Paris Tips: Meet my friend Venus
By Theadora Brack
Whenever I’m having a challenging day, I hotfoot it over to the Louvre. Here I find peace and tranquility, while hobnobbing it with all my favorite Greeks—the solid marble kind, I mean! So for the love of exquisite inspiration, this week let’s celebrate Venus!
Here’s the scoop
First, let’s wind it back to the 18th century: the Greek revival style has already captured Europe’s fancy, especially in France. Classical Greek styling dominates music, architecture, art, and fashion. Illustrated travelogues are snatched up and bought as quickly as they are written. Globe trekkers and fashion enthusiasts of that day got their classical fix in salons and museums, and for the first time ever, art institutions have begun attracting visitors from all walks of life. The heart squeals!
Live to Tell
But like the Olympic Games ceremonies, every successful museum had to have classical showstoppers to attract the biggest crowds. Although Napoleon hadn’t been a hot lover of art, he’d considered it part of his role as conqueror to “collect” the best from every country he dominated. In fact, Louvre director Dominique-Vivant Denon often joined him in newly acquired territories, sometimes even scooping up masterpieces while the battles were still taking place. Imagine if eBay had existed back then.
Then came Waterloo, and we all know what that means. France’s empire went into a tailspin, and her enemies reclaimed more than five thousand stolen works, including the prized Venus de Medici—until then, the toast of the town. “We are still rich,” insisted, Louis XVIII in 1816, but that didn’t change the fact that neither his museum nor the nation of France still owned a real Venus to call their own—or even a real classical Greek sculpture. Enter Venus de Milo in 1821, like a prayer!
The Venus de Milo (also known in some circles as “Aphrodite of Melos”) had been lost for milennia in the underground world of the island of Melos before a local farmer and a French naval officer rediscovered her, deep in the ruins of an ancient Greek gymnasium.
A year later, she arrived at the Musée du Louvre in the dead of winter, dirt stained, and scarred from when her original niche had collapsed some two millennia earlier. Her nose was broken, a chunk of her wavy chiffon hair bun was missing, and according to some stories, her arms had gone missing during a scuffle when they were loading the boat to bring her to France. But after a thorough cleaning and a hip and foot restoration, the Goddess of Love made her debut when she was presented to the king and world as the epitome of classical Greek beauty. No one puts Venus in a corner!
“I’m a little bit this and a little bit that,” she might have said to her puzzled curators. Her perfectly proportioned head and upper torso—hallmarks of Classical Greece—didn’t jive with the sweep of her stomach or the weight of her heavily draped hips. Those were purely Hellenistic.
By now, of course, Hellenistic art is no longer considered substandard, and the truth about Venus’s background is out. Despite restoration work and occasional temporary moves due to wars or gallery repairs, her popularity has kept on growing.
What’s your desire?
By the late 19th century, souvenir postcards of the armless siren were already out-selling those of all stage actresses combined. Thousands of replicas made of marble, plaster, and terra cotta were mass-produced at a conveyor belt-breaking rate and sold, collected and coveted all over the world.
Shopping Tip! Want a Venus to call your own? I often spot her replica “Mini-Me” statues at the Paris flea markets and brocantes. Also, I recently scored a fine vintage bottle of “Secret de Venus” by Weil. Created in 1938, its hour-glass shape is also a stunner!
Venus still receives some eight million visitors a year—or 7,000,988, if you subtract my monthly pilgrimages. Of course she’s not the only Greek I visit. There’s also Atalanta, Psyche, Cupid, Diana of Versailles,and the equally famous Nike of Samothrace (Winged Victory)—just to name a few.
Stay tuned for more profiles!