Over life-size Roman torso of Aphrodite of Cnidus

One of the most celebrated works of art in antiquity was the cult statue of the goddess Aphrodite at her temple in Knidos, sculpted by the Greek artist Praxiteles around 350 B.C. According to the Roman naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder (The Natural History XXXVI, iv, 23-27), the genesis of the Aphrodite of Knidos originated from a commission ordered by the citizens of neighboring Kos. As Pliny relays, Praxiteles offered for sale two variations of the goddess: one where she was depicted with drapery, and the other which portrayed the goddess completely nude. Owing to their “propriety and modesty,” the people of Kos chose the draped sculpture, and the Knidians purchased the rejected nude version (op cit.).

Roman period, early-mid 2nd century A.D.
H. 120 cm (47 1⁄4 in)

Once in the collection of the Florentine Familly Bartholoni, then included by Jean-François Bartholoni (1796-1881) in his collection in his Château Sans-Souci at Versoix, Switzerland; where it appears, with extensive 18th century additions, in a photograph positioned at the foot of the entrance staircase. The restorations were subsequently removed.
An old inventory number ‘170’ is carved into the statue’s support, next to the proper left thigh, indicating that the piece could well have a much older provenance back to the 17th century or even earlier. Only very few well-known Roman collections such as the Ludovisi or Rondini collections used to carve their inventory numbers directly into a sculpture.
Bartholoni’s family originated from Florence, so it is possible the statue had been in his family’s ownership for several generations prior to its arrival at Sans-Souci.
In 1926, the Château Sans-Souci and its contents briefly passed into the hands of Jacques-Arnold Amstutz. However, it swiftly then passed into the ownership of SI Sans-Souci, who sold off the estate and rented out the Château, including to the wealthy Liechtenstein family of Baron Karl Horst von Waldthausen. The baron’s passion for automobile racing lead to the construction of a test track in the grounds.
In September 1957, the contents of the Château were disbursed at auction
M&M A.G., Basel, Auktion XXII, 13. Mai 1961, Lot 20, pl. 7
Collection of Henri E Smeets, Weert (1905-1980), The Netherlands, prior to 1975
Sotheby's London, 4th December 1978, lot 210

Journal de Genève
Announcement of the sale of the art collection of the Château Bartholoni (Domaine Sans-Souci), 16 August 1957

Ch. Amann and J.-P. Junot
Journal de Genève, Auction advertisement by the Genevan auctioneers, 16 September 1957

E. Godet et al.
A Private Collection: A Catalogue of the Henri Smeets Collection, Weert, 1975, no. 217

Antonio Corso
The Art of Praxiteles II: The Mature Years, in: Studia archaeologica, 153, Rome, 2007, 151, 251:269

Antonio Corso
The Art of Praxiteles II: The Mature Years, in: Studia archaeologica, 153, Rome, 2007

Aphrodite of Knidos,
Museo Nazionale Romano,
Palazzo Altemps, Inv. no. 8619.

Praxiteles’ contribution to the history of art and his groundbreaking depiction of the human form was not lost on the citizens of Knidos. Believed to be the first large-scale depiction of the nude female in Greek art, the Aphrodite of Knidos was erected in an open-air temple, affording a view of Praxiteles' masterpiece from all angles. In time, the renown of the cult statue drew visitors from across the ancient world to Knidos to view the work; for some, it even became the object of lustful desire. For Pliny (op. cit.), the Aphrodite of Knidos represented not only Praxiteles’ best sculpture, but was also the finest work of art known to the writer. Considered across millennia as an exemplar of feminine beauty and power, the Aphrodite of Knidos is today known only through numerous copies and variations made during the Hellenistic and Roman periods (in the Roman world the goddess was known as Venus), from full-scale replicas in marble for temples and villas (see fig. 1), to small bronze and terracotta statuary for household shrines (see fig. 2), to depictions on engraved gems for personal adornment. The general schema for these variations always depicts the goddess nude, undressing for her bath, with her right hand typically over her pudenda and her left hand to her side, usually holding a garment. Further variations on the Aphrodite of Knidos include the famed Capitoline Venus (Musei Capitolini, Inv. no MC0409) and the Medici Venus (Galleria degli Uffizi, Inv no. 1914, 224). For a discussion on the dispersal of the Praxitelean original, see M. Bieber, The Sculpture of the Hellenistic Age, pp. 18-19.

Hellenistic statuette of Aphrodite,
New York, The Metropolitan
Museumof Art, Inv. no. 12.173.

Praxiteles’ key innovation with the Aphrodite of Knidos was to portray the female goddess with the same “heroic nudity” afforded to her male counterparts. Previous scholarship interpreted the Aphrodite of Knidos and its later variants through the lens of a voyeuristic gaze: the goddess, caught by the viewer in a private moment, attempted to cover herself with her hands and drapery. This interpretation is now recognized as a 19th century conceit since there is no mythological basis to support it (see B.S. Ridgeway, Fourth-Century Styles in Greek Sculpture, p. 263). Instead, the goddess of love “is depicted as an epiphany, not in an unexpected glimpse, and in ‘heroic nudity’ as unconscious and glorious-as attribute-as that of the male gods. The gesture of her right hand is meant to point to, not to hide, her womb, emphasizing her fertility and complementing the action of her left hand” (op cit.).
Thus the nudity observed in the Aphrodite of Knidos and its later iterations, as in the example presented here, positions the goddess outside the realm of desire and voyeurism; indeed, she is outside the plane of human experience. Here, Venus is put on equal footing with the likes of Zeus, Poseidon, Herakles and the numerous other male deities who are shown nude across media in Greek and Roman art for the sole purpose of heightening their heroic qualities and godliness.

The Aphrodite of Knidos is an iconic art historical image that has captivated artists for millennia. In the Roman world, having lost the religious implications of the Greek original, Venus became more abstractly associated with love and beauty but also came to symbolize Rome’s imperial power (see p. 157 in C. Kondoleon and P.C. Segal, eds., Aphrodite and the Gods of Love). The numerous extant Roman copies and variations of Praxiteles’ original sculpture suggests that patrons prized this model’s elegant proportions and forms, and clamored to decorate their villas and household shrines with the image.
In more modern times, the Aphrodite of Knidos and its successors became apt material for artists to appropriate toward their own ends, interpreting a quintessential form of classical antiquity to assume their own place within the larger canon. As the scholar R. Barrow remarks, “The reception of the ancient past makes a distinctive and vital contribution to the aesthetic continuum: in the visual sphere, in particular, renewals and reworkings of classical models claim a privileged position in the canon of art-historical achievement” (p. 344 in “From Praxiteles to de Chirico: Art and Reception,” in International Journal of the Classical Tradition 11, no. 3). Giorgio de Chirico, Salvador Dali, and Yves Klein each translated and incorporated the nude Aphrodite into their own visual languages and, either through subversion or replication, assumed an unbroken artistic chain from Praxiteles to the present day.

Yves Klein (1928-1962), Blue Venus. Artwork: © Succession Yves Klein c/o ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2022.

The Bartholoni Aphrodite
This splendid figure, a later Roman variation of Praxiteles’ Greek original, depicts the goddess of love nude, bent slightly forward, standing with her weight on her right leg. The left leg is advanced and bent at the knee with the remains of an original support preserved on her outer thigh. The right arm was originally lowered with the now- missing hand positioned over her pudendum. The left shoulder is pulled slightly back, the arm perhaps once leaning on a support or holding a piece of drapery. In form and modeling, this torso is close to that of one in the Louvre (Inv. no. Ma 2184; see S. Reinach: Repertoire de la Statuaire Gre?cque et Romaine, vol. II, p. 366, no. 6).
This Venus has a long and illustrious modern provenance. Its first reordered owner, Jean- Francois Bartholoni (1796-1881), housed the sculpture at his home in Versoix, Switzerland, Château Sans-Souci. Bartholoni was a Geneva-born recorded magnate who oversaw the construction of the Geneva to Lyon rail line and was instrumental in the unification of Switzerland’s rail network. Bartholoni’s largesse also established the Conservatoire de Musique de Genève, the oldest music conservatory in Switzerland, which still stands today on the Place Neuve. Photographs of this Venus shot in-situ at Château Sans-Souci show it with extensive 18th century restorations, in the manner of Grand Tour era collecting. It has been noted that as the Bartholoni family originated from Florence, it is possible that the work was in the family long before its first documented appearance in Versoix (see E. Godet, et al., op. cit.). 


You may also like

View More