Venus de Milo: Meaning, Characteristics, Discovery & Significance
The ancient Greeks laid the groundwork for the creative technique we know today through their detailed anatomical studies and naturalistic representations of the human form. Sculpture is the primary medium through which these artists’ legacies have survived. The Aphrodite of Milos, often called Venus de Milo or just the Venus statue, is one example of such amazing works created during the Hellenistic period (i.e. the Graeco-Egyptian period).
Created sometime between 150 and 125 BC, the Venus de Milo is universally recognized as one of the greatest works of art ever created. There are some scholars that believe that the figure of the statue is rather a depiction of Amphitrite, the Greek goddess of the sea.
What else is known about the Venus de Milo? And how did the statue lose its arms?
Below, WHE unravels the mystery surrounding the marble statue’s origin and discovery.
The Identity and Meaning of Venus de Milo
The question “Who is Venus de Milo?” has a relatively easy answer, but the real story behind the statue sometimes referred to as “the goddess without arms” is much more complicated. The statue was unearthed on the island of Milos, hence the name “de Milo,” which translates to “of Milos.” The real mystery lies in determining if the statue represents Venus or not.
The answer can be found in the hands of Venus de Milo, which are unfortunately no longer in existence. Since the famous Louvre Museum in Paris wanted to make up for the famous Italian sculptures that had been forced returned to Italy, they gave the statue the Roman name Venus, the Roman goddess of beauty.
However, the Greek name Aphrodite, which is more synonymous with the concept of love, was ultimately favored over its Roman analogue. Aphrodite de Milos literally means “Aphrodite of Milos,” thus it’s probable that’s how the statue was initially interpreted. Because of the naming dispute between the Greeks and the Romans, the statue is also known as Aphrodite Venus de Milo.
Characteristics of the Statue
A statue was sculpted out of marble, representing a figure with a nude chest and linen hanging around the legs. The monument originated from the Greek island of Milos, often spelled Melos.
Measuring at 6 meters and a half in height (i.e. 204cm), the statue can be described as a larger-than-life-size one. She is the picture of grace and beauty, with her pretty features and lovely figure.
She seems as calm as a goddess as she stares straight ahead. Her upper body is delicate, which is in sharp contrast to the bulky, ornately draped robe that seems to slide down to her ankles.
In the Greek myth surrounding the Trojan War, this alluring figure is thought to symbolize Aphrodite, the Greek goddess who received Eris’s golden apple meant for the most beautiful deity. Eris is the Greek goddess of discord.
Scholars believe that the statue was carved from two different blocks of Parian marble (tiny grained metamorphosed limestone with crystallized calcium carbonate): the top, nude half of her figure, and the draped lower half.
Read More: The 12 Olympian Deities
Discovery of the Venus de Milo
Venus de Milo was discovered in 1820 CE by French naval ensign Olivier Voutier and a local Greek peasant named Yorgos Kentrotas. The discovery was made in the Greek village of Trypiti on the island of Milos, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire.
However, some accounts state that Yorgos Bottonis and his son Antonio made the discovery while searching for reusable building blocks in the same year. Voutier decided to go on a treasure hunt when his ship was docked in the Milos harbor. When he went to look for stones to use in the building, he ran into Kentrotas (or Bottonis). It was then that Voutier learned the farmer had discovered the head of a female statue, and together the two men unearthed the piece.
Voutier reported the find to higher-ups, and the French eventually purchased the Venus de Milo for a relatively small sum of around 1,000 francs (around $12,000 today).
The monument finally made its way to France, where it was given to King Louis XVIII by Charles de Riffardeau, Marquis de Rivière (the French Ambassador to the Ottoman court in Constantinople). The French monarch eventually donated the statue to the Louvre Museum in Paris.
The conclusion is that the ancient statue was discovered in two big sections, together with several pillars painted with heads, shards of the upper left arm holding an apple, and an inscribed plinth, all of which were destroyed during transfer after the discovery.
What happened to her arms?
Around the time that the statue was discovered, French and Turkish sailors fought for control of Milos’s shore. Experts speculate that the statue’s missing arms were smashed in the ensuing battle during the 1820s.
However, it is now generally accepted that Voutier knew the arms were missing at the time of discovery. Although the exact earlier look of the Venus de Milo is still up for debate, there is some bit of evidence to suggest that she held an apple in her left hand. Others suggest the statue might have held other things such as laurel wreaths, mirrors or spindles.
How did the Venus de Milo become so iconic?
The Louvre Museum in Paris was going through a very hard time in the 19th century as most of their artworks which were looted by Napoleon Bonaparte were sent back to their places of origin. This left the Louvre quite bare and in need of a spark to reel in the tourists. The news of the arrival of Venus de Milo brought delight to the Museum as they finally had something of importance to unveil to the public.
The Louvre was shocked when they realized that the sculpture wasn’t as Graeco-Roman as they thought, rather it dated from around 150-130 BC, which places it in the Hellenistic era.
What was more interesting was the plinth (i.e. the base of statue) also showed the name of the Hellenistic sculptor, Alexandros of Antioch. And the statue’s true name was “The Aphrodite of Melos”.
Knowing this would ruin all that they’ve worked for, the Louvre cunningly destroyed the plinth and continued to market the false narrative that statue was sculpted by a Greek sculptor named Praxiteles.
The museum drew in crowds from all walks of life, and with time the Venus de Milo became an iconic symbol of national pride, especially when the nation was licking its wounds from the horrors caused by the Napoleon Wars (1803–1815).
It was not until the 1950s that the Louvre came out with true version of sculpture’s story. By that time, the name of the sculpture – the Venus de Milo – was already engrained in artistic world. There was no point changing the name to “the Aphrodite de Milo”.
Other Interesting Facts Surrounding the Venus de Milo
Here are a few more interesting facts about the Venus de Milo:
- For fear of losing the statue to the Nazis, the Venus de Milo was one of the few art pieces that was removed from the Louvre to the French provinces during World War II.
- Giorgos Kentrotas was credited with discovering the Venus de Milo on the ancient island of Milos, where the remnants of an old city were located. But as Australian scientist Edward Duyker later pointed out, it was Giorgos’ father, Theodoros, who found it.
- Although the statue is widely accepted as a representation of Aphrodite, there are many who argue that the sculptor actually intended to depict Amphitrite, the Greek goddess of sea and the consort of Poseidon.
- The famous statue was discovered a year before the Greek Revolution against the Ottoman Empire in 1821.
- The Venus de Milo’s missing arms have inspired much more than discussions among art historians and written works on the topic. The world has been free to speculate on where they may be, what they could be holding, and who she would be as a result of their absence. The statue’s missing limbs are actually a key part of her overall attractiveness.
- Art historians have pointed out that the Venus de Milo looks very like the Aphrodite of Capua, a Roman replica of a Greek bronze original from the late 4th century BCE. One theory suggests that both statues are copies of an even older one, carved at least 170 years before Alexandros’ goddess.
Did you know…?
- At some point in time, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) had in its emblem the image of the Venus de Milo. Founded in 1931, the ASPS is one of the oldest associations of plastic surgeons in the world.
- The Venus de Milo has inspired countless artists across the world, including famed artists like Salvador Dali, René Magritte and Paul Cézanne.
- Beginning around the second decade of the 21st century, there were increased calls from some inhabitants of the Aegean island for the famous masterpiece to be brought back to its country of birth.
- Television, an American rock band from New York City, released a song titled “Venus de Milo”, which was part of their critically acclaimed debut album “Marquee Moon”, released on 8 February 1977. The song is generally considered one of the band’s most popular works.