Venus de Milo and the Intersection of Beauty and Politics

today's episode of the history guy

brought to you by Magellan TV it was

April 8th 1920 and Jurgis control toss

was digging among some Roman ruins on

the Greek island of Melos in the Aegean

Sea north of the Sea of Crete control

toss was not an archaeologist he wasn't

digging for treasure Contreras was a

peasant who was digging for bricks

because even though those bricks were

ancient he could still use them to build

walls on his farm but that day he found

something more than a brick in fact he

found what would become one of the most

famous pieces of art in the world

the story of the armless Beauty the

Venus de Milo and how she became so

famous is history

that deserves to be remembered but

before we get around to heating up Greek

Ark and the Aegean Sea I'd like to take

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free Melo's is a small approximately

hundred sixty square kilometer island in

the Aegean Sea part of the Aegean

archipelago Milo's is the southwest most

Island of the Cyclades chain human

habitation on the island goes back to

prehistory is the island was a major

source of volcanic obsidian there were

settlements by fishermen during the

Bronze Age and then by adrienne's the

same ethnic group as the Spartans in the

1st millennium BC the settlement was

ravaged by siege during the

Peloponnesian War

the longer macedonian control during the

Corinthian war and then to the romans

after the macedonian king philip v was

forced to flee greece during the first

macedonian war the island was taken by

crusaders ravaged by pirates and with

the exception of a brief occupation by

the russian empire in the 1770s was

under Ottoman rule from 1556 to 1830

suffice it to say the picturesque island

whose population never exceeded more

than a few thousands as quite an

archaeological record in 1820 Milo's was

under the Ottoman Empire though the

population was almost exclusively Greek

and Christian and the French always had

good relations with the Ottoman Empire

and so it turns out that the day that

mr. Kent wrote ops was digging there

happened to be a French naval officer

nearby the exact details are somewhat

sketchy is there are various accounts

that contradict each other in some

details but the story goes a French

schooner named es de fรชte who was docked

on Milla's on board was a 23 year old

French naval officer named Olivier

BuChE BuChE was interested in Greek

history and so on the visit decided to

go to seek Greek artifacts at the time

there was little protection for

antiquities he took two sailors and a

pick and a shovel and with searching for

and discovering small finds in a Roman

ruin with mr. control tous working

nearby booty a notice that Kant wrote us

stopped working and was looking at

something curious he went to look and

saw that the man had uncovered a fine

marble statue some accounts have mr.

control toss trying to hide the statue

afraid that the Frenchman would take it

others in the Frenchman either paid him

to dig it up or help them dig up

themselves what they found was a

sculpture of a woman at 6 foot 8 inches


was slightly larger than life sculpture

was carved from Parisian marble which is

a particularly fine-grained


pure white and entirely flawless marble

that was highly prized by sculptors in

the Greek classical era the statue was

in tune made pieces with a nude upper

torso and drape lower legs the two

pieces were fitted in a way common of

Greek sculpture parts of a plinth with a

partial inscription and then arm holding

an apple were also found nearby the

sculpture had evident damage but was

still recognizable as being a

particularly high quality there are

conflicting accounts of exactly where

the sculpture was hidden but it appears

to have been in some sort of niche the

exact location of the fine is not

remembered precisely although there is a

spot marked by a sign on the island

acquiring the sculpture was not a simple

process but she did not try to take the

statue from control toss but did

ascertain that he was willing to sell it

kento toss reportedly placed it in his

goat barn for safekeeping

boaty had no means to quite a statue but

pass the word around and it reached

another French officer Jules Dumont

d'Urville d'Urville was a classicist and

recognized the statues potential

importance but his ship could not carry

a statue that size utilizing his

connections d'Urville contacted the

French ambassador to the Ottoman Court

and convinced him to purchase the statue

but the French nearly missed their

chance as Kent rotas sold the work to a

local priest who intended to send it to

Constantinople as a gift to a member of

the Ottoman Court d'Urville arrived in

time to convince the local governors to

sell the sculpture to him for his

efforts he was both knighted and

promoted it might seem odd that a naval

officer received a promotion for

acquiring a statue but you have to

understand the story of the venus de

milo is not just about as ancient

origins but also very much about the

politics of the time in which it was

discovered the French had just lost the

Napoleonic Wars five years earlier and

they were seeking to regain their

standing in Europe the discovery and

display of ancient artifacts was a

measure of an empires culture and its

reach and on that count the French were

suffering 22 years earlier Napoleon had

invaded Egypt and had taken with him on

the expedition the number of experts on

ancient art a year later French soldiers

discovered an inscription covered slab

of rare value the slab was inscribed

with a decree in the time of Ptolemy v

epiphanies in three scripts ancient

Egyptian hieroglyphs later Egyptian

demotic and ancient Greek the stone

found near the Egyptian port city of

Rosetta who was key to deciphering

hieroglyphics and so was an

extraordinary archaeological value who

had been quite a coup for the French

prestige but Napoleon's armies were

eventually defeated in Egypt and despite

attempts by the French to retain the

find the British had made the Rosetta

Stone a part of their surrender terms

perhaps the greatest ancient discovery

ever made by the French has resided

since 1802 in the British Museum also in

the British Museum but the so-called

Elgin marbles between 1801 and 1812

agents of Thomas Bruges the seventh Earl

of Elgin removed a number of marble

sculptures from the sixth century BC

temple of the Parthenon and other

locations from the Acropolis of Athens

there was controversy in their

acquisition although Elgin then the

ambassador extraordinary and Minister

Plenipotentiary of his Britannic majesty

to the sublime port of Salim the third

Sultan of Turkey claimed to have had

permission to take the works and

asserted that he was rescuing pieces

that have been damaged in explosion

during the great Turkish war in fact he

claims many were being used for building

materials or burned for lime Elgin was

however unable to produce the original

document that supposedly gave him

permission to take the marbles and to

this day their arguments that they were

not so much legally acquired as looted

but such quibbles meant little to

empires in the 19th century the works

were heavily degraded but a burgeoning

European interest in classical Greeks

caused increased interest in them an

1818 Elgin eager to settle debts after a

costly divorce sold the marbles to the

British Museum

where they still reside today it's

rumored that at one point

I offered to buy them but Elgin refused

the offer and so some of the greatest

examples of classical Greek art again

resided in the British Museum

and there was the Venus de Medici the

marble sculpture was made in the first

century BC it's a copy of a much earlier

bronze made during the Greek Classical

period the nude was discovered in Rome

in 1566 and was purchased by Fernando de

Medici in 1575 thus driving its name the

sculpture is significant in that it

represented a change in Greek artistic

sensibilities previously the Greeks were

famous for naturalistic nude sculptures

but there were sculptures of men there

noting heroism and strength the original

sculpture representing Venus or

Aphrodite the ancient Greek goddess of

love beauty pleasure and procreation was

seen as a key landmark in the

development of Greek art in the first

century BC version was the only ancient

representation as the original bronze

was lost it was also significant and

that was done in the proxy Tilian

tradition that is it represented the

works of Praxiteles

the greatest of the classical Greek

sculptors a sculpture of Venus in the

proxy Chilean tradition thus represented

the Western European ideal of beauty

that was recognized by then general

napoleon bonaparte when we first saw the

sculpture in florence in 1796 he is

reported to have remarked that should

Tuscany and France ever go to war he

would take that Venus de Medici to Paris

in 1800 when France invaded Tuscany

during the war of the second coalition

Napoleon kept his promise despite

attempts to prevent Napoleon taking the

statue he finally having won the war

bought the piece by decree the Venus de

Medici was taken to Paris in 1803 and

displayed in the Louvre that had

symbolic significance at the time in

Europe classical Greece was seen to be

the height of human culture and a

sculpture of Aphrodite and the prax

Italian tradition was there for the

objective measure of beauty and because

France owned it was able to display that

piece it meant that France represented

Beauty herself

that is until 1815 when Napoleon was

defeated at Waterloo and they were

forced to give the statue back and so

its reputation tarnished by Napoleon's

defeat France was in essence in need of

a really nice piece of art to prove that

France still represented beauty when

Monsieur Derval saw the sculpture on

Melo's he recognized what a pretty Greek

nude meant to France in saving the

sculpture from a Greek priest he had

saved his country's reputation and was

made a Chevalier in the Legion of Honor

in return assuming the sculpture must be

of Venus the curators at the Louvre

called the piece the Venus de Milo

although coming from the Greek era she

would have been known as Aphrodite

rather than Venus the experts could not

decide how her arms would have been

placed and so decided to display her

with them still missing rather than try

to reconstruct them a choice that seems

to have contributed to the sculptures

mystique and made it all the more

recognizable but the assumption was that

she was holding an apple although there

is disagreement about whether she was

contemplating the Apple or just looking

off into the distance the apple

represents the mythological judgment of

Paris of Troy who was asked by Zeus to

name the most beautiful of the goddesses

Hera Athena or Aphrodite

he chose Aphrodite in an exchange she

gave him the love of any mortal woman he

chose Helen of Sparta and the choice

launched the Trojan War the Apple would

have had extra meaning on Melo's as the

name Melo's sounds very like the Greek

word for Apple Mila and apples were

portrayed on ancient coinage on the

island the politics of the time would

have significant ramifications both for

art and culture when the sculpture was

received by the Louvre where the skull

was quickly decided that the piece of

arm and the Stella that had been

recovered could not have been part of

the original peaks and that the

sculpture which had indentations built

in to indicate that it once been adorned

with jewelry could only be a piece from

the Classical era and the sculptor must

have been Praxiteles himself the French

art world dutifully agreed that the work

was greater even than the Venus de

Medici and represented the very ideal of

beauty herself France was restored the


the piece was driven by a massive

propaganda effort and the sculpture

became and still is today one of the

most popular exhibits in the museum

today the venus de milo is one of the

most recognized pieces of sculpture on

earth probably the most recognized piece

of ancient greek sculpture she's

inspired hundreds of other artists

including of course Salvador Dali's

famous venus de milo with drawers she is

such a major beauty that she used to

adorn the seal of the American Society

of Plastic Surgeons her fame was well

demonstrated when she was sent on loan

to Japan in 1964 and a hundred thousand

people showed up just to watch her ship

arrive more than one and a half million

stood in line to see her on display and

it was all a fraud when she came to the

Louvre she came with a piece of arm and

immediately the curators at the Louvre

said that the arm was more rough-hewn

and could not been a part of the

original sculpture but actually because

of the height of the sculpture in the

placement of the arm you wouldn't be

able to see it well and the arm was

probably original it was common for

Greek sculptors to put less effort into

pieces that couldn't be well inspected

it also came over with a base that

likewise was determined to not possibly

been part of the original sculpture

partly because the inscription on the

basic acid that this sculpture didn't go

all the way back to the Greek classical

era but came from the much later

Hellenistic period today most art

historians agree that based both on the

artistry and the inscription of the work

the Venus de Milo was not the sixth

century BC work of Praxiteles but a

first century BC work of the

lesser-known Alexandros of Antioch in

fact many now think the sculpture is not

even the sculpture of Aphrodite at all

but of m40 t goddess of the sea and wife

of Poseidon those original decisions by

the curators at the Louvre prevented

accurate identification of this

sculpture for more than a century and by

the time they were revealed while the

armless beauty was famous around the

world the Venus de Milo is proof that

art is more than just subjective beauty

it is a factor of history and in

politics more than 2,000 years after she

is carved we find that

art and our concept of beauty itself is

not just in what we see but in how we

can reimagine it into what we need it to

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