Imagine a clear day on the Aegean Sea, the sea an indigo blue, the sky azure. You are a twenty-three year old French officer aboard the naval schooner Estafette. The vessel drops anchor at Melos one of the Greek isles littering the sea.
This young ensign, Olivier Voutier, who knows a bit about antiquities, as a well-educated gentleman of the regency era would, takes a pick and shovel and hikes up a hillside with a couple of sailors toward the remains of an ancient theater, hoping to find antique statuary near the ruin. Already, Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin had brought back sculpted friezes and statues from the Parthenon, known as the “Elgin Marbles” to display at the British Museum.
Napoleon, another lover of antiquity, had purchased many Roman sculptures when he conquered Italy and brought them to the Louvre in Paris.
All things Greek, Roman and Egyptian were highly valued in Europe at the time of the regency.
On this 8th of April, 1820, young Voutier noticed a peasant farmer in a nearby field. He was digging around an ancient wall to use its stones in a structure he was building. Voutier noticed he stopped and was staring at something in a niche in the wall. Voutier drew near and saw the partially buried statue of a female torso.
Despite her broken arms, chipped nose and other imperfections, Voutier was enthralled by the statue of the nude. Along with the farmer, he was the first person to gaze upon the Venus de Milo since it had graced an ancient Greek wall.
The farmer, who had no use for such statuary, was ready to shovel earth back over it, when Voutier recognized the beauty of this classical sculpture and persuaded him to dig it out.
Eventually Voutier was able to bring other French officials to see the statue. Another naval officer, Jules Dumont d’Urvilles, went to Constantinople, the head of the Ottoman Empire, which controlled Greece and the Greek Isles at that time, and persuaded the French Ambassador to purchase the statue for France.
It was brought to France in 1821 and presented to King Louis XVIII, who donated it to the Louvre. The statue was not found in one piece and was broken in parts. The torso was carved from one block of marble, the draped legs from another, smaller blocks for each arm and the left foot. Fragments of the right arm were unearthed as well as the left hand holding an apple, but they were later discarded as not being part of the original statue because the carving was rougher.
The original plinth or pedestal it rested on was also found nearby but because the inscription carved in it with the artist’s name dated it to the Hellenistic period, rather than the earlier Greek Classical, it devalued the statue in the eyes of scholars at the time, so they discarded the plinth and continued to claim it as a statue from the Classical Greek period.
Today, millions of people visit the Louvre to view the Venus de Milo, along with the Mona Lisa and the Winged Victory of Samothrace, another Greek statue.