A beautifully rendered 19th century white Italian marble figure of the Medici Venus was sold in our Fine Furniture & Works of Art auction in Edinburgh on 02 May 2018. Recently de-accessioned from a Scottish institution, Head of Department Douglas Girton takes a closer look at this auction highlight.
While travelling through Italy the epynomous protagonist of Lord Byron’s narrative poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, upon seeing the Venus de’ Medici in Florence effuses:
There, too, the Goddess loves in stone, and fills
The air around with beauty; we inhale
The ambrosial aspect, which, beheld, instils
Part of its immortality; the veil
Of heaven is half undrawn; within the pale
We stand, and in that form and face behold
What mind can make, when Nature’s self would fail
Byron, the enfant terrible of the Romantic Movement, is responding to the cool seductive beauty of this classic sculpture from antiquity. It is easy to recognise Byron’s enthusiasm: Venus stands demurely, her arms seeming to cover her nakedness, as she newly emerges from the sea as evidenced by the dolphin at her feet.
Dating to the first century AD, and likely a copy of an earlier Hellenistic bronze of the Greek goddess of love Aphrodite, it follows the tradition of the work of Praxiteles, the 4th century BC sculptor. The Venus was known to be in the Medici collection in the mid 16th century, feted as a rare survivor from the Classical period, and through the 17th century its popularity began to extend beyond the closed circle of the Italian elite. Moved from Rome to Florence in 1677, obstensibly at the instruction of Pope Innocent XI who by repute felt it’s erotic overtones incited lewd behaviourt, the Venus was installed in the Uffizi Gallery where it became a prime attraction for visitors making the Grand Tour. As the fervor for the Classical style took hold, Italian copies in bronze and marble started appearing in British collections and gardens, inspired by their owners travels.
By the first quarter of the 19th century, the Romantic movement focussed on the effects of emotion and the individual, rather than the idea of idealised beauty, seemingly at odds with intellectual sangfroid of Classicism. Inspiration was to be found in the nature, and man’s relationship with it. It is interesting to note however, that when depicting themselves, the Romantics often adopted references to Classicism, albeit with a Romantic interpretation. Portraits and busts typically show sitters draped in robes like Roman nobleman, eschewing the conventional dress of the day. It was a different idealised beauty than what had come before, with a sense of life and feeling imbued in the work.
A white marble bust by Sir John Steell, R.S.A. (Scottish 1804-1891), exemplifies this union of the two movements. The sitter, a young man, is shown apparently shirtless, his wild and waving locks of hair seeminglycaptured in a moment of natural abandon. Steell roots his subject in the language of Classical sculpture, then evokes the emotional overtones to ensure we know we are viewing a real person, not an idealised Greek or Roman god. As beautiful as Venus de’ Medici appears, she does not breathe in the same way. Her purpose is to inspire man through her perfection, but remain unattainable.