Date: 4th century (360 B.C.)
Location: Capitoline Museum, Rome
Medium: Marble sculpture
Dimensions: 193 cm
“Venus herself, as oft as she lays aside her robes, half stooping covers with her left hand her modesty.”
Ovid, Art of Love
Perhaps the most famous piece of Roman antiquity and the pride of the Capitoline Museum, the Capitoline Venus is a Roman copy of the original Greek “Modest Venus” sculpture that was created by Praxiteles around 360 B.C. Praxiteles’ original, Aphrodite of Cnidos, burned in a fire in 475 A.D. in the capital of the Byzantine empire, Constantinople.
The Capitoline Venus is one of the first and most realistic representations of the female body. The Capitoline Venus is not a bony, slender woman, but a woman with realistic and natural curves. It was Praxiteles who pioneered this new concept of a fully nude sculpted woman; a figure that is slightly larger than life-size and is able to be viewed from all 360 degrees. The only difference is that in the original Cnidian Venus figure, Praxiteles’ Venus is only using one hand to cover her nakedness whereas the Capitoline Venus is using both hands. The specific hand placement in this pose is referred to as the Pudica Venus. In this depiction, Venus is almost posed in a contrapposto stance, exiting the bath tub. A nearby stand with her clothing adds to the narrative of the figure. Her expression almost gives the impression that she is aware of an onlooker but is indifferent, as she only gives a half-hearted attempt to cover her nakedness. After all, she is Venus, the goddess of erotic love; she is aware of her physical beauty and has nothing to hide.
Venus also served as a muse for authors and artists alike. Her figure was the inspiration for Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” Mark Twain’s short story “The Capitoline Venus,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Marble Faun, and American sculptor Hiram Powers’ sculpture “The Greek Slave,” just to name a few. Twain called the Capitoline Venus the “most faultless work of art the world has any knowledge of” and the “grandest work of ancient art the world contains.”
This specific version of Venus was unearthed partially intact from an ancient garden near San Vitale in Rome in the 1670s. Only some minor restorations were required. The Capitoline Venus was given as a gift to the Capitoline Museum in 1752 (the first art museum in the world opened to the public) by Pope Benedict XIV. When Napoleon Bonaparte when he invaded Italy in 1797, the Venus was seized and taken to Paris, but eventually returned to rightful Rome after the fall of Bonaparte in 1816.
Capitoline Venus crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the summer of 2011 for a temporary exhibition in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. With Bonaparte’s theft being the only time that Venus left the Capitoline Museum, her trip to America marked the second time that she ever left her home in the Capitoline.
Mozley, J. H.. Ovid; the Art of love, and other poems,. London: W. Heinemann;, 1929. Print.