29 September 2008

Will the Great Cleopatra Please Stand Up? (Updated)

The controversy rages on: is this Cleopatra VII in the nude, or not?

As always, there are two schools of thought on such serious matters. One school says 'Yes' and the other says 'No'. Luckily Zenobia is at hand to settle the isssue.

But, first, the story so far.

This beauty (left) is known as the Esquiline Venus, a marble statue dating to the middle of the first century AD, found in Rome in 1874 in the grounds of the imperial Lamian gardens on the Esquiline hill (hence her name). In trying to account for several peculiarities of the statue -- like her un-Roman curly hair and the Egyptian-looking rearing snake winding around the vase beside her (below right) -- the Italian historian Licinio Glori proposed to identify this Venus as Cleopatra.*

Important evidence were remarks by Appian (Civil Wars 2, 102) and Cassius Dio (51) about a "beautiful statue" of Cleopatra in the temple of Venus put on display by Julius Caesar about 46 BC, the year of the inauguration of the Temple of Venus on the Forum Iulium (remember, the Julian family believed that their house descended from Venus). Appian, writing around 150 AD adds that the statue still was visible on the spot -- "next to Venus", he says -- in his day.

The statue may originally have shown a woman binding her hair with a strip of fabric in preparation for a bath, because the remains of the little finger of her left hand are visible on the back of her head, suggesting her left arm was raised to hold her hair in place, while the right hand wound the fabric. She is, in any case, at least two removes from the original source of inspiration, a lost classical Greek bronze. As Kenneth Clark put it in his famous book on The Nude,

“...there was produced a bronze figure of a nude girl, perhaps a priestess of Isis, binding her hair, which must have been a masterpiece. It is known to us in two marble replicas, of which the more complete is the statue in Rome known as the Esquiline Venus ....

No doubt the original has been changed and elaborated by translation into marble, yet the copies have not lost the unity of the first idea. Somewhere not very far behind them is the work of [a 5th C BC] individual artist who, on the surviving evidence, must be reckoned the creator of the female nude. Not that the Esquiline girl represents an evolved notion of feminine beauty [
emphasis mine]. She is short and square, with high pelvis and small breasts far apart, a stocky little peasant such as might be found still in any Mediterranean village....

But she is solidly desirable, compact, proportionate, and in fact, her proportions have been calculated on a simple mathematical scale. The unit of measurement is her head. She is seven heads tall, there is a length of one head between her breasts, one from breast to navel, and one from the navel to the division of her legs. More important than these calculations... the sculptor has discovered what we may call the plastic essentials of the female body. Breasts will become fuller, waists narrower, and hips will describe a more generous arc; but fundamentally this is the architecture of the body that will control the observations of classically minded artists till the end of the nineteenth century.

Yes, but is she Cleopatra?

Yes! she is! Now another eminent art historian, Bernard Andreae, has taken up the cudgels on Cleopatra's behalf: ** Andreae argues that 1. the statue of the Esquiline Venus is not an ordinary Venus but must be interpreted as representing an individual, and that 2. Cleopatra must be this individual.

No! she's not! "Die Venus vom Esquilin ist nicht Kleopatra", says Guy Weill Goudchaux in the very same book.**

One of the strongest arguments against the identification is that no Queen of Egypt would ever have let herself be pictured naked in public, not even if Julius Caesar had gone down on his knees and begged her. Nudity is against all norms of Egyptian decorum.

Or so we thought, until this statue of Queen Arsinoe II (3rd C BC), represented as Isis-Aphrodite, came out of the water in the harbour of Alexandria in 2000. Sculpted in black granite, the life-size headless statue appears as if wearing a diaphanous cloth held together by knots at her breast. It is a magnificent example of Graeco-Egyptian art , mingling Greek-style draped clothing and traditional pharaonic posture. Her robes fall off her shoulders so easily, the characteristic Isis knot is tied so elegantly over her half-covered breast, the cloth drapes over the navel, hips and knees so subtly that the stony dress seems almost transparent. The gown folds over her sensuous body like a wet translucent slip, casting a sheen on the hard black granite that makes it appear as voluptuous as folds of silk.

So that argument goes 'plop' in the water. While Andreae's theory gets a specific- gravity boost since he can now maintain that Cleopatra may actually be clothed in an invisible sheer garment on the model of Ptolemaic queens.

What's a perfect female nude?

The idealized nude can be traced to the Aphrodite of Cnidus by Praxiteles (330 B.C.). In this scheme of things, the Esquiline Venus is not the ideal of feminine beauty but a starting point. At only seven heads tall, she is indeed a stocky little figure. Praxiteles' Aphrodite, on the other hand, was made to accentuate these same proportions, and became the standard mathematical formula for representing the figure whether male or female

The proportions haven't changed much through the centuries:

- An average person is generally 7-and-a-half heads tall.

- An ideal figure, used when aiming for an impression of nobility or grace, is 8 heads tall.

- An heroic figure, used for depicting gods and superheroes, is eight-and-a-half heads tall (which is why giant figures sometimes look like pinheads!).

The ideal figure, then, has a noticeably smaller head -- one eighth instead of one seventh of the total height of the figure: smaller head plus longer legs make the figure appear more elegant. Longer legs are sadly lacking in the Esquiline Venus. Is she perhaps a little quirky because she is partly modelled on a real human being, not quite the divine ideal but a Cleopatra/Isis/Venus?

Even if not a fully-fledged goddess, she does not deserve Kenneth Clark's rebuke that her notion of female beauty is 'not evolved' . We are so used to see the statue reproduced from the front that perhaps we do not fully appreciate her charms.

[All the luscious photographs of the Esquiline Venus are made by Kalervo Koskimies].

Go see her yourself. You can explore her every angle in the huge new Julius Caesar show -- from 24 October to 5 April 5 2009 -- in Rome at the Chiostro del Bramante.

Caesar To Dazzle Rome Once More

Rome is celebrating one of its most famous political and military leaders, Julius Caesar (100-44 BC). A sweeping exhibition in the Chiostro del Bramante commemorates the life, times and achievements of Ancient Rome's best known figure.

The first ever exhibit to focus solely on Caesar, it showcases just about everything related to Caesar: 180 items of archaeological, artistic and cultural interest, from ancient times until the 20th century.

The Esquiline Venus is on the spot, just in case it is Cleopatra.

And what does Zenobia say? Is she modelled on Cleopatra or not?

"Maybe, decidedly maybe. There's simply no way of knowing."

But that's no reason not to think she might be.

Photo credits for the statue of Arsinoe: Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation - Photos: Christophe Gerigk.

Cleopatra, Venere Esquilina (Rome 1955).

** Bernard Andreae, Karin Rhein, Kleopatra und die Caesaren. Katalog einer Ausstellung des Bucerius Kunst Forums, Hamburg, 28. Oktober 2006 bis 4. Februar 2007 ( Munich 2006). Reviewed by Miguel John Versluys at BMCR 28/09/2008.

Update 2 October 2008: Speaking of Arsinoe II, it looks like she might have a new home when she gets back to Alexandria (she's on a world tour at the moment, now temporarily residing in Madrid; see comment on this post by 100Swallows).

Underwater Museum for Egypt Sunken Treasures?

Evoking sails of Nile feluccas (left, lit in the distance) and the cardinal directions, the glassy, towering "four points will be like the Lighthouse of Alexandria that illuminated the ancient library and the world," said Jacques Rougerie, lead architect for the feasibility study. "I want to do the same thing with this museum."

Fiberglass tunnels would connect above-ground galleries, near the New Library of Alexandria to the underwater facility, where antiquities would be visible in their natural resting places (as in the artist's conception, bottom left) at the site of Cleopatra's now sunken palace.

The proposed museum's underwater facility will be difficult and expensive to build and is the focus of the just launched two-year feasibility study aided by the UN. But planners believe that the benefits of plunging visitors into the historical context of the objects -- on the sunken island that once held Cleopatra's palace -- will be worth the trouble. It would certainly be memorable!

Wonderful photographs and more information at the National Geographic News (with thanks to Robert Blau, via imperialrome2@yahoogroups.co.uk).

Illustration courtesy Jacques Rougerie


  1. Anonymous1/10/08 12:46

    But this Esquiline Venus doesn't really have the attitude of a portrait, much less of a queen's portrait. She's cute but without regal dignity. Nor do her features resemble those of Cleopatra on the coins. I can't remember how they decided that the statue of Isis-Aphrodite found at the bottom of the sea was a portrait of Queen Arsinoe, but there you see what a godly pose is.

    I just saw this work last Monday, by the way, at the exhibition now on in Madrid. It is a magnificent work--the photo here doesn't do it justice. The treatment of the diaphanous gown is unique. So simple, so well-resolved, so neatly cut (somehow) in that hard stone. And so beautiful. What a pity the head is missing, though that may be a blessing. Why? There is another statue like this one on display, also found in one of the lost cities, and it still has its head, which seems large and unidealized and draws a viewer's gaze away from the body. The body is so much like the other headless one that you realize the style had become a convention. That hurts because it means the first one you saw and admired might not be the original. Probably those beautiful bodies had become standard pedestals for portrait heads of queens. In any case, copy or not, the headless Aphrodite is the work of a great master.

    I enjoyed those "luscious" photos of Venus and your whole post. I enjoy them all, Judith.

  2. Thanks, 100Swallows, for this comment ... and for your personal observations on the Arsinoe statue. Lucky you!

    Of course, Arsinoe is a Graeco-Ptolemaic work, blending Greek mastery with a formal Egyptian pharaonic pose, while the 'Venus' is a Roman copy of a Roman copy of a Greek original.

    And Venus (our term for these statues) might not have been intended to be a goddess at all, but as an offering from an individual, Julius Caesar, to the goddess. It is this kind of peculiarity that makes some scholars suspect it was based on a real person; but, of course, it is not a portrait in our sense.

    Also, when comparing her images on coins (which is fair), keep in mind, besides their tiny size, the idealized nature of such 'portraits' and their propaganda purpose.

    Your point about the bodies becoming standardized (just change the head!) is a good one and will apply in Rome, too. A number of Empresses will cavort about as nude statues with their portrait heads popped on Aphrodite's body. Not quite mutton dressed as lamb; but surely mutton-headed lambs. I must write about that one day.

  3. Anonymous13/6/10 00:34

    The portraits of Cleopatra on her coins were a brilliant piece of "marketing", she wanted the world to see a capable and strong ruler, so her facial features were sculptered in a male fassion, just like it had been done before like for instance Queen Hatshepsut, who was pictured with a beard (!), so we cannot see Cleopatra's real face on her coinage...

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