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Venus de’ Medici 10/03/2011

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c. 1850

Art almost constitutes Florence. There are three grand depositories of it. The principal is that of the Imperial Gallery [Uffizi]. Rightly styled imperial. It is contained in a very extensive building, worthy of its builder, Vasari, the artist and the author. It may be said, that there is no end to the works of value and interest which crowd the rooms of this noble establishment. In sculpture there is scarce a Roman emperor, philosopher, poet, whose bust or statue is not there, raked from the ruins of Ancient Rome, or other overturned city of Italy. And beside these, statues of imaginary beings, god or goddess, dryad or hamadryad, satyr or faun, with which the imagination of antiquity teemed, and which genius expressed in such perfection in marble or bronze. Such objects adorn the sides of these extensive galleries. Opening out of the galleries, in their whole length, are halls and saloons, larger and smaller, where are deposited the chefs-d’oeuvre of sculpture, and the masterpieces in painting, from the first appearance of art in the thirteenth century to the close of the sixteenth, with specimens of all the principal schools.

One of these apartments, of especial celebrity, named the Tribune, most lavishly adorned with marbles, gilding, and mother of pearl, has been consecrated to a very few of the most celebrated works in marble and painting, which the traveller who had heard or read of it almost from his youth, enters with the most excited expectations. But they are expectations, which, however excited, can never be disappointed. There, gracefully disposed about the floor, stands the world-renowned Venus de’ Medici, the Arrotino, or grinder, a perfect piece of nature in both form and action, and might stand as well for Shakespeare’s Shylock sharpening the knife for Antonio’s side –  near these the Young Apollo – then the Wrestlers, an antique group of Greek statuary – lastly, the Dancing Fawn, the head and arms restored by Michael Angelo – a marvellous instance of restoration, going, one may believe, beyond the original conception of the artist. The parts supplied by Michael Angelo are in such perfect unity of expression with every other part of the statue, that even though one should discern the fractures where the new members were added, he would suppose them at once to be the ancient members themselves, fortunately discovered, and skilfully re-annexed. In truth, the peculiar merit of the figure will be seen to lie in the action of the head and the arms.

To the first of the statues just named, as lending its chief celebrity to the Tribune, and that which perhaps would be termed the most perfect piece of sculpture in the world – the Venus – I revert for a few moments. This famous statue, ascribed on its plinth to Cleomenes, but subject to doubt, was discovered amongst the ruins of Hadrian’s Villa, at Tivoli, in the fifteenth century – though this is also disputed; but, what is certain, is, that whenever and wherever found, it was found broken into thirteen or fourteen pieces; but every fragment there, with the exception of the lower portions of the two arms. The joining together of so many pieces has been done with such extreme skill, that no imperfection is perceptible on the surface. As thus restored and completed, whatever may have been lost of the original perfection, enough remains to substantiate its claims to the reputation of the most perfect representation existing of womanly beauty. That, I suppose, with very few exceptions, to be the common judgment.

Every eye would agree in pronouncing the form, the proportions, the contour of the trunk and lower limbs, not only faultless, but radiant with a loveliness and a grace certainly nowhere else to be seen, nor easily to be imagined. The figure might be termed perfect, but for the head and the arms. The head is thought too small to be in good proportion to the body. But this is not very observable. The position and turn of the head are graceful in the extreme. The countenance is characterized by a sort of doll-like inanimate beauty, which detracts greatly from the pleasure with which it would otherwise be viewed. It may not be said to be devoid of expression, but the expression, such as it is, is far from agreeable, taken in connection with the posture of the hands and arms. These are modern, and every way defective. But their attitude, their chief offence, I imagine to have been very nearly the original one, for this reason – it is but a conjecture – that the representation of Venus in marble seems anciently to have been governed by a set of conventional ideas, which really prescribed the manner in which they should be placed. But the conjecture is made somewhat more plausible by the fact that the Venus of the Capitol at Rome has precisely the same, more than one also in the Imperial Gallery at Florence, and in the Vatican. But, whatever may be the account of this posture, whether originally belonging to the discovered statue or not, what I would say is, that the meaning conveyed by the attitude, and by the expression of the countenance, is not the same, but contradictory. They do not correspond. If the attitude, as is affirmed, be one of modesty, the idea is refuted by the expression of the countenance, which is smirking and even meretricious; which shows the posture to be one – and there can be no greater fault in a work of art – of mere affectation. Were the posture one of genuine modesty, the language of the countenance would necessarily correspond; as in the Venus of the Capitol, where the attitude is the same, but the expression one of purity and dignity. This is a criticism to which this beautiful work is fairly open. But this fault, serious as i it is, cannot deprive it of its divine symmetry; its matchless grace. It is still to the eye delighting in mere form, the most beautiful statue in the world. While, unfortunately, it was necessary to restore the arms, the lower limbs, and the feet especially, have remained wholly uninjured, and are moulded with exquisite art; the only defect that even seemed to exist there being the too great roundness of the arch of the single foot on which the whole weight of the body rests. It may be more beautiful as it is; but it is not so true. The weight of the whole body; being upon one foot, must inevitably spread it, as any one may see. But, as it is, it has all the beautiful roundness of a foot which is at rest.

But whatever defect or faint blemish may be found or fancied in this great work of genius, it is lost in the general blaze of excellence; and we look upon it, and hang over it as lovers, with untiring admiration, the last as the first, and every day that the traveller visits the gallery. Of other objects of art he may tire but he returns to this ever with fresh interest, and fresh delight. The Venus of the Capitol possesses many charms, but it wants that nameless grace which is shed over her Florence rival – a grace indescribable and incommunicable, but none the less certain and undeniable – like that which pervades so many of the forms of Raffaelle; like that, which in another department of art – lends enchantment to a style such as that of Addison or Goldsmith – a style, the deliciousness of which can be acknowledged and felt by all, Mobile it can be copied by none.

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