xxxxxThe Venus de Milo, the famous piece of ancient Greek sculpture, was discovered on the Aegean Island of Melos in 1820. It was confiscated by the Turkish authorities, and bought by a French naval officer. It was presented to Louis XVIII the following year, and he donated it to the Louvre in Paris. This larger than life sculpture is thought to be the work of Alexandros of Antioch from around 130 BC, and to depict Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty (known as Venus by the Romans).

xxxxxOne of the most famous pieces of ancient Greek sculpture, the so-called Venus de Milo, was discovered on the Aegean island of Melos (or Milos) in 1820. It was found lying in two pieces in an underground cavern by a peasant farmer named Yourgos. For a time he hid the pieces in his barn, but news of his find leaked out, and the statue was eventually confiscated by the Turkish authorities. A French naval officer named Jules Dumont d’Urville quickly realised its artistic value, and made arrangements for its purchase via the French ambassador to Turkey, the Marquis de Rivière. After some hasty repair work it was shipped off to France and presented to Louis XVIII in 1821. He eventually donated it to the Louvre Museum in Paris, where it has remained on display ever since.

xxxxxThe origin of this exquisite piece of work in white parian marble is not certain, but this larger than life statue (about 6ft 8 inches in height) is thought to be the work of the sculptor Alexandros of Antioch and probably dates from around 130 BC. This belief is based on an inscription which was on the statue’s plinth, since lost. The figure was found without its arms, but lying nearby was a piece of a forearm and, more significantly, a left hand holding an apple. This is why the sculpture is generally believed to depict Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty (known as Venus by the Romans) in the pose of Venus Victrix (Herald of Victory) - holding the golden apple which, as mythology has it, the Trojan Prince Paris gave her in exchange for the most beautiful woman in the world - the future Helen of Troy.

xxxxxAs one might expect, many attempts were made to envisage what the statue originally looked like. Indeed, once in France a number of ideas were put forward to replace the missing arms and have Venus holding a shield, a lamp, an apple, or a mirror by which she could admire her own beauty. Eventually - and thankfully - it was decided to leave the statue as it was found. Thus whilst remaining incomplete, this partially nude figure, with its elegant curve of the body and the loose drapery enfolding hips and legs, has come to be regarded as the epitome of feminine beauty, a work of art admired the world over.

xxxxxForxthe French, the acquisition of this treasured piece of ancient art was a much needed propaganda coup. Only five years earlier they had been obliged to return to the Italians the beautiful Medici Venus (illustrated), a classical sculpture which had been stolen from the Uffizi Gallery, Florence by Napoleon Bonaparte during his Italian campaign of 1802 and taken to Paris. In a face-saving exercise, they were not slow in claiming that the Venus de Milo surpassed in beauty the statue they had been forced to give up - though this claim has not gone unchallenged.

xxxxxIncidentally, the Medici Venus - believed to date from the 1st century BC and rebuilt from eleven pieces - clearly inspired the Florentine artist Sandro Botticelli. He used this pose (known as the Venus pudica or Modest Venus) in the Birth of Venus, his famous work in which the goddess is shown emerging from the sea standing on a huge shell. (illustrated) ……

xxxxx…… The idea that Venus was born from out of the sea came from the more appropriate Greek name of Aphrodite. The word aphros means foam in Greek. ……

xxxxx…… Among the many who admired The Venus de Milo was the English poet Lord Byron. He devoted five stanzas of his work Childe Harold to describe it. However, it was not to everyone’s liking. The famous French artist and one-time impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir dismissed it as a “gendarme”, a French term for a large and disagreeable woman!


Birth of Venus: detail, by the Italian painter Sandro Botticelli (c1445-1510), 1486 – Uffizi Gallery, Florence.