Issue 09, July 2008
homepage > The Art of Praxiteles: The Mature Years

The Art of Praxiteles: The Mature Years

Dodekatheon in Ostia, Archaeological Museum, no. 120, ca. 50-70 AD, copy of Praxiteles' Dodekatheon from the Sanctuary of the Saviour Artemis in Megara
Dodekatheon in Ostia, Archaeological Museum, no. 120, ca. 50-70 AD, copy of Praxiteles' Dodekatheon from the Sanctuary of the Saviour Artemis in Megara
 
Antonio Corso, The Art of Praxiteles II: The Mature Years, Rome: “L'Erma di Bretschneider”, 2007, pp. 303, 119 images. ISBN: 88-8265-437-0

Antonio Corso, The Art of Praxiteles II: The Mature Years, Rome: “L'Erma di Bretschneider”, 2007, pp. 303, 119 images. ISBN: 88-8265-437-0

By Ioannis Petropoulos,
Associate Professor of Ancient Greek Literature, Democritus University of Thrace

2007 can be described as ‘Praxiteles' Year' for two reasons. Firstly, thanks to the wonderful exhibition ‘Praxitèle' held at the Louvre, Paris, and its continuation and completion at the National and Archaeological Museum of Greece in Athens. Secondly, thanks to the publication of this book by Antonio Corso, a distinguished archaeologist, art historian, and former Onassis Foundation scholar.

A product of a twenty-year-long study, Dr. Corso's book is, more precisely, the second ―yet not the last― volume in his series of studies on Praxiteles' massive and multifarious work. The book focuses on the years 364-360 BC, namely the period that Pliny the Elder described as the prime of the Athenian sculptor. A representative work of this mature period was the celebrated statue of the Cnidian Aphrodite, whom Praxiteles represented as bending at her bath and holding her garment in her left hand. This masterpiece, which (alas!) has not been rescued, seems to have triggered a genuine representational revolution: it was the very first time that a female figure had been represented naked!

Aphrodite Colonna, Rome, Vatican Museums, Gabinetto delle Maschere, no. 812, body ca. 140-150 AD, head (also related to another copy) ca. 130 AD, copy of Praxiteles' Cnidian Aphrodite
Aphrodite Colonna, Rome, Vatican Museums, Gabinetto delle Maschere, no. 812, body ca. 140-150 AD, head (also related to another copy) ca. 130 AD, copy of Praxiteles' Cnidian Aphrodite

Here is what Corso has to say about it: ‘Aphrodite is represented bending forwards to pick up her garment after having washed herself in a bathing place. The site was probably in a forest, the topos where Praxiteles' deities are often placed. In Greek mythology, Aphrodite bathed before showing herself to Paris. Moreover, a tradition, harking back to the 4th c. BC, links the Cnidian Aphrodite to the judgement of Paris. It is, therefore, probable, that this statue of Aphrodite represents the goddess at her bath before the judgement of Paris. […] Praxiteles believed that the Judgement of Paris was the guarantee that a mortal could admire the goddess' beauty, translated into female terms. […] Bathing had also the function of purifying and regenerating the goddess, and her nakedness was also intended to express a state of primordial purity thus regained. Having completed her bath, the goddess was returned to her primordial purity, and a paradeigma to mortal men.'

Cnidian Aphrodite statuette from the Archaeological Museum of Delos, no. 4409, late 2nd c. BC, copy of Praxiteles' Cnidian Aphrodite
Cnidian Aphrodite statuette from the Archaeological Museum of Delos, no. 4409, late 2nd c. BC, copy of Praxiteles' Cnidian Aphrodite

This Aphrodite gradually overshadowed the statues of naked men and became the object of admiration (indeed, of desire!) of a great many people in the Greco-Roman Antiquity. Lucian once stated that the Cnidian Aphrodite had the most beautiful buttocks he had ever seen. Therefore, it is no wonder that, amongst all ancient Greek statues, this was the statue of which the most copies were created, dating from the 4th c. BC to the end of the Renaissance.

‘In my first volume on the art of Praxiteles,' says the author, ‘I stressed that, in the Platonic environment of our sculptor, the beauty which is closest to divine perfection was thought to be known through the least imperfect examples of earthly beauty. Moreover, because a personal knowledge of beauty is possible through one's inner feelings, it was regarded best to employ examples which provoke this feeling.'

‘For this reason,' adds Corso, ‘Praxiteles used as models two courtesans who were also his lovers: Phryne for the goddess' body and Cratina for the head.' Amongst the sources he cites is the following remark by Arnobius (6.13): ‘Who ignores […] that Praxiteles, competing with his own skill, copied the appearance of the Cnidian Venus from the features of the courtesan Cratina, whom the poor man was desperately loving? But is she the sole Venus, who had her fame increased because her face (vultus) has been taken from the one of a courtesan?'

‘Having completed the statue,' says Corso, ‘Praxiteles put the work up for sale in his workshop, together with a draped statue of the goddess, which was made in the same period, according to Pliny 36.20-1. Pliny also informs us that the Cnidians purchased the naked Aphrodite. The Coans chose first, because they first requested an Aphrodite, but refused to take the naked statue for moral reasons, preferring instead the draped Aphrodite, in keeping with the typical classical Greek habit of representing the goddess clothed.'

Head of Aphrodite from Olympia, Archaeological Museum, no. 139, ca. 100 BC, Cnidian Aphrodite variation
Head of Aphrodite from Olympia, Archaeological Museum, no. 139, ca. 100 BC, Cnidian Aphrodite variation

Dr. Corso presents over thirty images of the Cnidian Aphrodite, the protagonist of his book. The ample illustration of the rich archaeological material (e.g. coins and Roman reproductions) helps the reader as s/he watches the author chronologically present the versions and transformations of the lost ‘archetype' of Aphrodite, between the 4th c. BC and 476 AD. It was in this last year that the Cnidian Aphrodite statue, which had been ‘sheltered' in a Constantinople museum, was lost in a fire. However, thanks to Antonio Corso's systematic, scholarly archaeology, it is now possible to reliably reconstruct ―and thus reacquire― this lost masterpiece. For this and several other reasons, his book constitutes a major scientific achievement.

Corso then refers to the statue of the Coan Aphrodite, which is only known to us through a passage in Pliny (36.20) and which, as was mentioned above, was preferred by the Coans, who were known to be very conservative in religious terms. ‘In order to reconquire the configuration of the Coan Aphrodite,' says the author, ‘it is necessary to keep in mind Pliny's specification that the goddess was represented velata specie: velatus means “veiled”, therefore probably refers to a thin, transparent garment worn by Aphrodite. The Richelieu Aphrodite may echo this lost goddess. This Hadrianic statue in Parian marble, coming from Rome or around, bears carved on the plinth the following label in Greek: Praxiteles epoiesen [created by Praxiteles].' In describing the statue, the author claims that Aphrodite probably held an apple in her raised right hand. Thus, he draws the conclusion that Praxiteles carved two Aphrodites in the same time, one naked before the judgement of Paris and one dressed up after the judgment, exhibiting the prize of her victory. ‘If the first statue, bought by the Cnidians, was destined to become very popular, the second creation, bought by the Coans, may have appealed to a more intellectualistic taste, which was eager to appreciate the subtle, yet provocative charm of a sinuous figure, whose beauty lays behind a thin, transparent chiton!'

Left: Rear view of Aphrodite Colonna, Right: Rear view of the Cnidian Aphrodite statuette from Delos
Left: Rear view of Aphrodite Colonna, Right: Rear view of the Cnidian Aphrodite statuette from Delos

Finally, Antonio Corso analyses the other three works of the artist's prime in a similar way: the statues of the Twelve Gods (the Dodekatheon) in the Sanctuary of the Saviour Artemis in Megara, the sculpture of Aphrodite who is about to wreathe herself (Stephanousa), and the statue of Chairippe, priestess of Demeter and Kore, which had been devoted to her memory by her two brothers.

- top of page -
Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation | Tel. +30 210 3713000 | Fax. +30 210 3713013 | Email: pubrel@onassis.gr
>