Base Deception

In 1821, the French carved a classical Greek sculpture. In the Venus de Milo, they thought they finally had one. Never mind that it wasn't really classical

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Forbin was a tall, thin aristocrat considered by many the most handsome man in France. An easy charm complemented his good looks. (He once had a notorious affair with Napoleon’s beautiful, although spoiled and completely daffy, sister Pauline.) And he believed that political necessities were sometimes more important than truth.

So Forbin and his scholars at the Louvre looked more closely at the base. It had a square hole in the top to hold a herm, a short square pillar with a carved head at the top. No sculptor with the skill to carve the Venus de Milo, they told each other, would intentionally put such an incongruously small and undistinguished object next to a masterpiece. It must have been the product of some later, crude restoration. And if the inscribed base and its inconvenient inscription did not really belong with the Venus, why display it? In fact, why mention it at all?

Whether Forbin hid or destroyed the telltale base has been a touchy subject at the Louvre from 1821 until today. In a recent interview, Alain Pasquier, general conservator of the museum’s Greek, Etruscan and Roman antiquities, politely insisted to me that despite the many hours he has spent looking for it without success in the museum’s warehouses, it is “inconceivable” that the base has been destroyed.

Despite Forbin’s maneuvers, a few scholars who had seen it—including Count de Clarac, the Louvre’s conservator of classical antiquities—persisted in believing that the inscribed base did belong with the statue. Forbin had these heretics banned from the workshop. Then he persuaded Quatremère de Quincy, an eminent scholar, to write a paper for the august Académie des Beaux-Arts in April 1821 asserting that the statue was indeed of the school of Praxiteles. This established the official French position about the statue, a position that lasted against all evidence for more than 130 years.

But Forbin overlooked one thing. When Jacques-Louis David, a neoclassical Paris painter who had taken up exile in Belgium after the restoration of Louis XVIII, heard about the Venus de Milo, he wrote to a former student who worked at the Louvre and asked him to make a drawing of it. The former student, a man named Debay, gave the task to his teenage son, himself an art student, who happened to make his drawing while the inscribed base was attached. Debay kept his son’s drawing, but sent a tracing of it to David.

After the statue went on public display and access to it could no longer be restricted, Clarac published a pamphlet in which he stated his heretical view that the Venus was...Hellenistic. Young Debay’s drawing, with the inscription on the base clearly legible, graced the pamphlet’s cover.

Though a kindly man who was generous toward struggling artists, Clarac had a reputation as a poor scholar, and in France his paper was largely ignored. But German experts read Clarac’s paper with glee. Their delight grew out of a conviction that Germany was the rightful owner of the statue. In 1817, Crown Prince Ludwig I of Bavaria had purchased the ruins of an ancient theater on Melos near where the Venus had been discovered. Ludwig insisted that since the statue had been found on his land, it belonged to him, a claim the French chose to ignore.

The battle between French and German scholars raged for the next hundred years, fading away only when prejudice against Hellenistic art—by now greatly admired—dissolved in the years between the two world wars.

Finally, the French—without admitting defeat—simply abandoned the fight. In 1951, Jean Charbonneaux, then the Louvre’s conservator of Greek and Roman antiquities, calmly wrote that “beginning in 1893, contrary to the general opinion, [the German scholar] Furtwangler had set 150 and 50 B.C. as the limits of the period where [the statue] belonged.” There in the phrase “contrary to the general opinion,” Charbonneaux casually dismissed all the fervent efforts of his countrymen, beginning in 1821 with Forbin.

Pasquier, the current conservator, does not dispute the Hellenistic dating, but he remains tactfully respectful toward the French scholars who preceded him by declining to take a position on whether the base ever belonged with the Venus de Milo. Visitors to the Louvre today see only a plaque that makes no mention of the sculptor: “Aphrodite, dite ‘Vénus de Milo,’ vers 100 AV. J.C., Ile de Mélos, Don du Marquis de Rivière au roi Louis XVIII (Aphrodite, called ‘Venus de Milo,’ around 100 B.C., the island of Melos, gift of the Marquis de Rivière to King Louis XVIII).”


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