Defining Beauty, the British Museum’s memorable exploration of the body in ancient Greek art, runs until July 5. With 150 objects, including six of the BM’s own Parthenon pieces in magnificent close up, as well as rich Greek and Roman sculpture, and extraordinary Greek vases, it is a thought-provoking essay on the Greeks’ liberal preoccupation with the human form.
It also brings a reminder of one of the most influential and mysterious works of art ever seen in Turkey: the Aphrodite of Knidos, hailed as the first female nude of Western art. This naked, yet tantalisingly modest figure, from what is the modern town of Tekir, was a legendary inspiration both for countless Roman sculptures and for Renaissance masterpieces such as Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.
Defining Beauty has had enthusiastic reviews in London. In the words of the Guardian reviewer Jonathan Jones, the ‘astonishing’ show brings together ‘some of the greatest classical sculptures in the world’. Many are from the BM’s own collection; highlights include half a dozen of the Elgin marbles from the Parthenon, shown at eye level and wonderfully lit to bring out every groove and cut.
There is an extraordinary Greek bronze statue of a young athlete scraping the sweat off his body, hauled out of the sea off Croatia in 1999. The focus of the reviews has been on the statuary, from muscled Amazons to satyrs and sphinxes, and extraordinary portrait busts. But the lively scenes on Greek jars and urns, also mostly from the BM’s own collection, are also among the most entrancing pieces, from the tragedy of Troy to the exploits of Herakles.
Black-figured amphora showing the death of Priam, Greek, c550–540BC, Vulci, Lazio, Italy © The Trustees of the British Museum
The exhibits underline that our understanding of Greek sculpture comes mostly from Roman copies, because the greatest Greek works were typically in bronze, and in the centuries that followed became more valuable as metal scrap than works of art.
Apoxyomenos, a Hellenistic or Roman bronze replica after a bronze original from the second quarter or the end of the 4th century BC © Tourism Board of Mali Losinj
But the Greek work’s inspirational influence on their successors was powerful, and perhaps none more so than the Aphrodite of Knidos – the famous statue of Aphrodite, the Goddess of love, the Romans’ Venus.
Classical sources record how in about 350 BC the sculptor Praxiteles created two statues of Aphrodite, carved in Parian marble. One, her modesty suitably covered in drapery, was snapped up by the city of Kos. But the citizens of Knidos bought the nude version. Praxiteles' mistress, the courtesan Phryne, was said to be the model. It quickly became far more celebrated; tourist ships would stop off to see it.
Engraving of a coin from Knidos showing the Aphrodite of Knidos, by Praxiteles
Knidos (or Cnidus), modern Tekir, is at the end of a very narrow peninsula, where the sanctuary of Aphrodite, with the statue at its centre, stood on high ground overlooking the city below, in a commanding position over the sea.
Pliny the Elder, who died in the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79, said that ‘superior to all the works, not only of Praxiteles, but indeed in the whole world, is the Aphrodite which many people have sailed to Knidos in order to see. He made two statues and offered them for sale at the same time; one of them was represented with the body draped... the people of Knidos took the rejected one, the fame of which became immensely greater.’
The sculpture, the exhibition records, set the mould for the ‘Venus Pudica’, the modest Venus, a figure who attempts to cover herself when she is caught naked. The exhibition records how ‘the celebrated but now lost statue of Aphrodite by Praxiteles in her sanctuary at Knidos… exploited the erotic charge of a goddess caught naked’.
‘The Greek writer Lucian relates the tale of a young man of Knidos who fell so madly in love with the statue that he had himself locked in the temple for a night of passion.’ Shamed by his excesses, he threw himself from a cliff into the sea.
All subsequent statues of Aphrodite, it notes, were ‘inspired in some degree by the work’, which was praised as extraordinarily lifelike. The Knidos Aphrodite was in a sense ‘the first female nude’ of Greek art and those that followed; at a seminar tied to the exhibition’s exploration of beauty, one speaker drew a line from the statue and its vision of the ideal female body all the way to Gillette’s Venus razor for women.
The BM has two prominent works from Knidos; one titled ‘Persephone and Demeter’, which features in the exhibition; and a colossal, five-ton marble lion now displayed in the museum’s Great Court, that once perched on a headland there. It was brought back to the museum by the architect Richard Pullan after an 1859 expedition to Asia Minor.
Marble statue of a naked Aphrodite crouching at her bath, also known as Lely’s Venus. Roman copy of a Greek original, 2nd century AD, height 120cm, Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015
The Aphrodite is not among them. It is so famous that it appears 19 times in ancient literary sources, portrayed not just in copies in clay, bronze, stone, and on coins, particularly Roman, but also celebrated in poetry. However, it has long been lost. What is said to be the closest Roman copy, the Colonna Venus, is in the Vatican collections. The exhibition features one sculpture of a naked, crouching Venus at her bath.
The eastern King Nikomedes offered to cancel Knidos’ whole debt to buy the work, it is said. But it eventually found its way to Constantinople. It was last seen in the palace of Lausos in Constantinpole in the early Christian period, and was destroyed there in a great fire. Some sources put the date at 476AD; others to the time of the violent Nika riots in 532, in which Hagia Sophia was also destroyed. There are parallels, perhaps, to other great lost pieces, like the Amber Room, looted by the Nazis from the Russian palace of Tsarskoye Selo and then believed destroyed by fire in Germany.
Knidian coins show the Aphrodite of Knidos standing on her right leg while her left bends slightly; her right hand covers her pubic area, her left is turned up at the elbow, and she holds a piece of drapery falling on a vase. She looked toward her left rather than her right. She was said to wear a slight smile that showed her teeth. The statue was probably coloured, with the hair yellow or perhaps guilded, along with the statue’s carved jewellery.