the Excavations at Knidos, 1969" (1970) by Iris Cornelia Love, American Journal of Archaeology, 74(2), 149-155; this was one of several reports on campaigns that were published in AJA, including 72(2), 137-139; 73(2), 216-219; 76(1) 61-76, 393-405, and 77(4), 413-424; "An Archeological Find Named Iris Love" (1971, March 7) by Elisabeth Stevens, The New York Times, p. 32; "A Reporter at Large: The Dig at Cnidus" (1978, July 17) by Katherine Bouton, The New Yorker, p. 33; "Iris Love, Stylish Archaeologist and Dog Breeder, Dies at 86" (2020, April 23) by Penelope Green, The New York Times, which includes the remark "Archaeology relies on facts, and Iris was given to informed and colorful speculation, which added coloratura to the discipline"; "Archaeology in Anatolia" (1992) by Machteld J. Mellink, American Journal of Archaeology, 96, 119-150; Second Chance: Greek Sculptural Studies Revisited ("Some Personal Thoughts on the Knidia") (2004) by Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway; Lives of the Later Caesars (1976) by Anthony Birley; Athenaeus: The Deipnosophists, Vol. II (1928) translated by Charles Burton Gulick (Loeb Classical Library). The architectural model of the tholos is according to Bankel ("Knidos. Der Hellenistische Rundtempel und Sein Altar. Vorbericht") and created by Computer Graphics for Archeology and History of Architecture.

See also Palace of Lausus.

Return to Top of Page