Friday, February 27, 2009

The Esquiline Venus

Of the most celebrated statues from Classical Antiquity, the one I least appreciate is The Esquiline Venus (“Venus Esquilina”).

The Esquiline Venus was uncovered during a construction project in 1874 on Rome’s Esquiline Hill (from which the statue, of course, derives its name). The Esquiline Hill had been an imperial park since at least the time of Augustus, and the statue has long been believed to represent the Roman goddess Venus. Since it was uncovered, The Esquiline Venus has belonged to Rome’s Capitoline Museums, where it has been on permanent display for 135 years.

The Esquiline Venus was loaned to The Bucerius Kunst Forum for its "Cleopatra And The Caesars" exhibition, where it was the centerpiece of the many artworks on display. I thought The Esquiline Venus was very unimposing.

The statue, of marble, is not quite life-size. The arms are believed to have been lost when the former imperial park fell into centuries of neglect, a period during which most statues in the park fell from their pedestals.

The Esquiline Venus was created circa 50 A.D. It is one of two surviving marble copies of a bronze original, now lost, from circa 50 B.C. The original bronze sculpture was in the style of and indeed may have been the work of Pasiteles, a master Greek sculptor working in Rome at the time of Julius Caesar. Scholars assert that the original bronze statue must have been a sculpture of surpassing beauty, originality and influence. The other surviving marble copy of the bronze original is on display in the Louvre.

The Paris copy is much finer than Rome’s Esquiline Venus, although only a segment of it survives. It is more elegant and has greater beauty of line than The Esquiline Venus, and is much more elastic, much more natural and much more vivid than its counterpart in Rome.

Of The Esquiline Venus, Kenneth Clark wrote:

Not that the Esquiline girl represents an evolved notion of feminine beauty. She is short and square, with high pelvis and small breasts far apart, a stocky little peasant as might be found still in any Mediterranean village. Her elegant sisters from the metropolis would smile at her thick ankles and thicker waist. But she is solidly desirable, compact, proportionate . . .

I did not find beauty in The Esquiline Venus from any angle. I saw it as a clumsy piece of sculpture, barely capturing whatever Greek genius lay in the original.

The reason The Esquiline Venus was included in the "Cleopatra And The Caesars" exhibition was because the guest curator, Austrian art critic and antiquities expert Bernard Andreae, is of the opinion that The Esquiline Venus is in fact a statue of Cleopatra, and one intended for public display.

Andreae’s claim is not generally accepted among art historians. The evidence for his claim is flimsy and the arguments unconvincing. The exhibition catalog contained an essay setting forth Andreae’s argument in favor of his assertion, as well as a counter-essay by another antiquities expert reaching a contrary conclusion. The Bryn Mawr Classical Review contains a précis of the arguments for those who wish to pursue the matter without purchasing the very expensive exhibition catalog (available only in German). Neither scholar bothered to address one overriding concern: that Cleopatra was intensely hated by the Romans and by the Roman imperial family. A statue of Cleopatra, of all persons, was most unlikely to grace a walkway of an imperial park in Rome.

The Esquiline Venus was accompanied by numerous other sculptures from the period, most of which were portrait busts.

Perhaps the most important of these was a bust of Julius Caesar, circa 25 B.C., on loan from The Vatican Museums. It is believed to be an accurate likeness of Caesar—in fact, the most accurate likeness of all portrait busts of Caesar that have survived.

The bust captures his severity, his aloofness, and his intelligence. His calculating nature is revealed, as is his famed "Julius Caesar sneer".

The bust remains in perfect condition.

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