Venus, the Greek Aphrodite, is depicted according to the iconographic type known as 'pudica’ (chaste). The goddess is caught in the act of instinctively covering her breasts and pubis, as if she was feeling observed by an indiscreet gaze. The original model is that of the famous Aphrodite Cnidia created by Praxiteles in the middle of the 4th century B.C., which enjoyed great popularity in the Hellenistic and Roman periods and was the object of several reinterpretations.
The front side of the base bears the Greek inscription ΚΛΕΟΜΕΝΗΣ ΑΠΟΛΟΔΩΡΟΥ ΑΘΗΝΑΙΟΣ ΕΠΩΕΣΕΝ (Made by Cleomenes son of Apollodorus of Athens). In the first half of the 16th century, as we know from the precious testimony of the antiquarian Pirro Ligorio (Schreurs 2000, p. 477), a statue of Venus was found in Rome in the area of the Baths of Trajan on the Oppian Hill. The piece was fragmented into several parts, but in an exceptional state of preservation. To be considered complete, the work only lacked the artist's signature, therefore, when it was still in possession of the bishop of Viterbo, the choice was to use the base of another ancient statue and adapt it to the sculpture. This base was signed, but evidently was in such a state of preservation that it could not be integrated. Consequently, the base and trunk of the statue were obtained from the remains of Cleomenes' work, which were adapted to the sinuous figure of the goddess, thus creating a sculpture that, once it was completed with the few missing parts, would henceforth be inevitably linked to the name of that artist.
Purchased by Ferdinando de' Medici, the statue was preserved for almost a century in the interiors of Villa Medici on the Pincian Hill, until it was brought to Florence in 1677 together with the Lottatori (Wrestlers) and the Arrotino (Knife grinder) (Cecchi - Gasparri 2009, pp. 74-75, no. 64). The Lombard sculptor Ercole Ferrata, who had been commissioned to supervise the packing of the works in Rome together with architect Paolo Falconieri (Marinetti 2006 p. 97), arrived in Florence just a few days after the statues and immediately started to work on their restoration in the workshop that had been reserved for him in Via Maggio (Baldinucci 1681-1728, p. 384). As for the Venus, the interventions were rather minimal and, according to Baldinucci's explicit testimony, only concerned “some fingers of the hands”, which were probably those six fingers that were already missing in the inventory of Villa Medici drawn up in 1623 (Cecchi-Gasparri 2009, p. 75).
In 1680 (Pelli Bencivenni 1779, p. 290, note 368), the Venus, with the missing fingers restored, was placed in the Tribune together with the other two famous marbles arrived from Rome, thus reaching the final destination of its journey. Shrouded by a sort of sacred respect, which antiquarians and Grand Tour visitors unanimously paid to it throughout the 18th century (Boschung 2007), for a long time the statue escaped any further restoration. In 1785, Francesco Carradori modelled two new arms that were placed on a cast of the Venus to assess the overall effect (Zacchiroli 1790, p. 162). The replacement proposal was unsuccessful and the statue kept those integrated arms that had already been celebrated by Orfeo Boselli, who, in the middle of the 17th century, defined them as not inferior to the original (Amadio 1992, p. 239).
After being confiscated by the French in 1802 (Pasquinelli 2008, p. 42), the work was transferred to Paris where it was exhibited at the Musée Napoléon until the beginning of 1816, when, to comply with the Treaty of Vienna, it returned to Florence (AGU 1816 XL - no. 12, Statue of Venus de' Medici returned from Paris. Receipt made by the Custodians).
Throughout the 18th century, the gilding of the hair of the Medici Venus (Boschung 2007, p. 173) was mentioned on several occasions by Grand Tour travellers and antiquarians such as Alessandro Maffei (1704), Jonathan Richardson (1728), Montesquieu (1728-29), Johann Georg Keyssler (1740) and Johann Wincklemann (1764).
It’s curious to notice that this peculiarity seems to have been forgotten by 19th century visitors, maybe due to an increasing difficulty in recognising a gold lining that appeared to be permanently lost. Some clues attribute this to a deliberate and premeditated removal of the remains of the gilding, a 'derestoration' that was anything but anomalous in the neoclassical cultural context, which may have taken place on the occasion of the aforementioned 1816 intervention.
Some remaining traces of the original gilding were brought to light during the 2012 restoration, confirming the existence of the statue's original polychromy, which was also proven by the presence of cinnabar on the lips of the Venus and of Egyptian blue on the wave ridden by the dolphin (Paolucci 2014). It’s interesting to note that the lobes of the statue's ears were pierced so as to allow the insertion of metal jewellery intended to further accentuate the realistic appearance of the figure.
As we already explained, the signature of Cleomenes, although ancient, did not originally belong to this sculpture, therefore, any attempt to date the Florentine piece on the basis of the genealogy of the Cleomeni, an important family of Neo-Attic sculptors active between the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C., is completely unfounded.
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