On the birth of Aphrodite (lines 175-205):
 “… And Heaven came, bringing on night and longing for love, and he lay about Earth spreading himself full upon her. Then the son from his ambush stretched forth his left hand and in his right took the great long sickle  with jagged teeth, and swiftly lopped off his own father’s members and cast them away to fall behind him. And not vainly did they fall from his hand; for all the bloody drops that gushed forth Earth received, and as the seasons moved round  she bore the strong Erinyes and the great Giants with gleaming armour, holding long spears in their hands and the Nymphs whom they call Meliae all over the boundless earth. And so soon as he had cut off the members with flint and cast them from the land into the surging sea,  they were swept away over the main a long time: and a white foam spread around them from the immortal flesh, and in it there grew a maiden. First she drew near holy Cythera, and from there, afterwards, she came to sea-girt Cyprus, and came forth an awful and lovely goddess, and grass  grew up about her beneath her shapely feet. Her gods and men call Aphrodite, and the foam-born goddess and rich-crowned Cytherea, because she grew amid the foam, and Cytherea because she reached Cythera, and Cyprogenes because she was born in billowy Cyprus,  and Philommedes because she sprang from the members. And with her went Eros, and comely Desire followed her at her birth at the first and as she went into the assembly of the gods. This honor she has from the beginning, and this is the portion allotted to her amongst men and undying gods,—  the whisperings of maidens and smiles and deceits with sweet delight and love and graciousness.”
Hesiod. The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Theogony. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1914. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0130:card=173>
Pliny the Elder, Natural History
On the Aphrodite of Knidos by Praxiteles (XXXVI.20-21):
20. “Superior to any other statue, not only to others made by Praxiteles himself, but throughout the world, is the Venus, which many people have sailed to Cnidus to see. He had made two statues and was offering them for sale at the same time. One was clothed, and for this reason was preferred by the people of Cos who had an option to buy, although Praxiteles offered it at the same price as the other—this way he thought the only decent and proper response. So the people of Cnidus bought the Venus when the Coans refused, and its reputation became greatly enhanced.”
21. “Subsequently King Nicomedes wanted to buy it from them, promising to cancel all the state’s debts, which were vast. The Cnidians, however, preferred to endure anything rather than sell the statue. Nor without just cause, for with it Praxiteles made Cnidus famous. The shrine that houses it is completely open so that the statue of the goddess can be seen from all sides, and it was made in this way, so it is believed, with the goddess’s approval. It is admirable from every angle. There is a story that a man who had fallen in love with the statue hid in the temple at night and embraced it intimately; a stain bears witness to his lust.”
Pliny the Elder. Natural History: A Selection. Penguin Books, Ltd., trans John F. Healy, 1991, XXXVI.20-21. <http://books.google.com/books?id=JvyF-8NXFbIC&lpg=PR39&dq=inauthor:”pliny” natural history&lr=&pg=PA346#v=onepage&q=&f=false>
For another translation, see also:
The Natural History. Pliny the Elder. John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S. H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A. London. Taylor and Francis, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street, 1855, Book XXXVI, Chapter 4. (5.). <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.02.0137:book=36:chapter=4>
[Note, the numbering of Book and Chapter notation in this edition that does not correspond with other editions. E.g. Bk. XXXVI, Ch. 20-21 in most editions equals Bk. XXXVI Ch. 4 in the Bostock edition. The advantage of the Bostock edition available through the Perseus Digital Library is that the entire text is online.]
“…superior to all the statues, not only of Praxiteles, but of any other artist that ever existed, is his Cnidian Venus; for the inspection of which, many persons before now have purposely undertaken a voyage to Cnidos. The artist made two statues of the goddess, and offered them both for sale: one of them was represented with drapery, and for this reason was preferred by the people of Cos, who had the choice; the second was offered them at the same price, but, on the grounds of propriety and modesty, they thought fit to choose the other. Upon this, the Cnidians purchased the rejected statue, and immensely superior has it always been held in general estimation. At a later period, King Nicomedes wished to purchase this statue of the Cnidians, and made them an offer to pay off the whole of their public debt, which was very large. They preferred, however, to submit to any extremity rather than part with it; and with good reason, for by this statue Praxiteles has perpetuated the glory of Cnidos. The little temple in which it, is placed is open on all sides, so that the beauties of the statue admit of being seen from every point of view; an arrangement which was favoured by the goddess herself, it is generally believed. Indeed, from whatever point it is viewed, its execution is equally worthy of admiration. A certain individual, it is said, became enamoured of this statue, and, concealing himself in the temple during the night, gratified his lustful passion upon it, traces of which are to be seen in a stain left upon the marble.”
On the polychromy of Classical sculpture (XXXV.130, 133):
Nicias, an Athenian … “who was an extremely careful painter of female portraits….It is this Nicias of whom Praxiteles used to say, when asked which of his own works in marble he placed highest, ‘The ones to which Nicias has set his hand’–so much value did he assign to his colouring of surfaces.”
Pliny the Elder. Natural History: A Selection. Penguin Books, Ltd., trans John F. Healy, 1991, XXXV.130, 133. <
[Completely irrelevant to Aphrodite, but just for fun, the famous story…]
On the contest between Zeuxis and Parrhasius (XXXV.65):
In a contest between Zeuxis and Parrhasius, Zeuxis produced so successful a representation of grapes that birds flew up to the stage-buildings where it was hung. Then Parrhasius produced such a successful trompe-l’oeil of a curtain that Zeuxis, puffed up with pride and judgement of the birds, asked that the curtain be drawn aside and the picture revealed. When he realized his mistake, with an unaffected modesty he conceded the prize, saying that whereas he had deceived birds, Parrhasius had deceived him, an artist.
Pliny the Elder. Natural History: A Selection. Penguin Books, Ltd., trans John F. Healy, 1991, XXXV.65. <http://books.google.com/books?id=JvyF-8NXFbIC&lpg=PR39&dq=inauthor:”pliny” natural history&lr=&pg=PA330#v=onepage&q=&f=false>
Pausanais, Description of Greece
On Praxiteles and Phryne’s relationship (Vol 3, Book X, Ch 14):
“The golden statue of Phryne here was made by Praxiteles, who was one of her lovers; but the statue was dedicated by Phryne.”
Pausanias. The Description of Greece, Volume 3. Trans. Thomas Taylor. London, 1824, p. 125. <http://books.google.com/books?id=wakAAAAAYAAJ&dq=inauthor:”Pausanias”&pg=PA125#v=onepage&q=&f=false>
Note: Quote appears in the last line of chapter 14 in this edition. Other editions place this text as the first line of chapter 15; c.f.:
Pausanias. Description of Greece with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D., and H.A. Ormerod, M.A., in 4 Volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1918, X.15.1. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0160%3Abook%3D10%3Achapter%3D15%3Asection%3D1>
On Phryne tricking Praxiteles to reveal his favorite work (Vol 1, Book XX, Ch 1-2):
“Leading from the Prytaneum is a road called Tripods. The place takes its name from the shrines, large enough to hold the tripods which stand upon them, of bronze, but containing very remarkable works of art, including a Satyr, of which Praxiteles is said to have been very proud. Phryne once asked of him the most beautiful of his works, and the story goes that lover-like he agreed to give it, but refused to say which he thought the most beautiful. So a slave of Phryne rushed in saying that a fire had broken out in the studio of Praxiteles, and the greater number of his works were lost, though not all were destroyed. Praxiteles at once started to rush through the door crying that his labour was all wasted if indeed the flames had caught his Satyr and his Love. But Phryne bade him stay and be of good courage, for he had suffered no grievous loss, but had been trapped into confessing which were the most beautiful of his works. So Phryne chose the statue of Love…”
Pausanias. Description of Greece, Volume 1. Trans. William Henry Samuel Jones. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1918, p. 97. <http://books.google.com/books?id=olRFAAAAYAAJ&dq=inauthor:”Pausanias”&pg=PA97#v=onepage&q=&f=false>
Amores, attributed to Lucian
On the rotunda temple to Aphrodite at Knidos and the statue of Aphrodite (13-16):
“13. When the plants had given us pleasure enough, we entered the temple. In the midst thereof sits the goddess–she’s a most beautiful statue of Parian marble–arrogantly smiling a little as a grin parts her lips. Draped by no garment, all her beauty is uncovered and revealed, except in so far as she unobtrusively uses one hand to hide her private parts. So great was the power of the craftsman’s art that the hard unyielding marble did justice to every limb. Charicles at any rate raised a mad distracted cry and exclaimed, “Happiest indeed of the gods was Ares, who suffered chains because of her!” And, as he spoke, he ran up and, stretching out his neck as far as he could, started to kiss the goddess with importunate lips. Callicratidas stood by in silence with amazement in his heart.
The temple had a door on both sides for the benefit of those also who wish to have a good view of the goddess from behind, so that no part of her be left unadmired. It’s easy therefore for people to enter by the other door and survey the beauty of her back.
14. And so we decided to see all of the goddess and went round to the back of the precinct. Then, when the door had been opened by the woman responsible for keeping the keys, we were filled with an immediate wonder for the beauty we beheld. The Athenian who had been so impassive an observer a minute before, upon inspecting those parts of the goddess which recommend a boy, suddenly raised a shout far more frenzied than that of Charicles. “Heracles!” he exclaimed, “what a well-proportioned back! What generous flanks she has! How satisfying an armful to embrace! How delicately moulded the flesh on the buttocks, neither too thin and close to the bone, nor yet revealing too great an expanse of fat! And as for those precious parts sealed in on either side by the hips, how inexpressibly sweetly they smile! How perfect the proportions of the thighs and the shins as they stretch down in a straight line to the feet! So that’s what Ganymede looks like as he pours out the nectar in heaven for Zeus and makes it taste sweeter. For I’d never have taken the cup from Hebe if she served me.” While Callicratidas was shouting this under the spell of the goddess, Charicles in the excess of his admiration stood almost petrified, though his emotions showed in the melting tears trickling from his eyes.
15. When we could admire no more, we noticed a mark on one thigh like a stain on a dress; the unsightliness of this was shown up by the brightness of the marble everywhere else. I therefore, hazarding a plausible guess about the truth of the matter, supposed that what we saw was a natural defect in the marble. For even such things as these are subject to accident and many potential masterpieces of beauty are thwarted by bad luck. And so, thinking the black mark to be a natural blemish, I found in this too cause to admire Praxiteles for having hidden what was unsightly in the marble in the parts less able to be examined closely. But the attendant woman who was standing near us told us a strange, incredible story. For she said that a young man of a not undistinguished family — though his deed has caused him to be left nameless — who often visited the precinct, was so ill-starred as to fall in love with the goddess. He would spend all day in the temple and at first gave the impression of pious awe. For in the morning he would leave his bed long before dawn to go to the temple and only return home reluctantly after sunset. All day long would he sit facing the goddess with his eyes fixed uninterruptedly upon her, whispering indistinctly and carrying on a lover’s complaints in secret conversation.
16. But when he wished to give himself some little comfort from his suffering, after first addressing the goddess, he would count out on the table four knuckle-bones of a Libyan gazelle and take a gamble on his expectations. If he made a successful throw and particularly if ever he was blessed with the throw named after the goddess herself, and no dice showed the same face, he would prostrate himself before the goddess, thinking he would gain his desire. But, if as usually happens he made an indifferent throw on to his table, and the dice revealed an unpropitious result, he would curse all Cnidus and show utter dejection as if at an irremediable disaster; but a minute later he would snatch up the dice and try to cure by another throw his earlier lack of success. But presently, as his passion grew more inflamed, every wall came to be inscribed with his messages and the bark of every tender tree told of fair Aphrodite. Praxiteles was honoured by him as much as Zeus and every beautiful treasure that his home guarded was offered to the goddess. In the end the violent tension of his desires turned to desperation and he found in audacity a procurer for his lusts. For, when the sun was now sinking to its setting, quietly and unnoticed by those present, he slipped in behind the door and, standing invisible in the inmost part of the chamber, he kept still, hardly even breathing. When the attendants closed the door from the outside in the normal way, this new Anchises was locked in. But why do I chatter on and tell you in every detail the reckless deed of that unmentionable night? These marks of his amorous embraces were seen after day came and the goddess had that blemish to prove what she’d suffered. The youth concerned is said, according to the popular story told, to have hurled himself over a cliff or down into the waves of the sea and to have vanished utterly.”
Lucian (attributed). Amores. trans. A.M. Harmon (Loeb edition). <http://www.well.com/user/aquarius/lucian-amores.htm>
On the goddess Aphrodite’s reaction to the Knidia by Praxiteles (VI.160):
“Where did Praxiteles see me naked?”]]>
Welcome back to the Ancient Art Podcast. I’m your host, Lucas Livingston. Last time in episode 25, “Beheaded Beauties,” we explored the Art Institute of Chicago’s 2nd century Roman headless statue of a seated woman. We closed with a glimpse of the also-headless and roughly contemporary 2nd century statue of a standing nude woman.
There are a number of indicators that tell us that this is a copy of the famed Aphrodite of Knidos by the prolific Hellenistic sculptor Praxiteles from the 4th century BC, approximately five centuries earlier than the Art Institute’s copy.
The Aphrodite of Knidos has her claim to fame as being the nude that ushered in the era of Greek nudes. She’s widely considered one of the first and certainly the most famous of Greek nude female sculptures. She gets her name from, well, of course, the subject depicted, Aphrodite, goddess of love, the Roman Venus. And Knidos comes from the ancient city that purchased the statue from Praxiteles. Knidos was located on the southeastern coast of Turkey on a narrow peninsula jutting far out into the Aegean Sea. You might also come across the pronunciation [ni’dus], but that’s just plain silly.
In his work called the Natural History, the 1st century Roman historian Pliny the Elder recounts the story that Praxiteles was commissioned by two cities for a statue of Aphrodite, Knidos and Kos. So, Praxiteles created two different statues of the goddess, one traditional draped figure and then the very Avante-garde nude. Kos, the wealthier of the two cities, got first dibs and went with the less controversial draped Aphrodite and Knidos got the leftovers, although that’s really not fair to say. They still got a Praxiteles. And the world fell in love with her. This controversial nude depiction of a goddess put Knidos on the map. So stunningly beautiful was the work of art, that the goddess Aphrodite herself is said to have asked, “Where did Praxiteles see me naked?” Pliny states that, “…superior to any other statue, not only to others made by Praxiteles himself, but throughout the world, is the Venus, which many people have sailed to Cnidus to see.” People came from far and wide throughout the Mediterranean World to visit her. The citizens of Knidos set her up in a rotunda, a round chapel, so she could be equally admired from all angles. There’s an interesting account of the setting in the Amores:
“…we entered the temple. In the midst thereof sits the goddess–she’s a most beautiful statue of Parian marble–arrogantly smiling a little as a grin parts her lips. Draped by no garment, all her beauty is uncovered and revealed, except in so far as she unobtrusively uses one hand to hide her private parts. So great was the power of the craftsman’s art that the hard unyielding marble did justice to every limb….The temple had a door on both sides for the benefit of those also who wish to have a good view of the goddess from behind, so that no part of her be left unadmired. It’s easy therefore for people to enter by the other door and survey the beauty of her back.”
To add further scandal to this already controversial nude depiction of a goddess, various stories begin to emerge in the centuries following the statue’s debut identifying the famous Greek courtesan Phryne as having supposedly been the model for this sacred icon of the goddess Aphrodite. Other accounts also surface of the supposed romantic affair between Praxiteles and Phryne.
Later during the Roman era, it became vogue for sculptors to produce copies of famous works for wealthy patricians to decorate their villas. The Aphrodite of Knidos was one such statue and her image soon flooded to Roman empire. Figures based on the Aphrodite of Knidos are commonly referred to as “Knidia.” What distinguishes the Knidia from other nude representations of the goddess is the general pose, for one. She’s commonly interpreted as engaging in the rather private act of bathing and we’re peering at her with this almost voyeuristic gaze. Her right arm reaches down seemingly in a gesture of modesty. We see two small bumps on her inner left thigh where two fingers of her right hand one engaged with the thigh. That’s something of a remarkable feature to this Roman copy. The torso and at least the right arm are composed of a single unbroken piece of marble skillfully carved to produce the long curving limb structurally reinforced by its engagement with the hip. Remember from last episode’s Statue of a Seated Woman that it was common for sculptors to carve limbs and other precarious projections separately and then attach them with wooden or metal dowels, or more properly called tenons. So while the Art Institute’s heavily weathered Knidia may not be the hottie that she used to be, she’s still quite artistically remarkable. On her outside left thigh is a fairly long fragmented tab from some now lost section. Most likely the characteristic Roman period support pillar once connected with the rest of the figure at this point.
The support pillar was probably in the shape of a vessel that held the water for her bath. The evidence can be seen in other copies of the Knidia, one of the more famous being the Colonna Venus in the Vatican’s Museo Pio-Clementino. Also the Venus Braschi in the Munich Glyptothek. In her left hand she holds her drapery that she has removed for her ritual cleansing, which is now missing from the Art Institute example. Perhaps our best evidence for the appearance of the original Praxitelean Aphrodite of Knidos comes not from later copies, but from coins, like this 1916 engraving of an ancient coin from Knidos supposedly depicting the original statue. Also, don’t forget … as we’ve seen in many other episodes of the podcast, this statue, too, like so many others, was painted. The 19th century neo-classical sculptor John Gibson shocked audiences when he debuted his Tinted Venus in an attempt to recapture the Classical taste for polychromy.
As we already learned, the Aphrodite of Knidos was one of the most famous statues in her day and extensively copied during the Roman era. There are a bunch of copies existing today, and for each surviving copy we can imagine dozens of copies that didn’t withstand the ravages of time and mankind. The whole notion of a Roman “copy” of a Greek original, though, is a very loaded term that demands a little more attention. When we think of a copy, we likely think of an exact duplicate, like a photocopy. But when we’re talking about Roman copies of Greek statues, the copy in this context can more so be thought of having been inspired by the original. Putting two copies of the same original side-by-side reveal distinct differences. Often the Roman era artists may not have even seen the original, and were working from a description, another copy, or at best a tiny image on a coin. In the case of the Knidia, in the successive centuries, we begin to see some variants on the original form.
One popular variant is dubbed the “Venus Pudica” — the “modest Venus.” A particularly famous example is the Venus de’ Medici in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. Here we see both hands of the goddess posed in what are generally interpreted as gestures of modesty, the right hand now at her chest and the left hand below the waist. The drapery is gone and the vessel in this example has been replaced with a small cupid figure riding a dolphin. The dolphin alludes to the sea, out of which, according to one legend, Aphrodite was born. Check out Hesiod’s Theogony around line 175. It’s a bit gruesome, but nothing you can’t handle. You’ll find a link to the full ancient text translated into English at ancientartpodcast.org. Just click on “Ancient Sources on Aphrodite” in the Additional Resources section. There you’ll also find links to some of the other primary sources that we’ve learned about in this episode on the Aphrodite of Knidos. Aphrodite rising from the sea is perhaps most famously captured not in an ancient work of art, but in Sandro Botticelli’s the Birth of Venus from 1482-86, also in the Uffizi. The pose of the goddess by the Florentine master strongly reflects the Venus de’ Medici, which Botticelli had plenty of opportunity to study.
Despite first-hand accounts from ancient sources stating that Aphrodite is covering up her private parts for modesty’s sake, you’ll come across some revisionist interpretations of the gesture not as a shameful attempt to cover her sexuality, but rather to emphasize it. Check out, for example, Christine Mitchell Havelock’s 1995 publication The Aphrodite of Knidos and Her Successors, where the author argues that her nudity signifies her divine birth from the sea, and we’re not catching her off guard at her bath. Rather, the vessel is for ritual cleansing and renewal. So, we shouldn’t necessarily take any interpretation at its face value, even an ancient one. But it’s important to remember that our own contemporary culture can easily be a filter that shapes and guides our interpretations. And that’s what makes art the gift that keeps on giving.
Don’t forget to check out ancientartpodcast.org for image credits, bibliographic references, and links to lots of other relevant things. I appreciate your feedback and suggestions for future episodes. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or with the feedback form on the website. You’ll find me on Twitter at lucaslivingston. And you can leave your comments on YouTube, iTunes, or on the website itself. You might have heard that the Art Institute of Chicago’s podcast Musecast has reached its final episode, but don’t worry. The Ancient Art Podcast ain’t goin’ anywhere! Thanks for listening and see you next time on the Ancient Art Podcast.
©2009 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org
1. Statue of a Seated Woman, Roman, 2nd century A.D. The Art Institute of Chicago. Katherine K. Adler Endowment, 1986.1060. Photo by Lucas Livingston, 23 Oct 2009.
2. Galleries of Roman art at the Art Institute of Chicago. Photo by Lucas Livingston, 23 Oct 2009. (photo #DSC03599)
3. Galleries of Roman art at the Art Institute of Chicago. Photo by Lucas Livingston, 23 Oct 2009. (photo #DSC03598)
4. Statue of the Aphrodite of Knidos, 2nd century A.D. Roman copy of a fourth century B.C. Greek original by Praxiteles. The Art Institute of Chicago, Katherine K. Adler Endowment, 1981.11. Photo by Lucas Livingston, 23 Oct 2009.
1. Shepherd, William R. “ Reference Map of Asia Minor under the Greeks and Romans,” The Historical Atlas, 1923, from the University of Texas Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection.
2. “Venus Temple at the Villa Adriana in Tivoli,” photo by Jastrow, September 2006.
3. Temple of Venus at Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli, Italy. Image from “Tivoli.” Encyclopaedia Romana. Accessed 28 November, 2009.
4. Unidentified statue of of a woman, presumable Aphrodite, in the Louvre Museum, Paris, France. Photo 20 October, 2007.
5. The Colonna Venus. Roman period copy of the Aphrodite of Knidos. Museo Pio-Clementino, Vatican, Italy. Image from “Aphrodite of Cnidus,” Encyclopaedia Romana. Accessed 4 December, 2009
6. The Colonna Venus from Paul Carus, Venus of Milo: An Archaeological Study of Woman. The Open Court Publishing Company, 1916, p. 172.
7. Head of Aphrodite, of the Aspremont-Lynden/Arles type, 1st AD copy of an original from Praxiteles. Christian mark (cross) defacing the chin and forehead. Found in the Roman Agora of Athens. National Archaeological Museum in Athens (MNA 1762).
8. Ludovisi Cnidian Aphrodite. Roman copy after a Greek original of the 4th century. Marble; original elements: torso and thighs; restored elements: head, arms, legs and support (drapery and jug). Ludovisi Collection, Palazzo Altemps, National Roman Museum, Inv. 8619. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen, September 2009.
9. So-called Aphrodite Braschi, 1st century BC copy after a votive statue of Praxitelean Aphrodite of Cnidus type, ca. 350–340 BC). Glyptothek, Munich, Germany, Inv. 258. Photo by Bibi Saint-Pol, 2007-02-08.
10. An engraving by Roscher of an ancient coin from Knidos, showing the Aphrodite of Knidos by Praxiteles, from Paul Carus, Venus of Milo: An Archaeological Study of Woman. The Open Court Publishing Company, 1916, p. 162.
11. John Gibson, The Tinted Venus, c.1851-6. Tinted marble, height 175 cm Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England (WAG7808).
12. “John Gibson: The Tinted Venus.” Encyclopaedia Romana. Accessed 4 December, 2009.
13. Modern cast in Pushkin Museum, Moscow, of the Venus de’ Medici, 1st century BC, in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.
14. Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510). The Birth of Venus, ca 1482-1486. Tempera on canvas. 172.5 cm x 278.5 cm (67.9 in x 109.6 in), Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.
Welcome back to the Ancient Art Podcast, bringing you the chart-topping hits from the ancient art billboard three years running now. Every month or so the Art Institute of Chicago publishes a neat little self-guide that draws connections between different works of art in the collection. You can download it or pick it up at the museum, or just keep it on your smartphone while you go around browsing the artwork. In keeping with the Halloween season, the October 2009 self-guide is called “Off with Their Heads,” inspired, as it says, “by the playfully disembodied human heads that practitioners of Victorian photocollage whimsically grafted on to animal bodies or morphed into household objects…[T]his guide reveals the bounty of beheadings in the collection, from the ghoulish to the gorgeous.”
One humorous disembodiment is a page from the Madame B Album of the 1870’s where little portrait photos of Madame B’s family were cut out and pasted onto the tail feathers of a watercolor turkey. And then the rather grisly Head of Guillotined Man by Théodore Géricault from 1818 to 1819. Supposedly Géricault kept this severed head of a thief in his studio for two weeks! On the flip side, some headless bodies include the provocative, yet disturbing 1988 sculpture of a Woman in a Tub by Jeff Koons. You can only wonder what’s at the other end of that snorkel poking out of the water. And then we come to a Roman period Statue of a Seated Woman.
The Art Institute self-guide reveals that this 2nd century marble sculpture didn’t lose its head as an accident. You can tell from the deep cavity in the neck that the head was carved separately and then attached to the torso. It was common among Roman statuary to make the head removable and interchangeable, especially with imperial statuary. In our current economic climate we can appreciate that marble was expensive. So instead of throwing away the whole statue of someone after they passed away, it made more sense simply to remove the distinctly identifiable portrait head and replace that with the head of the new emperor or whoever has just inherited the work of art, because the clothing that they wore, or in the case of the emperor, the military regalia, didn’t considerably change enough to warrant the cost of a whole new body.
If you look closely, you’ll see that the arms too were separately carved and attached with dowels, like little rods. See the holes carved into the shoulders of the woman? Dowels could be made from wood or metal and a simple analysis could tell you in the case here, but the reason for separately carved arms wasn’t so they could be interchangeable. Wipe those images of Mr. Potato Head from your mind. No, it served the very practical function of permitting them to bend a little bit. Marble along with any kind of stone has a very low tensile strength, meaning it’ll break before it bends. Wood and metal have a far greater ability to bend, so it was wise to insert dowels at points of precarious joints, like where an outstretched arm meets the shoulder. Without the dowels, the arms would have long since snapped off and would be forever lost … um … well.
Moving right along, the elaborate drapery is befitting of a goddess, perhaps Juno, the Roman Hera, or perhaps a wealthy patrician matron casting herself in the light of a goddess. As the self-guide suggests, perhaps one of the imperial wives: Faustina the Elder or her daughter Faustina II, both elevated to goddesses posthumously. Whomever the original subject may have been, it’s thought that the artist was likely looking back to the grand sculptural legacy of the Periklean Acropolis. We examined the Parthenon frieze ad nauseam in episodes 10, 11, and 12. Nearby the Parthenon, jutting out on a precipice of the Acropolis is the diminutive Temple of Athena Niké, that is Athena in the guise of Nike, goddess of victory. The Nike temple of 410 BC was once adorned with richly carved depictions of the goddess striking various poses, like the exquisite and thankfully surviving example of Nike fastening her sandals in the Acropolis Museum in Athens, or some might say unfastening her sandals as she prepares to enter a sacred space. You see how deeply carved the folds of her drapery are? There’s this almost unnatural suspension of gravity and physics. She’s definitely having a massively bad static cling day. In these figures of Nike, the desperately realistic and idealized images from the High Classical Greek era are beginning to give way to the more exaggerated and outlandishly baroque style of the later Hellenistic period. Her robe becomes almost liquid as is pours and cascades down her frame revealing the not so subtle contours of her nude physique underneath.
We see a strong stylistic influence taking place on a somewhat more prudish Roman level in the figure from the Art Institute. The drapery spilling over her leg also has this rather liquid appearance to it, like some ancient Roman wet toga contest effectively revealing her leg beneath. Her undergarment produces a sort of tidy meander at the ground level similar to the earlier Nike. Note also the belt clenching her waist and bunching the fabric. We also see a similar tight cinching of the waist on other fragmentary Nikes from the Temple of Athena Niké as well as a similar horizontal billowing of an especially large fold of drapery. The many stylistic similarities in the rendering of drapery strongly suggest that the Roman era artist of the Art Institute’s 2nd century AD Statue of a Seated Woman was indeed likely receiving strong inspiration from that pinnacle of Greek artistic achievement, the 5th century BC Athenian Acropolis.
It’s not entirely surprising that a 2nd century Roman artist would receive inspiration from the Ancient Greek sculptural tradition of six centuries earlier. Many of the artist in the Roman Empire were in fact Greek slaves. The size and scope of the Roman slave force was phenomenal. The HBO series Rome gives you some sense of the proliferation of slavery. Many of the highly skilled laborers in the Roman Empire were slaves, including artists, accountants, physicians, secretaries, tutors for Rome’s privileged children, and, get this, corporate management! So, it’s quite likely that our Roman era artist here would have received his artistic training in Greece, with many Classical and Hellenistic prototypes, including the Acropolis sculptures, serving as models.
This Statue of a Seated Woman isn’t the only beheaded beauty in the Art Institute’s Roman art collection. Here’s a lovely lady contemporary to the seated woman. This is a 2nd century copy of one of the most notable statues from the Hellenistic world, the famed Aphrodite of Knidos by the 4th century BC Athenian sculptor Praxiteles. The Aphrodite of Knidos was the nude that ushered in the era of Greek nudes. This is one of countless copies of the Praxitelean Aphrodite produced during the Roman era, which demonstrates the feverish popularity of the original work. The Aphrodite of Knidos deserves much more attention than what we’re able to cover in the short span of this episode, so we’ll just have to defer our satisfaction until next time when we’ll take a close detailed look at the fantastic history, legacy, and artistry of the Aphrodite of Knidos.
In the mean time, download “Off with Their Heads,” the October self-guide to the Art Institute of Chicago. If you follow me on Twitter at lucaslivingston, you’ll already have the link — check out tinyurl.com/aicselfguide. Also, try to visit the special exhibition “Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage” at the Art Institute on view through January 3, 2010. You’ll find a nice little interview with the curator Liz Siegel in the October episode of the museum’s podcast Musecast. Thanks to everyone who’s sending the feedback and questions. You can contact me at email@example.com. You can also leave comments at the website, on YouTune, and on iTunes. You’ll find the feedback form at ancientartpodcast.org, plus the nice little survey that helps me get to know more about you all and your interests. Happy Halloween and see you next time on the Ancient Art Podcast.
©2009 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org
2. Jean Louis André Théodore Géricault (French, 1791-1824). Head of a Guillotined Man, 1818/19. The Art Institute of Chicago. Through prior gift of William Wood Prince; L. L. and A. S. Coburn Endowment; Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester Collection, 1992.628.
3. Jeff Koons (American, born 1955). Woman in a Tub, 1988. Porcelain. The Art Institute of Chicago. Collection Stefan T. Edlis Trust, partial and promised gift to the Art Institute of Chicago, 2005.472.
19. Galleries of Roman art at the Art Institute of Chicago. Photo by Lucas Livingston, 23 Oct 2009.
20. Statue of the Aphrodite of Knidos, 2nd century A.D. Roman copy of a fourth century B.C. Greek original by Praxiteles. The Art Institute of Chicago, Katherine K. Adler Endowment, 1981.11. Photo by Lucas Livingston, 23 Oct 2009.