It’s the 8th of April 1820. On the Greek Aegean island of Milos, a man named Yorgos Kentrotas was collecting stones from an ancient ruin near his farm. He came across a small niche in a wall in that ruin. It caught his attention because it seemed to be concealing something. He removed some of the stones in the wall and found that the thing that was being concealed was a statue of a woman. A French naval officer and amateur archaeologist, Olivier Voutier, whose ship was docked at Milos, happened to be exploring the island that day. He came upon the ancient ruin where Yorgos Kentrotas was working and helped him excavate much of the site. Together, they unearthed what we now know as the Venus de Milo, a beautiful statue of a woman.
Recognizing its antiquity, its beauty, and its value, French naval officers started frantic negotiations to purchase the statue from the Turkish government (the Ottoman Turks ruled Greece in the early 19th century). The purchase was eventually arranged and the statue was brought to Paris, where it now is one of the most famous art objects in the Louvre. Venus de Milo is one of the most discussed statues in history, partly because it is missing its arms, and that has caused a great deal of speculation about what position they might have been in, and what the statue might have been depicted doing.
There are also many stories and myths out there about how the Venus de Milo lost her arms. Perhaps the most persistent is that, back in 1820, the Turkish government refused the offer to buy the statue, and the French naval commander decided to take it anyway. There was a physical struggle over its possession on the beach near where the French ship was anchored. This dispute became so heated, so the story goes, that French sailors and Turkish soldiers actually engaged in a kind of tug of war with the statue, with each side pulling on one arm. The antique statue’s arms couldn’t take the strain and they snapped off, leaving poor Venus in the condition we see her now.
Alas, Buzzkillers, this story isn’t true. The vast majority of scholars believe the arms had been broken off many centuries before and that they were lost in the ruins of the city. And so the arms were already missing when the statue was discovered in 1820. Other missing elements include the metal jewelry that had been originally attached to her, as well as anything she might have held in her hands. As far as the modern history of the Venus de Milo is concerned, she’s always looked the way she does now.
There are several different scholarly reconstructions of what the Venus de Milo might have looked like originally, usually involving her holding an apple. The apple was one of the symbols of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess the statue depicts (“Venus” was the Roman version of Aphrodite). But we’ll probably never know what those famous missing arms were doing.
As for the tug of war over the Venus de Milo between French sailors and Turkish soldiers on the beach in 1820, it’s best to remember who my mother, the Duchess of Buzzkill, used to admonish us after playing too rough as kids. “It’s all fun and games until someone loses their arms.”
Talk to you next week.
Gregory Curtis, Disarmed: the Story of the Venus de Milo (2004).
The Venus de Milo is a great work of art and a popular icon, and from the moment of her discovery in 1820, an object of controversy. Gregory Curtis sketches a tale of rich historical intrigue to bring this magnificent statue to life.