Much like the Elgin Marbles, the Aphrodite of Milos was removed from Greece whilst the country was under Ottoman occupation during the nineteenth century.
Greece and Germany fight over Aphrodite of Melos
Monday, March 1, 2010
I am sure that no one these days has heard of the name Georgos Kentrotas or Botonis, least of all the German editors of the Magazine Focus who chose to act somewhat like modern archaeologists or restorers and added one of the two missing arms of Aphrodite of Melos to their cover page.
But if it was not for this poor Greek farmer, this whole uproar over the “fingers up” symbolism against the European Union would never have been created.
Kentrotas was not a famous person; he was just a farmer among the 5,000 Greek inhabitants living in the 1820s in the small Aegean island of Melos, actually in the very last year before the Greek uprising against Ottoman rule.
Kentrotas, like so many Melians of the time, was already aware of his island’s rich and powerful past; he, as well as his fellow villagers, could guess that from the abundance of ancient coins and fragments of obsidian surfacing in their fields. They also knew it because the large sarcophagi lying around in the large catacombs on the island were full of rich offerings, vases, and jewelry which villagers were selling to foreigners, English, French and Russian. It was only six years before that, in 1814, that a large ancient theater had been discovered on the island, which had increased the appetite of the Westerners even further.
One day in April 1820, Kentrotas, while digging in his plot for some “good masonry stones,” came across a cache of broken pieces from marble statues and inscriptions. The biggest of the statues, found broken into two, was set not only to change the idea of the aesthetics of female beauty in the world of art but also to become an important part of cultural Western European propaganda in the early 19th century.
The statue was the Aphrodite of Melos, a magnificent piece coming from the Hellenistic Period whose sculptor remains unknown. From the stony field of Kentrotas, this young marbled woman reached the Louvre Museum after an adventurous journey involving strong diplomatic arm twisting and an intense inter-European fight for cultural and political supremacy. As history tends to repeat itself in many ways, and as modern Greece is going through one of its toughest phases as a member of the European club, a look back in time may teach us some useful lessons.
During the 19th century, European travelers, officers, archaeologists and agents were scanning the Ottoman land for Greek antiquities and they were getting them either by stealing freely or buying them cheaply. Almost two decades before the discovery of Aphrodite, Lord Elgin, as ambassador from England to the Sublime Porte and with a useful firman from the Sultan at hand, had conducted a smooth and profitable operation after removing some of the best pieces from the Parthenon to sell them eventually to the British government in 1816. The Parthenon Marbles found their way to the British Museum and their acquisition put England one step ahead of France and Germany on the classical art craze of the 19th century.
Most of the ancient Greek and Roman collections that had been set up in the Great Museums of Western Europe in the 19th century consisted of pieces that had left the Ottoman lands illegally or through a firman where diplomacy weighed more than culture.
The story of Aphrodite is typical of the atmosphere of the time. According to contemporary sources, a French officer who happened to be in Melos on board a French ship moored at the port of the island heard of the magnificent find of Georgos – who was keeping it in his stable – and informed the ambassador from France to Constantinople. At the same time, the French officer informed the vice-consul of France in Melos and the third secretary of the French Embassy arrived in Melos to negotiate the purchase of the statue. However, by the time of the arrival of the French team in May, 1820, Kentrotas had already sold the piece and loaded it onto a Greek ship flying the Ottoman flag. Apparently a monk who had been called to Constantinople by the Patriarch after accusations of corruption had bought the statue in order to win the favor of the (Greek) Dragoman of the Ottoman fleet. The French showed a recommendation letter from the then Patriarch Grigorios V – hanged one year later – tried to get onboard to see the statue and eventually paid both the monk and Georgos to get the statute. On the same day, Aphrodite was loaded onto a French warship. On the 1st of March, 1821, the Marquise Rivierre gave it as a present to King Louis IX. France that had five years before lost the Venus of Medici to Italy, was feeling one cultural step ahead of the other European powers by possessing one of the most beautiful ancient pieces of Hellenistic Greek art.
One and a half centuries later, under the new format of the EU, the Western European powers have stepped in to “straighten up” Greece while playing hide-and-seek with Turkey. Greece is being made to feel as the “weak link” of Europe; even its culture is up for challenge.
Rumor has it, that when Kendrotas found Aphrodite in his field, she had both arms. They were most probably cut off during her transportation to France. Aphrodite was probably holding an apple in one of her hands to give it to Paris. In her new version, Aphrodite’s bionic hand is insulting the whole of the EU.
Kendrotas had got 400 kürüş from the French to sell his statue. Today, Greece will have to pay much more to satisfy the Franco-German core of the EU.