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Excerpt From Disarmed


Fractured Masterpiece

MELOS IS an Aegean island where thirty thousand people looking for a bargain vacation arrive each summer like migratory birds. When they leave, the island returns to its unlovely self. It is dull, remote, harsh-a place where the only ways to make a living are by mining, farming, fishing, and hanging on desperately until summer brings the next flock of tourists.

Unfortunately, I was not there in summer but in early spring when the weather tends toward gray skies, rain, and powerful winds. I climbed the highest hill. It is crowned by the village of Plaka, a warren of narrow streets twisting between the straight white walls of stone and stucco houses. Lost for a while, I finally began following the occasional signs that pointed toward the "ancient theater" and eventually found myself walking along a narrow dirt road. There, across from the remains of a stone wall and tower, stood a small, solitary metal sign that said in English and Greek, SITE OF THE DISCOVERY OF VENUS OF MILOS.

Behind the sign was a short but quite steep slope covered with a haphazard profusion of olive trees. Grabbing branches for balance, I made my way down the slope, about ten yards or so, to a flat area covered with grass and wildflowers.

The ruins of another wall, once the continuation of the one above, ran down the slope and there, after pulling aside a few more olive branches, I saw a white stone plaque bolted to the crumbling wall. It had inscriptions in Greek, English, German, and French. The English read, HERE HAS BEEN FOUND THE VENUS OF MILOS. This area was where the statue of the goddess once stood in an arched niche in a wall. But the exact site of the discovery is impossible to locate. Landslides long ago buried the wall with its niches. It must lie somewhere beneath the olive trees whose branches I'd grabbed on the way down. Perhaps, deep in the ground, their roots entwine the missing arms.

After several minutes of trying to imagine what this place had once been like, I found myself disappointed and perplexed by exactly how lost and how untended the purported site turned out to be. I climbed back up the slope and followed the dirt road through what had once been a Greek and then a Roman city. There were the remains of a theater situated so the audience could look past the stage and out across a bay at the foot of the hill. There were the remnants of walls here and there. The long narrow field that had once been a stadium lined on one side by stone bleachers was still easy to identify. Occasionally, I ran across a part of a marble column lying on the ground.

During the next three days I talked several times with an archaeologist at the local museum, but there had been little work done at the site where the statue was discovered. But he did give me a map of the Greek city drawn after some light excavations done decades earlier. So each day I went to the ruins with that map in hand and explored. I drew my own maps and took photographs and eventually understood the layout of the ancient settlement.

Even so I found myself trying to imagine, not so much what the town had been like in ancient times, but what the ruins had been like in the spring of 1820 when the statue was uncovered. But it was impossible. The ruins have disintegrated so badly since then that I knew my mental reconstructions were mere imaginings. One fact, however, had not changed. These ruins were a lonely, isolated farmer's pasture in 1820, and they are a lonely, isolated farmer's pasture now. During my visits of several hours each day for four days the only other visitors were a herd of goats who were fenced in a distant corner.

I tromped around the ruins until I was convinced that I would never find anything more than I had already seen. I had learned only this. Melos, an island as boring in the past as it is today, may have been the first home of the Venus de Milo. But like so many other provincials who were blessed with talent, intelligence, or beauty, her life did not really begin until she arrived in Paris, the city that values both talent and intelligence but values beauty most of all.

TODAY the Venus de Milo stands, as it has for decades, in an alcove at the end of a long hallway on the ground floor of the Louvre.

Entering that hallway, you can see the statue in the distance, almost eighty yards away, looming over the crowd around it. Since the crowd obscures the base and legs, the nude torso appears to be an apparition. The deep whiteness of the marble is luminescent against the browns, blacks, and grays of the hallway. Distant, pale, and shimmering, unconcerned by the hubbub around her even though she is nude, the goddess seems to float above the admiring throng. She looks fresh, forceful, and completely original, the way she must have looked to the people who saw her when she was rediscovered almost two hundred years ago.

Moving closer brings more of the statue into view, and the unexpected power of seeing her at a distance diminishes. Now she becomes familiar. Though most people in the crowd are seeing the actual statue for the first time, they all have seen her image time and again. I first saw it on the cover of a box of Clasicos matches from Mexico when I was six. I remember her naked breasts and her impassive face staring into the distance. Once I saw that image, I never forgot it. How could I? The Venus de Milo permeates our culture, where her image is shorthand for lofty ideals: truth, purity, and timeless beauty. She is in advertisements and cartoons, on the covers of record albums, and part of company logos. She is reproduced as saltshakers, vases, table lamps, and rubber toys that squeak. In serious art the Venus de Milo has inspired both homages and parodies by artists such as Rodin, Salvador Dali, Magritte, Max Ernst, and, in more recent years, Clive Barker and Jim Dine. Her image is so powerful that it easily rises over cultural boundaries. In 1964 France sent the statue on loan to Japan. When the ship carrying her arrived in Yokohama, more than 100,000 people came just to watch it dock. By the time she left Japan, one and a half million people had come to see her, borne past her display on a moving sidewalk.

Seeing the Venus de Milo in the morning, when the tour groups are the thickest, is worth all the effort and exasperation. It can be exciting just to see the spectacle of the crowd and to hear guides speaking in any number of languages. But the best time to see the statue is late in the afternoon, in the hour or two before the museum closes. Then, with the crowds long gone and enough time to observe in solitude and without interruption, it is possible to let the familiar image from advertisements, matchboxes, and saltshakers fade away and to see the Venus de Milo for herself.

Her serenity, assurance, and great comfort with her own beauty produce a tranquility powerful enough to be a physical pleasure. This can last for several moments, but as you begin to look closely at the statue you see something that nothing in the thousands of popular images prepares you for: The statue is fragile and lined with fractures. It was carved from two large blocks of marble, one set on top of the other. The line where the two blocks meet is visible even though somewhat hidden by the roll of drapery around her pelvis. Four large pieces, two on each side, have broken away from her hips. The lines where they fractured are easy to see from the sides and the back. Even the knot of hair on the back of her head has broken off and been reattached. The arms, of course, are missing, and so is the left foot. There are nicks and scrapes everywhere. The most damaging one aesthetically is a large gouge where the left nipple once was. Her earlobes are gone. Presumably they were broken when robbers ripped away the earrings she once wore.

This Venus is clearly a big woman, but how big? In fact, from head to toe, she is six feet seven inches tall. Her right foot- twelve and a half inches long-is enormous. Her hips are so wide she looks as if she has had several children. Rodin described her stomach as "immense like the sea! It is the rhythmic beauty of the sea without end." Yet she seems almost weightless, as if this ton of marble could move effortlessly through the air. As you look at her, six-seven doesn't seem any more likely than either five-nine or eight feet.

And how old is she? She is not an adolescent, she is not a virgin, and she is not a crone. She could be twenty-five or thirty or fifty. Her children could be infants, or they could be old enough to have children of their own. So while most people would describe the statue as "realistic," the most obvious characteristics of a real person-height, weight, age-turn out to be elusive.

As you walk about viewing the Venus de Milo from one side and the other, she changes. Since we are accustomed to seeing her in reproductions viewed straight from the front, the changes are quite striking. From her right side she seems almost like a pillar. Her huge foot is flat on the ground, and a line goes straight up from it to her right hip and then to her right shoulder. Her leg, barely suggested beneath the folds of the drapery, is straight and bears most of her weight. Her thick hip is locked. Her stomach and her waist are also thick. She seems planted in the ground, and since she is looking away toward her left, her big hip, stomach, and waist are what defines her. They all speak of her fecundity and of her sexuality. From this perspective she is as human as a goddess can be. You can see in stone a profound truth of Greek art and religion: We share our sexuality with the gods.

Her drapery is falling down around her hip, but that doesn't concern her, because her concentration is elsewhere. Even her hair, gathered in the back, has begun to unravel. It's almost a shock to realize that, hanging free, her hair would be long enough to reach most of the way down her back. It's easy to think that she must always be exactly the way she is in the moment captured in the statue. But it's not true-that's the shock. What mood would she be in when she let her hair fall down her back? The gathered hair beginning to unravel reveals a tantalizing glimpse into her interior life, just as her partially fallen drapery does. As with many masterpieces, the statue that appears so open, even blatant, is instead filled with suggestion and withheld knowledge.

From the left side she seems not tied to the earth but ready to ascend from it. Her raised left foot makes her appear able to spring effortlessly into space. But even from this side we are excluded from her. All her concentration is on something, now invisible, that is just in front of her. What is it? Who is she, after all? How did she come to be here on a pedestal in an alcove at the end of a long corridor in the Louvre? And what is it about her that attracts and holds the attention of the world?

Chapter 1:

From Melos to Paris

OLIVIER VOUTIER was twenty-three and an ensign in the French navy when he first set foot on Greek soil. He had a high forehead, black hair, and a carefully trimmed mustache that shot straight up in a waxed point at each end. His slender, athletic build was close to being slight, but he was possessed by a romantic fervor that made him prideful and gave him a forceful appearance. He wore a well-tailored uniform that completed the picture he presented of precise military sheen. In fact, he loved wearing uniforms. Later in his life, Voutier had a weakness for the gold braids, ribbons, and medals he would win during his years of combat. He would pose for portraits wearing all his medals and with a brace of pistols tucked into his broad belt.

It was spring in the year 1820. Voutier was assigned to the Estafette, a two-masted warship, which for more than a month had been at anchor in the magnificent harbor on the island of Melos, a piece of rock halfway between Crete and mainland Greece. Unfortunately, to most tastes, the harbor was the only thing about Melos that was magnificent. The Greek islands in the Aegean are often idyllic, but Melos was not. Long stays in the harbor there were bleak exercises in boredom, and the Estafette had nothing to do but wait for orders.

Fortunately, Voutier had an escape from the boredom. He was interested in what was then a completely new and unformed science: archeology. On April 8 he left the Estafette with two sailors carrying shovels and picks. They were going to dig into the hillsides of Melos for whatever remnants of the glories of Greece and Rome they could find.

In fact, Voutier was looking for more than that. He was a young man in search of a cause, and Greece was where he found it. He saw the Greeks, heirs of classical civilization, demoralized and humiliated under the rule of the Ottoman Turks. Just a year after the long anchor at Melos he abruptly resigned his commission in the French navy and joined the Greek war for independence. He became a hero of the struggle.

That morning on Melos it wasn't difficult to find the most promising place to dig. The ruins of an ancient theater, as well as stone walls and pieces of broken columns, were still clearly visible on an escarpment on the side of the island's tallest hill. Voutier and the sailors began to dig there near the remains of a wall and circular tower that had once defended the gate of the ancient town. They found a seemingly endless number of marble fragments, as well as a bust, a carved foot, and two nicely chiseled statues missing their heads, hands, and feet.

As Voutier and the two sailors were digging, another man, a local farmer as it turned out, was also working just twenty paces away trying to remove the stones from an ancient wall to use in a structure he was building on his farm. Voutier, glancing over that way; noticed that the man had stopped digging for the moment and was staring at something in a niche he had uncovered in the wall. His posture was curious enough that Voutier went to look himself.

As Voutier drew near, he could see that the farmer was busy again, covering something with dirt. Peering into the darkness of the chamber where the farmer was working, Voutier saw a statue, or at least the upper half of one, lying on its side and still partly buried. Its odd shape made it useless as a building block, so the farmer had decided to cover it over. Voutier gave him a small bribe to dig up the statue instead. It didn't take long to push aside the accumulated dirt and stones and prop the object up. It was the nude upper body of a woman. The tip of her nose and the small bun of hair gathered at the back of her head were both broken off. There was an ugly hole in her right side that Voutier assumed was the result of some crude restoration from long ago. Stains, nicks, and scrapes, evidently from the time when it had first fallen over, covered the surface of the statue.

But despite these imperfections, Voutier sensed from the first I glance that he was seeing something extraordinary. This torso was more glorious than anything he could have hoped to find when he set out that morning with the two sailors and a few picks and shovels.

Voutier insisted that the farmer search for the lower half of the statue, but his insistence revealed his excitement. Now the farmer wanted more money to continue digging. Voutier paid. He joined the farmer inside the niche, an oval enclosure about five yards wide. The walls were cut stone and had once been painted in a pattern that was still faintly visible. Overhead was an arched roof.

After a little digging here and there amid the rubble on the floor, the farmer found the lower half of the statue and brought it up out of the dirt. But the two parts couldn't be reassembled because a large section missing from the right side made it impossible to balance the top half on the lower. Yet another bribe persuaded the farmer to continue digging, but this time, since the missing piece was considerably smaller than the other two, the search took more work and time. When the farmer wanted to quit, Voutier calmly prodded him until he finally discovered the missing middle section.

At last Voutier and the farmer, perhaps with help from the two sailors, were able to place the top half of the statue on the lower. When they slid the middle section between the two larger pieces, the statue balanced, and they were able to see it as it was intended: a woman, nude from the waist up, her legs covered in wet drapery that was falling from her hips. This was of course the statue that would become known to the world as the Venus de Milo.

The farmer's only interest in the statue was what money he could get for it. But Voutier, though he had to contain himself as best he could, knew that this was an experience granted to very few. He was in the presence of a masterpiece that no one had seen for almost two thousand years. Here, in a buried niche on a minor island, was a work of art that was a culminating _expression of the Greek genius. It had been reborn before his eyes, and now it stood there in full glory for him to contemplate. Voutier later wrote a single sentence to describe these first few moments: "Those who have seen the Venus de Milo are able to understand my stupefaction."

As soon as he had recovered from his astonishment, Voutier turned his attention to practical matters. To prevent a fall, the top half was removed and placed on the ground beside the lower half. Now it was time to try to claim the statue before anyone else was able to, preferably even before anyone else knew about it. Voutier hurried to the small town at the top of the hill about fifteen minutes from the ruins. There he found the only representative of the French government on the island, a vice-consul named Louis Brest.

After about thirty minutes Voutier arrived back at the niche with vice-consul Brest in tow. While Voutier was gone, the farmer, whose name was Yorgos, had had enough time to make a thorough search of the small enclosure. He found a marble hand holding an apple, a piece of a badly mutilated arm, and two herms. Herms are quadrangular pillars about three feet high with a carved head at the top. Their purpose is no longer clear, but apparently they were usually used as some sort of boundary marker. One herm had the head of a bearded man, and the other the head of a young man. Each one was standing in an inscribed base.

Voutier had brought a sketch pad and a pencil with him on his digging expedition, and now he set to work on what would turn out to be four drawings: one of the upper half of the statue, one of the lower half, and one of each herm in its inscribed base. He copied the two inscriptions clearly enough to be read. His plan was to use the drawings to convince the captain of the Estafette to take the statue on board.

While he was drawing Voutier prodded Brest to buy the statue. Yorgos had decided he wanted four hundred piasters for it, about the price of a good donkey. Brest was a rotund, methodical person, thirty-one years old, who tried to maintain the dignity of his office by wearing a blue uniform with gold braid. The sudden exertion of getting to the site, the close atmosphere inside the small niche, the ancient dust that had just been disturbed and was still floating in the air, the play of light and shadows on the statue and the oddly painted brick walls- all that was too much for vice-consul Brest. Besides, he had no official budget. If he were to buy the statue, he would have to do so with his own money and then hope to be reimbursed by the French government. While that might happen, it also might not. "Are you sure," he whispered to Voutier, "that it's worth that much? Please don't make me risk losing my money;"

With that Voutier left the vice-consul behind and returned with his drawings to the Estafette. (Voutier ordered the two sailors to bury the artifacts they had found before he approached Yorgos. He was never able to return for them. It's possible they remain buried on Melos to this day.) On board he showed the drawings to his captain, a certain Robert, an intense, demanding officer known to his crew, more out of respect than fear, as Robert the Devil. Voutier tried to persuade him to sail immediately for Constantinople to get authorization from the French ambassador there to buy the statue. The drawings impressed Robert, but he had orders to wait at Melos. He couldn't ignore them because of the sudden enthusiasm of an ensign for a statue.

Voutier now gave up in frustration. That was how the navy was these days; perhaps under the emperor it would have been different. (Voutier was a passionate Bonapartist.) Now, his initial enthusiasm thwarted, he seems to have lost all interest in the statue and remained silently in the background during the events that followed. He put his drawings away with his personal effects, and though he guarded them through his long and adventurous life, it would be fifty years before he revealed them publicly.