The Mysterious History of the Marble ‘Venus de Milo’ Statue

As one of art history's most significant sculptures, the Venus de Milo continues to captivate audiences today. Located in the Louvre Museum, the marble masterpiece is celebrated for its Hellenistic artistry, renowned for its beauty, and famous for its absent arms.

Like many other treasured antiquities, the story behind the statue was entirely unknown when it was unearthed in the 19th century. Today, however, archaeologists and art historians have managed to piece together a narrative that explores and explains its possible provenance—though the sculpted goddess remains shrouded in mystery.

 

What is the Venus de Milo?

Known also as the Aphrodite of Milos, the Venus de Milo is a marble sculpture that was likely created by Alexandros of Antioch (2nd – 1st century BCE)–a Greek sculptor from the Hellenistic period—during the late 2nd century BCE. It features a nearly nude, larger-than-life (6 feet, 8 inches tall) female figure posed in a classical S-curve.

Her body is composed of two blocks of Parian marble as well as “several parts [that] were sculpted separately (bust, legs, left arm, and foot),” according to the Louvre. Furthermore, the sculpture was likely colorfully painted and adorned with jewelry, though no pigment or metal remains on the marble today.

Venus de Milo Statue Ancient Greek Sculpture Classical Greek Sculpture

Photo: Jastrow via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)

Venus de Milo Statue Ancient Greek Sculpture Classical Greek Sculpture

Photo: Jastrow via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)

 

Who is Venus de Milo?

Venus de Milo Statue Ancient Greek Sculpture Classical Greek Sculpture

“Aphrodite Anadyomene,” before 79 CE (Photo: Stephen Haynes via Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)

Since the statue was discovered without its arms, it is nearly impossible to confirm with absolute certainty who Venus de Milo is supposed to represent, as most sculptures of gods and goddesses from this period contained symbolism of who they were in what was in their hands. Even so, art historians have two strong theories. One of the strongest and most popular speculations is that she is supposed to be Venus,  goddess of love (the Roman counterpart to Aphrodite).

However, she may also represent Amphitrite—the goddess of the sea—who held special significance on the Greek island of Melos, where the work of art was found. The statue was even discovered near a Parian marble apple—the same material as the sculpture—which is one of Amphitrite's symbols.

Venus de Milo Statue Ancient Greek Sculpture Classical Greek Sculpture

“Poseidon and Amphitrite,” 50 – 79 CE (Photo: Stefano Bolognini via Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)

 

Discovery

Venus de Milo Statue Ancient Greek Sculpture Classical Greek Sculpture

Photo: Kurzon via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

In 1820, the statue was discovered by a farmer in an ancient niche on the Aegean island of Melos. While it was unearthed in pieces, it was able to be reassembled. Its fragmented arms—the left holding an apple and the right brushing against the figure's waist—however, were deemed unoriginal and not re-attached.

Additionally, as evident in this drawing by Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Debay, the figure was found on an inscribed base, which also proved to be a later addition and was thus removed.

Venus de Milo Statue Ancient Greek Sculpture Classical Greek Sculpture

Photo: Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)

Still, even as an incomplete sculpture, it was immediately considered a masterpiece. It was given to Louis XVIII, who donated it to the Louvre in 1821. While the museum initially intended to restore the statue, no one could decide how to position its arms. “Leaning against a pillar, resting her elbow on Ares' shoulder, or holding a variety of attributes” are some of the many possibilities that could have characterized the statue's original design.

Given the Louvre's inability to agree upon the sculpture's intended aesthetic, it was put on display without its arms—a decision that still stands.

 

The Sculpture Today

Venus de Milo Louvre Paris France
For nearly 200 years, the sculpture has been a vital part of the Louvre's permanent collection. Along with pieces like Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa and Michelangelo's Dying Slave, it is regarded as one of the museum's most precious—and popular—works of art.

Described by the Louvre as a “timeless masterpiece,” the Venus de Milo is slated to educate and enchant for centuries to come.

This article has been edited and updated.

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Kelly Richman-Abdou

Kelly Richman-Abdou is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met. An art historian living in Paris, Kelly was born and raised in San Francisco and holds a BA in Art History from the University of San Francisco and an MA in Art and Museum Studies from Georgetown University. When she’s not writing, you can find Kelly wandering around Paris, whether she’s leading a tour (as a guide, she has been interviewed by BBC World News America and France 24) or simply taking a stroll with her husband and two tiny daughters.
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