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

Venus de Milo
Venus de Milo Wikimedia Commons

The Venus de Milo is the most famous sculpture and, after the Mona Lisa, the most famous work of art in the world. The hordes of visitors who jam into her alcove in the Louvre museum in Paris every day are one proof of her popularity, but more telling is the way the statue has permeated our culture in art both high and low. Her image is reproduced in advertisements, on covers of CDs, as saltshakers, even as little rubber toys that squeak. But she has also inspired artists such as Cézanne, Dali, Magritte, Clive Barker and Jim Dine, whose two large Venuses stand on Sixth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. In 1964, when France sent the statue on loan to Japan, more than 100,000 people came to greet the ship carrying her, and one and a half million people, on a moving sidewalk, were carried past her display.

Some of the reasons for this popularity are obvious. The Venus de Milo is in fact a glorious work of art. Then, of course, the missing arms make the statue instantly recognizable and give it what a mass marketer would call brand recognition. But the statue also owes its popularity to a propaganda campaign perpetrated by the French beginning in 1821. The campaign wasn’t completely mendacious—the French had a good product and they knew how to sell it—but it wasn’t completely truthful, either. The primary truth the French suppressed about the Venus de Milo was its sculptor’s name.

The statue was uncovered on April 8, 1820, on Melos, an Aegean island halfway between Crete and the Greek mainland. (The name means Venus of Melos.) The discovery precipitated some frantic negotiations between French officials and the Greek authorities on the island, who eventually agreed to a price of 1,000 francs, roughly the cost, in those days, of a nice herd of goats.

After a leisurely voyage around the Mediterranean, the statue arrived in Paris in February 1821. On March 1, the Marquis de Rivière, the French ambassador to the Ottoman Turks, who had approved the purchase, obtained an audience with Louis XVIII, to whom he offered the statue in homage. The statue was sequestered in a back workshop of the Louvre. Louis, who was so fat he could not move except in a wheelchair, did not see his prize possession until several months later when it was briefly moved, for his benefit, to a small room accessible by wheelchair.

The director of the Louvre, the Count de Forbin, could not have been more excited by the statue’s arrival. After all, the French consul in Athens, a man named Fauvel whom Forbin knew to be an infallible judge of antiquities, had declared it a priceless masterpiece from the classical age of Greece. And as it happened, a priceless masterpiece from the classical age of Greece was precisely what the Louvre most desperately wanted.

Beginning in 1796 and continuing throughout his years in power, Napoleon had taken connoisseurs of art with him on his military campaigns. They spread out across newly conquered territory to confiscate its greatest works of art and send them to the Louvre, which was soon christened the Musée Napoleon. Among the thousands of works that were appropriated, the most admired and coveted was the Apollo Belvedere, which had been taken from the Vatican. Although now thought to be a Roman copy, the statue was then considered the embodiment of all the intellect, imagination and inspiration that created classical Greece. It was given a place of honor at the Louvre, where it became an essential source of guidance for French artists. Napoleon, who had little interest in art, liked to stand next to it so that honored guests could admire both him and the Apollo Belvedere at the same time.

Then came Waterloo and Napoleon’s exile, in 1815, to the island of St. Helena. Representatives of the nations that had defeated him arrived in Paris to reclaim their art. The Apollo Belvedere was returned to the Vatican, where it remains today. A woodcut from 1815 shows the statue being wheeled away by a squadron of soldiers while a French artist bursts into tears.

Just a few months later, in 1816, the British Parliament voted to buy the Elgin marbles for the British Museum. These artistic treasures, which Lord Elgin had ripped from the pediments of the Parthenon, were undisputedly from Greece’s classical age. So in the space of a year, Italy had its Greek masterpiece and England had hers, while France, prideful as always, had none. With no Greek masterpiece for French artists to imitate, how could they avoid falling into decadence?

Then, as if in answer to a prayer, Venus de Milo arrived. Forbin decided it must have come from the hand—or at least from the school—of the great Phidias or the even greater Praxiteles, Greek artists from the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. There was only one problem. The Venus de Milo had been carved originally in two parts, the two halves meeting in a line somewhat concealed by the roll of drapery around the goddess’s hips. The two halves arrived at the Louvre each in padding, as they had been wrapped for the sea passage. Now it was discovered that a third bundle, containing various pieces of marble found near the statue, included a base inscribed “Alexandros, son of Menides, citizen of Antioch of Meander made the statue.” One side of the base was broken. When the broken side was pushed against the left side of the statue, the two pieces fit perfectly.

Gloom and despondency settled over the Louvre. Antioch, a Greek city located in what is now Syria, had not been founded until the late third century B.C., a full half century after Greece’s classical age, making the statue Hellenistic. Writers as far back as Pliny the Elder had dismissed Hellenistic art as inferior to classical. This Venus, this masterpiece that had arrived to such hope and expectation, appeared not to be an example of perfection after all. Now what?

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).”

Early in the 20th century, one other intriguing piece of evidence came to light. The name Alexandros of Antioch is mentioned twice in an inscription found in Thespiae, a city near Mount Helicon on the mainland of Greece. It was in Thespiae that an important competition of poetry and theatrical arts was held every five years. The inscription, which dates to about 80 B.C., identifies Alexandros of Antioch, son of Menides, as a victor in singing and composing.

Like many artists of his time, Alexandros no doubt left his home in Antioch, wandering wherever his commissions took him. As a musician, he was good enough to win the contest and some ephemeral fame. As a sculptor, however, he was indisputably a genius whose name deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Phidias, Praxiteles and the other ancient masters. After all, Alexandros, son of Menides, created the Venus de Milo.

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