Just a few weeks ago, Emory’s Michael C. Carlos Museum opened its doors to a famous and historically significant statue of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love.
This particular statue is exceptional because it was part of a nudity revolution in ancient Western sculpture.
Jasper Gaunt, the curator of the Greek and Roman Collections, explained in a Carlos Museum podcast, “This is really one of the first examples of the female nude in Western art ... which explores female sexuality in an open and joyful way.”
According to Pliny the Elder, an ancient Roman historian, the predecessor to this statue was created by renowned sculptor Praxiteles, who had been commissioned by the citizens of the Greek island of Kos to make a statue of Aphrodite.
The nearby city of Knidos purchased the nude Aphrodite without any qualms, causing such a stir that people traveled from all over ancient Greece to see the famed statue.
Gaunt noted in the podcast that “she became the most famous statue of the ancient world, and people went on pilgrimages to see it.”
The statue at the Carlos Museum, dating to the first century B.C., is more than an early adaptation of the Knidos original; it is a fellow contributor to the critical turning point in which female nudity in sculpture began to be embraced.
This significant work of art found its way to Emory after a long and dangerous journey. In fact, the Aphrodite arrived at Emory in two pieces. Some time after World War II, the statue was shipped to New York. While it was in transit, the head fell off, probably weakened from previous repairs.
Upon arrival at New York, an antiquarian erroneously determined that the head and body did not belong to each other, and they were sold separately.
In 2006, the mistake was caught thanks to a very astute Sotheby’s employee, who recognized it as the same Aphrodite he had seen in an engraving from Paris. The owner of the head was contacted and he kindly agreed to sell the head to whoever purchased the body.
Hearing of the incredible opportunity to purchase such a pivotal work of art, Gaunt attended the bidding and walked away with a fantastic addition to the Carlos Museum.
The new acquisition was not yet intact, however, and the daunting task of reconstructing the ancient masterpiece was left to the museum’s conservator, Renee Stein.
Stein discussed the repairs in the aforementioned podcast, stating that the head and body not only had to be reattached, but also partially reconstructed.
“I was surprised because you couldn’t tell it was put together,” senior Stephanie Chen said. “You couldn’t see a seam ... and it looked proportional.”
Indeed, the statue does look natural, elegant and whole, but the complex story of its damage, separation and reunion arouses curiosity and interest.
“Aphrodite is a beautiful and significant addition to the Carlos collections, but we find people also come to see her because she has had such an adventure getting here,” said Julie Green, manager of school programs at the Carlos Museum. “I have seen school children, when they hear the story, circling the piece like young conservators, looking for ancient or modern repairs. It is great to see the public so charged up in looking closely at a beautiful object.”
— Contact Kelsey Harper.