Sunday, March 22

A Knidian Knockoff

A lot of energy is expended in museums attempting to define what a good museum "experience" is and how to promote it among visitors. Trying to put into words what makes a good museum "experience" is quite difficult and in many respects kind of pointless. A good museum experience is like porn--hard to define, but you know it when you see it. Last weekend, I saw it on my afternoon"Highlights" tour.

A highlights tour is just what it says--it features "highlights" of the collection. Of course, most of the objects in the galleries are there because they are a significant addition to the collection in some way, so really I can choose most anything I like to talk about. Last Saturday, I decided to talk about a small statue that was recently brought to my attention again. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this object really caught the interest of my group that day. Everyone was a part of the conversation and we got so caught up in the discussion that we spent nearly half an hour talking about it. Of course, I don't always get a group of people so willing to interact--some people just want to follow you around and listen--so I'm always especially delighted when such a group comes along.

Our discussion actually made me see the object anew, as tends to happen when you spend enough time talking to people about an object, and at the moment it is one of my favorite objects to talk about. So, I thought I would introduce you to this little three foot statue of Venus and give you an idea of what is so neat about it.

This statue is a Roman copy (dating to about 175-200 CE) of a very famous sculpture made around 350 BCE by the Greek sculptor Praxiteles known as the Knidian Aphrodite. It depicts the goddess after (or before?) her bath, her hand attempting to hide her genitals from the voyeuristic eyes. The Romans were great lovers of Greek art and they often copied Greek works they particularly liked. Roman taste tended to prefer those works made by noted Greek sculptors or works that were famous--or notorious. In the case of Praxiteles' Knidian Aphrodite, you have it all: It was a very famous statue and it was made by Praxiteles, one of the most notable ancient Greek sculptors. So famous, in fact, that even six hundred years or so after the Knidian Aphrodite was made, copies like this example were being made for Romans. It is a very familiar practice, actually. For example, anyone visiting the Uffizi in Florence can take home a coffee cup or a mouse pad or even a small copy of Michelangelo's David. Michelangelo sculpted his David over five hundred years ago, yet here we are still replicating it for our own pleasure in the 21st century.

The Colonna Venus, Vatican Museums, Rome, considered by some to be the most 
faithful copy of the original Knidian Aphrodite.
When she saw the image Praxiteles made of her, Aphrodite was said to have lamented,
"Alas! Alas! Where did Praxiteles see me naked?"

Like many of the copies we make of famous works of art today, the Roman copies did not necessarily copy a work exactly. They sometimes made some variations from the original, and it would not be surprising if that were the case with the Villa's knockoff of the original Knidia. Sadly, we will never know, because Praxiteles' original work does not survive--we know of it only from the numerous copies made in the ancient world. (It was one of the most famous and thus one of the most copied works of the ancient world.)

Issues in variation in copies of the original statue aside, we should also remember that there are certainly differences in the way the Villa's statue looks today and the way it looked when it was fresh from the artists' workshop. For instance, we can still see traces of paint on the surface. Her hair and drapery would have been painted with the encaustic technique, mixing pigment with hot wax. There is no visible indication that Venus's skin was painted. Her eyes were originally inlaid, and since she has pierced ears, we know she once had earrings--and perhaps other pieces of jewelry as well. The paint, jewelry, etc. were used by ancient artists to make these sculptures appear more life-like. Judging by ancient accounts of sculptures being anchored to their bases because people feared they would suddenly spring to life, it seems that they thought artists sometimes succeeded too well.

The original Aphrodite of Knidos was life-sized and created to be on public display. The copy at the Villa is much smaller, around three feet in height, suggesting it was probably displayed in the much more private context of a house. As a private sculpture it was probably decorative, of course, but it likely served another purpose too. By displaying this copy of a famously provocative statue by an acclaimed Greek sculptor the owner showed off his education and connoisseurship of art--not unlike the way the boxer's mosaic I wrote about awhile ago highlighted the owner's education and appreciation of literature. (Read about it here.)

Now for the reason behind the notoriety of Praxiteles' Knidian Aphrodite. As the story goes (according to the ancient Roman historian Pliny), the sculptor was commissioned by the city of Kos to sculpt a representation of Aphrodite. Praxiteles produced two sculptures: one of the goddess clothed and one of the goddess nude, going into or coming out of the bath. In our own time, it is not shocking to see female nudity in art, but in Praxiteles' time, female nudity in art was an offense to Greek sensibilities. The male nude was the ideal of human beauty, not the female. The citizens of Kos rejected the nude version of the goddess and chose the clothed one. The reject then went to Knidos, where it was placed in a temple as a cult statue to the goddess and gained fame as curious tourists from far and wide traveled to see the provocative image of the nude goddess. The Knidian Aphrodite has a permanent place in art history as one of the first recorded instances of female nudity in ancient Greek art that did not depict a nude female as a prostitute or victim of sexual assault, as was customary before Praxiteles shook things up.

It is tempting for me to get into issues of nudity--particularly female nudity--in ancient art, but I'll restrain myself. After all, I am planning a course dealing in part with that very issue, so there is likely to be a future post exclusively devoted to it.

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