BMCR 1996.05.06

1996.5.6, Mitchell, Aphrodite of Knidos

, The Aphrodite of Knidos and her successors : a historical review of the female nude in Greek art. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. xii, 158 pages, 24 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 26 cm. ISBN 9780472105854

Christine Mitchell Havelock’s important new monograph The Aphrodite of Knidos and Her Successors is subtitled A Historical Review of the Female Nude in Greek Art. I asked to review it both because I admired the portions of it I had read in progress, and because writing the review would let me make points of my own. I must begin, therefore, by taking back all the nasty remarks I have made from time to time about people who use reviews as a pretext for riding their own hobby horses. It’s not such a bad idea.

Aphrodite surveys the development of an important subject in classical sculpture, traces its historiography (revealing an unintentionally comic array of 19th and 20th values stretched like ill-fitting clothes on ancient marble bodies), and makes a significant contribution to understanding art production and patronage in the years when Rome was conquering the Eastern Mediterranean. Havelock’s thoroughly persuasive case is that although Praxiteles’ fourth century Aphrodite constituted the formal basis for the development of the female nude in classical statuary, the theme did not become popular until the late second century BC/BCE.

Aphrodite is organized into five chapters that are devoted to the Knidia herself, the reputation of Praxiteles, the period of rediscovery beginning in the late second century, seven major Knidia “spin-offs,” and the contexts in which they were used. This framework is sometimes confusing, squeezing Ovid and Propertius, for example, into the chapter on context, along with a re-appraisal of Wilhelm Klein’s theory of a Hellenistic “rococo,” but separating them from the Phryne anecdotes in Chapter Two. The group of Aphrodite, Eros and Pan from Delos is discussed partly in Chapter Three, partly in Chapter Five, and so on. Havelock’s major themes have to be pieced together by the reader. These are three: the treatment of the female nude in classical statuary (she refers only briefly to other media), its historiography since Winckelmann, and some of the new developments in Greek sculpture during the late second and first centuries BC/BCE.

The book begins with a thorough discussion of the iconography of the Knidia, attempting to understand the meaning of her nudity, her hand gesture, and the placement of her clothing on the water jar in terms appropriate to the fourth century and uncontaminated by Bernoulli’s late Victorian anxieties. Havelock deals more generally (and in a later chapter) with the confusing ancient accounts of the architecture of the shrine, suggesting that the statue may have been reinstalled at the time of the revival of interest which she detects in the late Hellenistic period.

Two different types of indicators suggest such a revival to her. One is sculptural: the sudden appearance of derivative works and replicas. Havelock demonstrates that there is no evidence for dating any of the familiar “pudica” types derived from the Knidia or their crouching, hairdressing and sandal-adjusting cousins before the late second century BC/BCE. To archaeologists and art historians this will come as a relief. The painful attempts to derive each one from a different lost Hellenistic prototype datable to a different period can thankfully be abandoned, and all of them can be seen as variations on Praxiteles’ great theme and products of the late Hellenistic era.

Havelock further shows that at the same moment as the derivative works appear, replicas, large and small, in stone, metal and terra-cotta begin to turn up in the archaeological record. The works replicated include both the Knidia herself and some of the derivative Aphrodites.

The second type of evidence is literary. The long tradition of epigrams and anecdotes about the Knidia herself, Praxiteles, Phryne, and their relationship begins at this point. Havelock analyzes the responses of ancient viewers to the work and finds that ancient writers “rather than a marble statue … perceive[d] the figure primarily as a living woman inhabited by Aphrodite herself.” One of her most stimulating chapters compares the treatment of the nude female body in sculpture to its treatment in Latin love elegy. She relates the attitudes of the poets to their puellae to the teasing, anecdotal qualities of so many of the Aphrodite types.

Havelock further attempts to understand the sudden popularity of nude Aphrodite images in the Late Hellenistic era by surveying the archaeological contexts in which the works were found. Where were they placed? How were they used? Her sketch is brief but illuminating, emphasizing the religious use of most Aphrodite images. Particularly significant is the three figure group from Delos, with its salacious subject (cheered on by Eros, Pan attempts to grope the nude Aphrodite, who slaps at him with her sandal) and solemn religious inscription (“Dionysios, son of Zeno, son of Theodoros of Berytus, benefactor, [dedicates this] on behalf of himself and of his children to the ancestral gods”).

Her summaries of the modern reception of the various Aphrodite types include a devastating critique of the dominant “evolutionary model.” According to this, types can be dated by their progressive nudity, so that representations with one bared breast preceded half-draped ones, and they, in turn, preceded fully nude versions, in a kind of Gypsy Rose Lee fantasy. Of all the modern anachronisms revealed, this is perhaps the most striking, although by no means the only eccentric interpretation of the material. Havelock brilliantly demonstrates the effect of modern re-evaluations of ancient works by tracing the fortunes of the Aphrodite from Melos, showing how it has been alternately admired and neglected as the date assigned to it rose or fell.

Aphrodite of course contains some minor errors of fact and typography. Specialists in different areas will quibble with particular points; I have my own collection of bones to pick with the author. These include urging an even more skeptical attitude towards the historicity of Phryne anecdotes, and a clearer separation between the irretrievably lost original statue by Praxiteles and its extant replicas. At times Havelock writes as if we knew what the work by Praxiteles looked like, not merely its surviving Roman replicas. Her treatment of both the male and the female nude could also benefit from making more use of theorists like Abigail Solomon-Godeau. None of this detracts from the signal importance of the monograph. It is a major breakthrough, replacing previous studies of the material.

In my judgment, however, Havelock retreats from the most exciting conclusion that emerges from her work. She discusses many of the changes that took place in the art market in the late second and first centuries BC/BCE—new subjects (like the nude Aphrodites) in new styles, the creation of replicas, large and small, links to contemporary poetry—and notes their connections to Rome and Italy—the abundance of Aphrodites and other “rococo” sculptures in Pompeii, the connections to Campanian painting, the dominance of the Romans on Delos, the closer fit of Latin than Greek poetry to this new art. She refers repeatedly to Rome. “Traveling, trading, and touring increased dramatically as Rome, beginning in the later second century B.C., gradually united the Mediterranean world” (134). “Roman patronage and influence were important factors in the rise of the female nude as a popular subject for the sculptor’s art” (142). About the theme of the female nude she says that “Regardless of any particular methodology, there seems to be a general consensus that an important break occurred around 150 B.C. … the beginning of a fresh new era” which she notes “had much to do with the growing dominance of Rome in the eastern Mediterranean … (93).

Havelock, however, continues to consider her subject solely as a study of Greek sculpture. Her book’s subtitle characterizes its point of view, “the female nude in GREEK art.” She notes on page 92 that “The late Hellenistic phase of Greek art (roughly 150-131 [presumably a typo for 31] B.C.) is frequently labeled Graeco-Roman” but does not explain why this might have happened. In fact, the evidence that she has assembled demonstrates just how appropriate that label is. Rome’s rise to power in the eastern Mediterranean produced a transformation of the art industry there of which the changes in the female nude traced by Havelock are only one part.

Into the Hellenistic art market in the late second century BC/BCE the Romans came as a large body of new purchasers equipped with large new fortunes and distinctive needs. Their houses had atria and triclinia that required furniture, gardens that required ornaments, household shrines that required sacred images of appropriate subjects and sizes. Their public places, religious and secular, demanded embellishment. Many of their requirements could be met with products already on the market; others had to be designed to fit their needs. Since one quality eagerly sought by these Roman patrons was a suggestion of Greek elegance, they commissioned works in styles that conformed to their notion of that elusive quality. Like the 19th century purchasers of Chinese export porcelain they wanted products that they could use in their domestic social rituals but which would look imported.

Havelock traces the irruption of images of Aphrodite, and the replication of a few favorite types in many media and sizes. The same phenomenon can be observed for other sculptural subjects, other deities for example, and the ubiquitous “youths” in neo-Polykleitan or neo-Praxitelean styles. Bronze youths even appeared as lamp-stands.

The marble industry also began intensive production of new sorts of fountain figures, tables, relief-decorated vessels, light fixtures, well-heads, plaques, oscilla and the like. In terra-cotta, bronze, glass and precious metals new lines of table ware appeared, as well as a broad range of new figurines. Traditional gods appeared in new guises. On Delos, for example, figurines of Hermes began to hold a money bag, an attribute of Mercury.

No material, no major genre was exempt. The types of objects produced, the styles they were produced in, the subjects they depicted were all adapted to the demands of new patrons. Consider the impact of the Roman passion for gardens filled with fountains and other marble figures of a “rococo” sort. Likewise the temples and porticoes vowed by Roman victors had to be equipped with cult images and furniture that would conform both to traditional religion and to the new notions of good taste. The expansion of the Carrara quarries and the success of the Italian bronze and terra-cotta industries meant competition for Greek producers of luxury goods, but they met it triumphantly.

What Havelock has documented is one segment of this new production. It is an immensely important segment, responsible for magnificent works of art, the creator of an ideal of the female nude which has dominated western art down to the present. Her monograph gives it the importance it deserves. It was, however only one part of a much larger whole. The world in which these Aphrodites were made was a complicated one. The first language of the artists who made them normally was Greek. More and more, however, the first language of their purchasers was Latin. These purchasers were citizens, and increasingly the artists were at least subjects, of Rome. Local, Greek-speaking, patrons did not disappear, of course, nor did they immediately and enthusiastically adopt Roman ways. Traditional works of art continued to be produced for traditional markets.

The innovations, however, which define what Havelock rightly characterizes as a “fresh new era,” derived their impetus in large part from Roman patrons. Their requirements shaped the art production of the age. The novelty and originality of the period are due in large part to them, and it is an era which demands to be seen as more than just “late Hellenistic”. The epochal break of 31 BC/BCE has little relevance to art production. The important changes come much earlier, and it is one aspect of them which is so ably traced by Havelock.