Goddesses and Girls

Nicholas Penny

‘It’s a speaking likeness.’ For centuries these words carried nothing but praise, but today, if used by the sophisticated, would suggest that some artistic quality was lacking. It is ‘so true and so alive’, wrote Aretino in 1527, in commendation of a nude Venus by Sansovino, ‘that it will fill the thoughts of all who look at it with lust.’ This would now be considered crude and philistine, not only as a reaction to a modern painting or sculpture, but to a Venus by Sansovino. Has high art, in our time, cut itself off from one of its immemorial attractions, leaving to publicity, to the glossy portraits of stars and to centrefold nudes, the task of encouraging the suspension of disbelief and stimulating the fiction that the image responds to us, and hears our proposals and prayers? Or is it that our art-loving ancestors could only convey their enthusiasm for art by making this sort of claim for it?

The Aphrodite of Cnidos, the celebrated statue by Praxiteles, now known only in literary accounts and in poor copies, was said to have been assaulted by an infatuated admirer who concealed himself overnight in her shrine. This story, told without disapproval, as a testimony to the miraculous life the sculpture possessed, was ostensibly suggested by a stain on the statue’s thigh, but was surely also inspired by the action of the goddess. All historians of Greek art have emphasised the novelty of portraying the goddess nude – it was said to have been controversial at the time. A pretext for this nudity was needed and Praxiteles showed the goddess at her bath. This introduced something that was even more remarkable. For the goddess has reacted to us in a human way. We have surprised her, and she attempts instinctively to conceal from us her ‘private parts’ – thus, by the way, licensing the use of this euphemism (which is hardly appropriate for the genitals of Greek males). Praxiteles had endowed a cult statue with a narrative dimension which implicated the men – the males, I mean – who beheld it.

Although the early Christians seem to have done their best to destroy them all for ever, there had been so many statues of the nude Venus – hundreds, perhaps thousands of them copied, and still more derived, from Praxiteles’s masterpiece – that a few turned up in the Middle Ages to meet with a very mixed reception. One seems to have caused quite a stir in early 13th-century Rome, but soon disappeared again (doubtless it had distracted too many pilgrims). A century later, one was reported in Siena: it was briefly acclaimed, but then destroyed by public decree – it was buried in Florentine soil to bring bad luck to Siena’s traditional enemy.

By the early 16th century, things had so completely changed that the Pope had a brace of Venuses in his own statue garden in the Vatican; a hundred years later, an antique Venus in the Medici collection had become one of the two or three most famous works of art in the world. The Medici Venus was admired, as the Cnidian statue had been, in alarming ways. The bibliophile Henry George Quin, for instance, records in his diary (extracts of which were published in an amusing article by Arthur Rau in the Book Collector in 1964) how, in the winter of 1785, he ‘stole’ into the Tribuna of the Uffizi in Florence when no one was there and ‘fervently kissed several parts of her divine body’. When he did so again on his next visit, he ‘began to conceive it was real flesh and blood, and my favours increasing in proportion, I don’t know what I should have done had not my sensual Reverie been interrupted by an ill-looking fellow who came into the room and jawed me terribly’ – not, it seems, for caressing the statue but for standing on a chair. Quin was back in the Uffizi in the following year, slowly passing his hand in a doe-skin glove over the statue, with his eyes closed, and trying (I cannot imagine how) a silk stocking on one of its legs. This sort of behaviour was unusual, but claims that the statue ‘wants nothing but voice and colour’ were common, and so was some sort of ‘sensual Reverie’. As with the Cnidian statue, it was the modest posture of the Venus – ‘she bows down gently, and advances her right knee, as it were to hide herself better if she could’ – which seems to have made violation of her privacy so exciting.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

[1] Titian by Charles Hope. Jupiter, 240 pp., £12.50, 26 June 1980, 0 906379 09 1. Nude Painting by Michael Jacobs. Phaidon, 79 pp., £2.95, 1979, 0 71448 19190.

[2] Rubens by Kerry Downes. Jupiter, 208 pp., £12.50, 26 June 1980, 0 906379 04 0.

[3] Bodies of Knowledge by Liam Hudson. Weidenfeld, 163 pp., £12.95, 14 October, 0 297 78117 0.

[4] Portrait Painting by Malcolm Warner. Phaidon, 80 pp., £2.95, 1979, 0 7148 1922 0.