ATLANTA – For the first time in possibly 170 years, a Roman marble statue of Venus will be reunited with its head as both are coming to the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University, where conservators will piece them back together.
The museum bought the charmingly prudish portrait of the goddess of love, whom the Greeks called Aphrodite and the Romans Venus, for $968,000 at a Sotheby's auction in New York on June 6.
A private collector in Houston, Texas, agreed to sell to those who purchased the body at the auction the head as well, which was last documented attached to the body in 1836. The head sold for about $50,000.
The 4-foot-6-inch statue is a marble copy from the late 1st century A.D. of an earlier Greek bronze sculpture, which many scholars argue is the most widely reproduced female statue in antiquity.
One of the copies, on view at Rome's Capitoline Museums since the 18th century, counted Mark Twain among its admirers, and was one of a handful of artworks neoclassical artists looked up to for inspiration. Today, it's one of the most visited attractions there.
"Sculptures like the one on its way to Atlanta are very important because they were widely influential," said Cornelius Vermeule, former curator of classical art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
While there are thousands of similar images of Venus in all sorts of sizes and materials, very few statues are as large — almost life size — and nearly intact like this one, missing only the right arm.
"When you have one of the best and most complete examples of one of the finest statues in the ancient world, that's rather thrilling," said Jasper Gaunt, curator of Greek and Roman Art at the Carlos, who bought the statue with a donation from Thalia Carlos, widow of the museum's namesake.
Michael Carlos, who died in 2002, made a fortune in the wine and spirits wholesale industry.
It portrays a Venus caught off guard as, having removed all her clothes to take a bath, she glimpses an unseen onlooker. She tries to cover herself with her hands, with a result that's more provocative than protective. A small figure of Eros rides a dolphin at her feet, a reference to the goddess' birth from the sea.
"She's a little coy about it, a delightful combination of alarm and delight," Gaunt said. "The great contribution of the Greeks is the nude. The ancients thought this was the pre-eminent type of female nude."
The statue dates from a time when Roman emperors were reviving all things Greek from literature to the arts.
It probably stood next to a fountain or pool in the gardens of a wealthy villa somewhere in the Roman Empire, possibly in today's France, where the statue was first documented in the collection of Napoleon's art adviser in the 1830s, Gaunt said.
It'll be a few months before the statue is exhibited, since they still need to be shipped to the museum and then will need extensive cleaning and careful rejoining of the head and body.
The Venus is the second major acquisition this spring by the Carlos, following a sculpted Roman altar from Augustus' era.