The modesty of the goddess of love and sex marked Western art. (Detail of engraving of Aphrodite of Cnidos by Claude Randon 1674 – 1704)
In the 4th century BC. Praxiteles, the most famous sculptor in Greece at the time, made something scandalous: a statue of a naked woman.
For more than three and a half centuries, the classical world had become accustomed to seeing the male figure in all its glory, but this was probably the first sculpture of a life-size female figure with nothing to hide her private parts.
The island of Kos had commissioned him a statue of Aphrodite and he had made two: in one version, the goddess of love, beauty, pleasure and passion was dressed.
In the other, without clothes, with one hand gesturing to try in vain to hide something of her immortal beauty, while the other held some cloth, perhaps a garment or a towel.
Horrified at such a sight, the islanders of Kos decided to acquire the demure goddess; Without such fussiness, the neighboring city of Cnidos seized the opportunity and took the despised deity home, so that from his temple he would bless the voyages of the ships that passed through its shores.
That first representation of the nude female body in art was a revolution.
Praxiteles had broken with the tradition of covering women, but just as important, notes Mary Beard, a historian of the classical world, is that her Aphrodite “is not blatantly exposing herself to us: she appears as if we have accidentally surprised her when about to take a bath or just come out of it. With one hand, he covers himself modestly ”.
. One of the most controversial nudes in Western art: the first life-size sculpture of a nude woman in the Greek world and probably in the West.
« It is as if the sculptor is giving us an excuse to see the naked deity« , Says Beard in the documentary » The impact of the nude « of the BBC.
Thus, « Praxíteles established that disturbing relationship between the statue of a woman and a supposed male spectator that has never been lost in the history of European art. »
In the center of the world
But perhaps it would not have had such an impact were it not for the audacity of the population of Cnidos, a Hellenic city in southwestern Asia Minor – now on the Datça peninsula in present-day Turkey – which was at the center of trade routes. from Alexandria to Athens, and its port protected the sailors from the Etesians, those strong winds from the Aegean Sea that blow from May to September.
The sanctuary that housed Aphrodite Euploia or ‘Aphrodite of the good voyage’, which was her name in her capacity as goddess of the sea, was “completely open, to allow the image of the goddess to be seen from all sides, and believes that it was made in this way with the blessing of the goddess herself, « according to the later recounted by the Roman writer Pliny the Elder, for whom the sculpture was not only the best of Praxiteles, but also the best in the whole world.
He was far from her only admirer.
Aphrodite Cnidea, as she came to be known, captivated the ancient world with her beauty.
BBC The inhabitants of Knidos were so proud of their goddess that they put her on their coins.
Later King Nicomedes [de Cos] he tried to buy it from the cnidia, promising to free them from their enormous state debt « , related Pliny the Elder in his » Naturalis historia « .
« But the Cnidians stood firm in their decision, and rightly so, since it was Praxiteles’ work that made Knidos famous. »
The most beautiful in the world
Indeed, the city became prominent, becoming a pilgrimage destination.
The sculpture was considered one of the most desirable of its time, literally and metaphorically.
Plinio observed that some visitors ended « overwhelmed by love for the statue« .
« Erōtes » or « Amores », a work associated with the Syrian author Luciano de Samosata, tells about a nobleman who became so obsessed with the image of Aphrodite that he spent the night in the temple and tried to copulate with the statue.
Upon being discovered by a custodian, he felt such shame that he threw himself off a cliff into the sea.
Others wrote poems and praises, admiring the way the marble came to life on the roundness of her thighs, the perfection of her rear, and the sensuality of her parted mouth.
. ImagesContrast and compare. This is a copy of a sculpture by Praxíteles of a naked man: no necessary modesty because for 350 years everything human… masculine has been shown.
In a lighter style, a lyrical epigram tells that the goddess Aphrodite herself went to Cnidos to see the sculpture. Recognizing their perfect likeness, he wondered: “Paris, Adonis and Anchises saw me naked. That’s all I know. So how did Praxíteles do it?
Another similar one, which is attributed to Plato, says that, after observing the statue from all sides, the goddess said: “When did Praxiteles see me naked? Praxíteles never saw what was not correct to see: his tool sculpted an Aphrodite that Ares (Olympian god of war and lover of Aphrodite) would like ”.
And, despite being a product of the imagination, these epigrams reveal the genius of the artist who not only deviated from tradition by depicting the female body without modesty, but showing gods not as distant and majestic beings to revere, but more emotional and vulnerable. , endowing them with a more human grace.
A break that, according to connoisseurs, was as important at that time as Impressionism in modern times.
In the particular case of Aphrodite Cnidea, the many sculptors who followed Praxiteles’ pattern in the classical world, adopted similar pretexts to present the woman or goddess as demure and undressed, giving every observer an excuse to admire her without shame.
In fact, it is also known as La Venus Pudica, a name that is also used to describe that classic pose in Western art in which the naked woman in any position tries to hide her private parts from the gaze of others.
“When, centuries later, art lovers from the Renaissance onwards praised the achievements of the ancients, they were captivated by those shy goddessesBeard notes.
And the artists embodied that admiration in their own works.
. One of the most beautiful pudic Venuses in history.
The pose, however, was losing its appeal with the passing of the centuries and social changes.
Critics began to point out that it denied the female subject power in her sexuality and that the idea that it was attractive to see a woman trying to protect her naked body from unwanted stares was disturbing.
In 1863 the French painter Édouard Manet struck him a blow with his work Olympia.
Olympia appears mistress of her body, looking without shame who looks at her. He is not afraid of wishes. It is not vulnerable. It is not exposed to non-consensual meddling.
Your nudity is your decision.
. Manet’s Olympia is not a shy and demure girl; it is not at the mercy of men.
The famous original Cnedia Aphrodite disappeared. It is not known exactly how. There are those who think that it was taken to Constantinople or that it was destroyed in a fire, but the truth is that it is a mystery.
What we know about her is thanks to descriptions and copies made by eye. Multiple copies.
Along the centuries, many made their wish to possess Aphrodite Cnedia come true.
Generations of artists did faithful imitations and others more playful, in which they put the other hand to try to cover the chest or they removed both to show everything.
There was even one who, from the front, was dressed, but lifted her dress from behind.
And some of them are in museums today: the Venus Colonna (Venus is the Roman name for Aphrodite), the Capitoline Venus, the Medici Venus, the Venus Barberini, the Venus di Milo, the Venus de Borghese, the Aphrodite Kallipyrgos (which translates as the ‘Aphrodite with the nice butt’) …
We leave you in the company of three of them.
. Aphrodite Cnedia inspired generations of artists throughout the ancient world to make copies, such as – from left to right – the Capitoline Venus (II or III BC), Venus de Medici (I BC) and Colonna Venus.