The Most Famous Nude in History

Nearly all the nude Venuses you see in halls and gardens around the world derive from one: the Venus of Cnidus by Praxiteles. (Also called the Aphrodite of Cnidus. Aphrodite and Venus are the Greek and Latin names for the same goddess).


An ancient copy of the Aphrodite of Praxiteles, restored by Ippolito Buzzi (Italian, 1562–1634) (public domain photo)

She was the nude—the Venus.


The Capitoline Venus, the Medici Venus, the Venus of Milo—they are all modified copies of Praxiteles’ original statue. Even the cute Esquiline Venus is perhaps a take-off on her.   [The archaeologist and classical scholar Judith Weingarten has convinced me that the Esquiline Venus is NOT based on Praxiteles’ Aphrodite.  See her post on Cleopatra.]


The so-called “Esquiline Venus”, first century BC (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license photo)


What happened to the original?

It was lost, maybe while in hiding during an invasion or war.

Are the copies good?

No. They vary from so-so to very bad. Apparently, casts from the original could never be taken because the Venus was polychromed (painted) and the plaster casts would have ruined the paint. So sculptors had to copy with their eyes alone.

Detail  : photo by © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license)

What is the Venus doing?

She has just taken off her clothes and is about to have a ritual bath to restore her virginity.

No one sees and yet she modestly tries to cover her genitals with her hand. So she was known as the Venus Pudica (Modest Venus).

Later copies (the Capitoline Venus, the Medici Venus) have her trying to cover her breasts (not very successfully) with the other hand.

So-called Capitoline Venus, Rome (public domain photo)

This modification increased her voluptuousness and was, they say, a concession to the corrupted tastes of the rich patrons of later times.

The limbs of stone statues break off in time. Maybe an artist who was ordered to restore her arms, and who hadn’t seen the original, supposed the Venus had been trying even harder to cover up her nakedness by using both arms and hands. In that case he never intended the new pose to be an alteration, let alone an improvement. But now the Venus Pudica seems to call attention to just those parts of her anatomy which she is trying to hide.

The original gesture of modesty was probably an invention of Praxiteles. It was very unlikely that it was copied from his model, the courtesan Phryne.

Why was the Praxiteles’ statue such a hit?

He belonged to a generation of artists that began to humanize the gods. A naked Venus was a new, even a scandalous idea. The story goes that Praxiteles got an order for a Venus from a city called Kos and made two statues, a clothed one and a naked one so the citizens of Kos could choose. They were shocked by the naked Venus and chose the clothed version for their temple. You didn’t put a naked goddess in a temple!

But citizens of another city, Knidos or Cnidus, were quick to see the “virtues”of the naked Venus and bought it from Praxiteles. They put it in their little round temple and it became famous—it put Knidos on the map. Tourists from all over flocked to see it. And those endless copies were made.



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10 Responses to The Most Famous Nude in History

  1. No comments? Goodness! Such an important subject too! I imagine the technical problems in carving the first version above with so little support must have been an achievement; you know, all that bit we discussed about thick ankles!

    I took some pictures the other day in London of William III on horse back and will post them up in due course.

  2. 100swallows says:

    Robert: I look forward to seeing your pictures of William on horseback. I’m just getting ready to put in a post with a picture of Spain’s Philip IV on his horse in front of the Royal Palace in Madrid.

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  5. Not so, Swallows, the Esquiline Venus is another type, of a woman (Isis?) binding her hair. Many scholars think this statue is a portrait of Cleopatra; others, of course, disagree — some, most vehemently. I wrote about the Esquiline Venus on my blog. Have a look and please comment Will the Real Cleopatra Please Stand Up?

    • 100swallows says:

      Judith: Thanks. As you saw, this was a re-post and if I had realized this time that the Esquiline Venus attribution was still in, I’d have removed it. Now, so your comment can be understood, I put my correction and a link to your blog in the post itself. I can’t remember what my original source was. It now seems obvious that the beautiful little Venus comes from somewhere else.

  6. wrjones says:

    I never get tired of looking at these old pieces and imagining their creation. Even a “bad” copy seems awesome to me.

    • 100swallows says:

      Bill: To me too. There is a good one in the Prado Museum, a plaster copy Velazquez brought back from Rome, that stands near the wall on your way to the john. For most she has lost her power. And she (the Aphrodite) doesn’t look the way modern women see themselves (or want to see themselves), does she? Dependency, a touching inefficiency in her movements, dreaminess. You still see her in Renoir but no longer much after Picasso.
      There is also a fine, ancient copy of a kneeling (in fact, squatting) woman–you can’t decide whether her bend is graceful or awkward (she might lose her balance). But it has that same delicate charm of the standing figure.

  7. lollipop says:

    Is that second figure supposed to be an adult woman? It looks like a teenager to me. But it very nice so that I thought it was modern because in general I don’t like those old things very much.

  8. I enjoy the sensitive comments and at the same time am saddened by some of contemporary society’s preoccupation with details of only genitals and breasts. There are profoundly Lovely form and space relations of the legs, feet, hands, arms and faces, torsos and backs of these Ancient Masterpieces. (One can overlook the amateur repairs and poorer copies of some of the great works, to know the true essence). The surface tensions and pressure points of individual forms, are heartwarming to muse and be enraptured by. Reminding one perhaps of previous Loves.
    On spending time with these actual pieces, one often walks away in a Dream-Like State, of another perhaps more glorious reality and time. Michaelangelo came close with his Pieta, though perhaps a bit overworked, as with the David.

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