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The Mystery of What Venus de Milo Was Once Holding

A distaff, thread and spindle could have been held in her upraised arms and would have been appropriate for the goddess of love

(Todd Gipstein/CORBIS)
smithsonian.com

She was uncovered in 1820, armless but beautiful, on Melos, an island between mainland Greece and Crete. The Venus de Milo was claimed by France, and heralded as a prime example of classical art (though it was actually Hellenistic) and now graces the Louvre Museum in Paris. While her broken arms are now part of what makes her treasured, people have never stopped wondering what the original statue might have held. There have been many theories, writes Virginia Postrel for Slate:

She was imagined standing beside a warrior—Mars or Theseus—with her left hand grazing his shoulder. She was pictured holding a mirror, an apple, or laurel wreaths, sometimes with a pedestal to support her left arm. She was even depicted as a mother holding a baby. One popular turn-of-the-century theory understood her not as Venus but as Victory, supporting a shield on her left thigh and recording the names of heroes on it with her right hand. Other versions imagined her using the shield as a mirror, the goddess of beauty admiring her reflection.

One idea in particular piqued the interest of Elizabeth Wayland Barber, a professor emeritus at Occidental College who wrote the book Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years. Perhaps, Barber thought, Venus was spinning thread. Spinning in ancient Greece had associations with fertility and sex — fitting for the goddess of love and reproduction. Women created thread, seemingly from nothing but a bit of fluff, similar to the mystery of birthing babies. Also, women on Greek vases depicted spinning are actually prostitutes occupying themselves as they wait for clients. 

The idea of a spinning Venus de Milo can be tested using the latest technology: 3D digital scanning and printing. Postrel describes how she hired the San Diego-based designer and artist Cosmo Wenman to do the job — figuring out exactly how the marble woman's arms were positioned. The result it a digital model, later printed table-top sized in white plastic by Shapeways, of Venus spinning.

While it's impossible to know what the original Venus was holding, Barber's model shows her with and upraised arm, only a shoulder on the statue, holding a distaff (a tool that contains the unspun fibers) and her other hand steadies the thread pulled down to the drop spindle

Wenman has argued that museums should all release 3D digital scans of masterpieces because they’d allow other artists to remake the works in new, innovative ways. Postrel writes:

Using his own scans, I knew that he’d restored the lost nose on the Louvre’s Inopos bust of Alexander the Great and had remixed elements of classical sculptures in a contemporary bust he’d done for a client. I also knew he had made a 3-D photocapture of the Venus from a highly accurate 1850 plaster cast now housed in the Skulpturhalle Basel in Switzerland.

Wenman realized that those spinning tools couldn’t have been made of marble because they would put too much weight on the arms, so he instead imagined them carved of wood. Postrel writes:

The re-creation provides a plausible answer to a question posed by the original advocate of a spinning Venus, archeologist Elmer G. Suhr, in the 1950s and 1960s. Suhr identified many classical sculptures with poses suggestive of spinning, but none of them had implements. Where did the tools go? Suhr argued that “the equipment of a spinner must have been a disturbing element to the artist,” who simply dispensed with the distaffs and spindles, assuming that “everyone in ancient times was sufficiently familiar with the process” to recognize the stance and gestures. Cosmo’s version suggests a better answer: that the tools were separate accessories made of perishable materials or precious metals and have simply been lost or stolen.

The process doesn’t prove that the Venus de Milo actually spun, but it does offer a possibility and demonstrates an interesting way to reimagine classic works of art.

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