One of the most famous female nudes of all centuries is Venus or in Greek called Aphrodite. This stunning marble sculpture, known in the Prado as Venus of the dolphin, is a Roman copy of a Hellenistic original that dates from around 280-250 B.C. This statue was discovered in the Villa dei Decii in Rome, and is made by an unknown sculptor.
The image of Venus (in Greek Aphrodite) has always been a favourite image for many painters and sculptors throughout centuries. In the most famous version of her myth, her birth was the consequence of a castration: Cronus (an ancient Greek God) severed Uranus’ genitals and threw them behind him into the sea. The foam from his genitals gave rise to Aphrodite (hence her name, meaning “foam-arisen”). The genitals were carried over the sea and from the white foam in the end arose an immortal girl. The girl or Aphrodite, then floated ashore on a scallop shell. This iconic representation of Aphrodite as a mature “Venus rising from the sea” is probably most famous depicted by Sandro Botticelli when he was commissioned to paint the work by the Medici family of Florence.
It was probably Praxiteles, a Greek sculptor how lived in the 350 BC, that was the first one to sculpt the first Aphrodite in a life-size marble statue. Praxiteles was very modern for his time, and instead of sculpting just another god, he tried to sculpt a real, life-size figure with a more realistic feel to it. Praxiteles’ most famous and admired work was his Aphrodite of Knidos.
The statue became famous for its beauty, meant to be appreciated from every angle, and for being the first life-size representation of the nude female form. It depicted the goddess Aphrodite as she prepared for the ritual bath that restored her purity (not virginity), discarding her drapery in her left hand, while modestly shielding herself with her right hand.
Pliny the Elder, a Greek writer and philosopher, tells us that Praxiteles was originally commissioned by the island of Kos to make the statue of Aphrodite, however when Praxiteles revealed to them his controversial, erotic statue of Afrodite, they were so shocked by the goddess’ nudity that they rejected it.
The sculpture was then instead bought by the people of Knidos, then a Greek settlement, now located in the south-western part of
Turkey, for whom it became a great symbol of pride, and attracted many tourists to their land. They even refused to sell the piece to King Nicomedes, despite his offer to pay off their enormous city debt. The sculpture was praised so highly by critics that it was said that Praxiteles had brought soul to marble.
It was considered a perfect resemblance to Aphrodite, so much so that there was a story that Aphrodite came to see it herself and asked “When did Praxiteles see me naked?”. Another legend about the sculpture that went around, and which was due to a stain on one of her thighs, was that a man had hidden himself in the temple until nightfall, and then tried to make love to the statue.
The Aphrodite from Kos has not survived unfortunately and the statue in the Prado Museum is just a copy. Possibly the original statue made by Praxtiles was removed to Constantinople (modern Istanbul) and was lost in a fire during the Nika riots. It was one of the most widely copied statues in the ancient world, and the statue at the Prado does give a good idea of how it looked liked anyway.
The statue of Venus and the Dolphin in the Prado can be found on the ground floor, in the old part of the museum.