On this day in 1820, a local farmer and a young French naval officer on the island of Milos in the Aegean Sea discovered an ancient sculpture of Aphrodite. Known today as the Venus de Milo, the sculpture is one of the most celebrated examples of ancient Greek sculpture, and is on display in the Louvre in Paris.
According to an inscription on the sculpture’s original plinth that mysteriously disappeared soon after the discovery, it was sculpted by “Alexandros, son of Menides, citizen of Antioch of Maeander…” The sculpture has been dated to about 150 BC and is today considered to be an excellent example of Hellenistic sculpture. However, soon after the sculpture was unearthed, experts erroneously labeled it as an example of sculpture from the Classical period, attributing it to the master Attic sculptor, Praxiteles. The plinth’s translation, dating it in the later Hellenistic period, led to considerable embarrassment and its disappearance is thought to have been the result. To the layman, however, the error is understandable as the sculpture, in typical Hellenistic fashion, heavily references classical works.
The story of the sculpture’s discovery begins on 8 April 1820, when a French officer named Oliver Voutier reportedly commandeered two sailors from his ship to help dig for objects on the site of an ancient theatre on Milos. At the site, Voutier observed a local farmer, named Yorgos Kentrotas, who gathering stones for his farm suddenly stopped in awe of something. Kentrotas had, of course, stumbled upon a part of the Venus. Voutier recognised the beauty of the visible portion of the sculpture and gave the farmer a small bribe to extract the remaining pieces, which were located inside an arched enclosure.
As the fragments of the sculpture emerged, Voutier became certain that he had before him a masterpiece, but he did not have the means to acquire it. It would take the weight and wealth of the office of France’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, which then ruled over Milos, to purchase and ensure the sculpture’s safe passage to France. In 1821, the sculpture was presented to King Louis XVIII, and then offered to the Louvre, where it remains today.
Along with the plinth, the marble sculpture is missing arms and hands, one of which perhaps held an apple. In ancient Greece, the Venus de Milo would have been originally painted and decorated with jewels, as was customary at the time. It would likely have stood in a niche in a gymnasium.
The Venus de Milo’s considerable fame is attributed to not only its great beauty, but also to the successful effort by the French government to promote the its prominence following the loss another celebrated sculpture, Venus de’ Medici, to Florence after Napoleon’s fall. Regardless, Venus de Milo is one of the most celebrated sculptures of ancient Greece and one of the most recognisable antiquities in the world.
Image: Venus de Milo is one of the most celebrated sculptures of ancient Greece, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.