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Sunday, February 01, 2004

Book Reviews

The Apple Holder

Disarmed: The Story of the Venus de Milo by Gregory Curtis. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2003, 272 pages, $24.

In an engaging, highly readable volume, Gregory Curtis tells the complicated story of the discovery and handling of the Venus de Milo, a statue that has become enshrined in Western culture as the epitome of the classical ideal. Never mind the intricate affairs behind the sculpture’s eventual placement in the Louvre, or the tremendous struggle between the German scholar Adolf Fürtwangler and the French author Solomon Reinach to interpret it correctly, or even the contemporary backlash against things Greek, which has resulted in a certain level of rejection by contemporary scholars: the Venus de Milo has earned a fame that transcends controversy. Its innate nobility and remarkable blend of restraint and sexual suggestion have fascinated not only the educated few but also popular culture; ever since its discovery on the Greek island of Mêlos in 1820 by Olivier Voutier, a French ensign, the statue has compelled extravagant description and even wonder, so gripping is its claim on the imagination of those who have seen it. While we might not be so vulnerable today to the grand terms attributed to the sculpture, we are in a better position, perhaps, to appreciate not only the quiet grandeur of a great work of art but also the mythology (some of which borders on the absurd) it has engendered.

Disarmed is a nuanced, meticulously researched book that attempts to clear up the many mixed-up stories that have attended the Venus de Milo’s move from a farmer’s yard in Mêlos to its exalted place in the Louvre. In the spring of 1820, Ensign Voutier, an enthusiast of the new vocation of archeology, had left his ship with two sailors to scavenge the slopes of Mêlos for whatever was left of Greek and Roman culture. They were digging, as Curtis writes, near “the remains of a wall and circular tower that had once defended the fate of an ancient town” (p. 5) when they encountered a farmer who was trying to uncover stones from a nearby wall for his own use and, in doing so, discovered the upper half of the statue that has come to be known as the Venus de Milo. It was found inside a niche in the wall, and, after some money had been exchanged, the farmer continued digging and found the lower and middle sections of the sculpture. Among the other pieces found in the vicinity was a hand with an apple; hence the statue’s identification with Venus (the Greek Aphrodite), the goddess of beauty who, according to Greek myth, was awarded the fruit (subsequently known, for obvious reasons, as the “apple of discord”) by the mortal Paris, who chose her over her contest rivals Juno (Hera) and Minerva (Athena) as the most beautiful woman alive.

Once the Venus de Milo was unearthed, it became the object of the attentions of several men. At one point, a priest representing the dragoman (interpreter) for the kaptan pasha (admiral of the fleet and ruler) of Mêlos, which was then part of the Ottoman empire, bought the statue and stored it on a Russian ship in the island’s harbor, to send it eventually to the pasha. But winds were against leaving Mêlos, and the story of the sculpture, known to the comte de Marcellus, the young secretary to the French ambassador, inspired him to effect the elaborate negotiations needed to return the statue to the French, who had been the first to offer money for it. Marcellus was successful in his dealings, and the statue and other discoveries, including the hand with the apple, were stored in a French ship, the Lionne. When the ship later arrived in Constantinople, Marcellus presented the statue to the French ambassador, who was taken with its beauty despite a lack of interest in art and then accompanied the Lionne to France and delivered the statue to the Louvre.

It is here that Curtis’s book reverts to a historical retelling of the beginnings of art history, which began with a short work entitled Reflections on the Imitation of Greek Painting and Sculpture. The pamphlet, published in 1755 by the then-neglected German classical scholar Johann Joachim Winckelmann, changed the perception of art; according to Curtis, “Winckelmann’s brilliant inspiration was to treat art organically and to try to understand how it grew, flourished, and declined across time” (p. 39). Despite his mistakes, the author managed to turn taste toward the Greeks’ faithful depiction of nature and away from the baroque and rococo, specifically the excesses of Bernini. Nine years later, he would publish his four-volume History of Ancient Art, an absurdly idealized account of Greek sculpture. Despite his excesses, which included a taste for young boys, Winckelmann changed the perception of art, endowing it with both sensual and spiritual power; Curtis quotes at length his description of the Apollo Belvedere, showing how compelling his writing can be. Winckelmann’s achievement was to change taste as well as to alter the way art was perceived, influencing Europe beyond the time of the Venus de Milo’s discovery. As Curtis points out, Winckelmann’s “conception of art as moving through a cycle of four distinct periods lasted well into the nineteenth century, when it became a dividing point between the neoclassicists and the romantics” (p. 49).

Opinions about the Venus de Milo were soon dominated by two remarkable men: Adolf Fürtwangler, the great German archeologist born in 1853, and the Frenchman, Solomon Reinach, who was the only scholar actually to visit Mêlos. (Touring the island in 1880, he found the cost of antiquities there to be terribly overpriced.) The two men became friends on the basis of Reinach’s highly positive review of Fürtwangler’s outstanding treatise, Masterpieces of Greek Sculpture. Reinach also wrote a major essay on the Venus de Milo in 1890, from what has been seen as the French position, namely, that the Venus de Milo was created at the height of Greek classical art, in the fourth century BCE. This was in marked contrast to the German position, which held that the statue was Hellenistic, that is, later in origin. Indeed, Fürtwangler dismissed Reinach’s idea that the statue was found in a limekiln, a theory that nicely did away with the statue’s inscription on a piece of marble that matched the base of the Venus de Milo and suggested that the sculpture originated during Hellenistic times; according to the German scholar, who had experience excavating limekilns, the pieces to be burned were broken into much smaller parts than those that constituted the statue in question.

The two men continued to disagree, and the affair severely injured their friendship. Fürtwangler continued to go on digs, but died in his early forties in 1907 in a hospital in Athens, where he is now buried, having been presented with an honorary grave by the city; Reinach died of diabetes in 1932. The two men, major practitioners of archeology, are still important to discussions of the Venus de Milo, which has lost some of its luster in the eyes of contemporary scholars. Curtis goes on to describe the statue as the Greeks would have seen it, painted and wearing earrings valuable enough in themselves that thieves broke them off from the earlobes. Among other points, he makes it clear that the hand with the apple, lost despite searches in the Louvre for it, would indicate that the statue is most likely a Venus and not an Amphitrite (goddess of the sea) holding a trident, a position held by Reinach that, as the author points out, not only would have ended the arguments about the Venus de Milo’s identity but also would have diminished the statue’s renown.

After a discussion of gender and sexuality in Greek culture, Curtis asserts that a common pose such as that of the Venus de Milo was especially popular after 150 BCE, which would date the work to the highest moment of Hellenism. He also sees the realism of the statue, its thick hips and large stomach, combined with the idealism of the head, as evidence of Hellenistic practice: so Fürtwangler’s 1893 dating of between 150 and 50 BCE holds up, negating the French impulse to classify the sculpture as coming from Greece’s classical age. Additionally, Curtis demonstrates that the two herms found in conjunction with the Venus on Mêlos in 1820 were part of a display in a gymnasium, or boy’s school; one was of Hermes, the other of Hercules, which bore on its base an inscription that read “[Alex]andros son of Minides citizen of Antioch of Meander made the statue” (p. 187). This is the base that exactly matches the broken piece under the Venus herself. Curtis then points out that Antioch was founded in 280 BCE, well after the classical age, demonstrating that the statue was produced later, in Hellenistic times. He also indicates that the cloth-wrapped legs date the piece to the Hellenistic period.

Curtis’s research is exquisite, and his interpretation of the Venus de Milo appears to be plausible, based as it is on common sense. He convincingly argues for the position of the two arms, the right extending over the stomach to the left of the statue’s body and the left holding the apple, Paris’ tribute to the most beautiful woman in the world. Curtis sees her as both deeply human and as a goddess, a combination that makes her both majestic and mysterious. For many of us, the Venus de Milo is a triumph of reason as well as desire; her face signals reticence to the point of self-possession, while her back radiates a deeply human sensuality. The remarkable involvement and even awe the statue has occasioned for the better part of 200 years stems from its ability to be many things at once, and Curtis is alive to the complexity of its story. He has told the tale very well, and we are the wiser, and more informed, for his efforts. As he tells us in his last pages, the Venus de Milo remains mysterious because a goddess is inherently mysterious, even when a rational account of her story has been told; the extraordinary beauty of her face and body has made her an icon not only of art history but of an entire perception of a culture, enriching us beyond words.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to
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