Travel Story Beauty spans the ages in marble and paint

Photo of Stephen Scourfield

Here, I share my reverence for the famed Venus de Milo, circa 150BC.

This story begins in a silent, private moment.

For suddenly, in the teeming Louvre Museum in Paris, I find myself alone.

The crowds that have filled the room, blocking my view as I stand and wait, simply vanish in a bizarre moment you simply couldn’t choreograph.

Well, actually, I’m not completely alone. I am with one of the world’s most classically beautiful women. She is half-naked, her white skin exposed from the waist up; topless.

Her nakedness and sensual, feminine curves seem arrested in time. 

Her nudity contrasts with the finely detailed cloth draped around her hips.

This is Venus.

This sculpture, Venus de Milo (or “Aphrodite of Milos” as Greeks may still call it), was shaped from white marble more than 2150 years ago.

And this Venus stands here, alone with me in this intimate moment in the Louvre.

This is a woman to love; a form enrapturing many of those who have been filling this room in the Louvre, some mesmerised by her, others giving her only a glance — but a glance elongated.

Sculpted in the late Hellenistic Period, the goddess remains aloof, enigmatic, her face showing impassivity and a sense of harmony. She is missing her arms — experts guess she may have been leaning against a pillar, or resting her elbow on the shoulder of Ares — Mars, the lover she had in addition to husband Vulcan. She may have been holding a bow or an amphora, an apple, crown, mirror or a shield.

It is one of her mysteries.

And, indeed, her contemporary life has a somewhat mysterious beginning.

For the Venus de Milo was carved by Alexandros, a sculptor of Antioch, on the Maeander River about 150BC.

On April 8, 1820, she was found in pieces, buried within ancient ruins, on the Greek island of Melos by local Yorgos Kentrotas.

French officer Julius Dumont d’Urville, on the island at the time, recognised the sculpture’s rare beauty and value. He arranged its purchase and it was presented to Louis XVIII, who donated it to the Louvre in 1821.

Classical in essence, the reconstructed sculpture’s form shows features that were innovative ory in its time — the spiral composition and its positioning in space.

An inscription that is not displayed with the statue states that “Alexandros, son of Menides, citizen of Antioch of Maeander” made the statue.

My vision has always been full of this goddess.

In Greek mythology she is Aphrodite, in Roman tradition she is Venus.

 In both she is the goddess of love, beauty, sex and fertility.

In Hesiod’s Theogony, she was born from the foam of the sea — and so it is that she rises from the sea, standing in a clam shell, in Sandro Botticelli’s exquisite painting The Birth of Venus.

It is one of the world’s most appreciated artworks. 

Painted by Botticelli between 1482 and 1485, Venus is naked, wind caressing her hair and blowing a shower of roses.

 The painting’s themes comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, an important piece of Latin literature.

Botticelli was born in the mid-1440s in Florence, Italy — a master painter who contributed artworks to the Sistine Chapel.

He lived all his life in the same neighbourhood of Florence and, indeed, his Venus is in the Uffizi Galleryies in Florence — a place to stand in reverence, too.

As a boy, I had a print of Botticelli’s painting stuck on my wall, between pop stars and soccer players and a map of Lesotho. (Strange boy.)

Venus was my pin-up.

I had a statue of her in my garden, here in Australia, reflected with eucalypts in a swimming pool. Framed by turquoise. Adrift in blue.

And she is adrift in aquamarine when I follow her to Milos, a less-visited Greek island. This volcanic hump in the Aegean Sea has beaches where sulphur bubbles up through the sand.

Milos’ importance was first established more than 13,000 years ago, when obsidian was found here. Obsidian is a natural glass usually formed by rapid cooling of lava.

 It can be chipped into razor-sharp tools — important before humans learnt how to smelt metals.

On a hillside overlooking the harbour, I find black obsidian strewn in chinky the scree, and I stand on precisely the place where Venus was first spotted. Where she was exhumed.

This story began in a private, silent moment, so it ends in these ...

First as I sit on the hillside and write in my notebook, alone in these thoughts; adrift in blue.

And then, as I’m leaving the island in a small boat, I turn back to take a last look and see Venus, the celestial body, has risen over the hillside where the Venus de Milos, that heavenly body, once rose from the ground.

I have followed Venus, and found Venus. Beside me, the woman we all call V, my wife, is mesmerised by Venus, too, in a private moment.

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