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Frequently Asked Questions

Where did you get the idea for this book?

For a long time I had thought about writing a book about works of art that were considered great art but were also popular icons. There aren't too many of them - the Venus de Milo, of course; the Mona Lisa; The Thinker by Rodin; American Gothic by Grant Wood; and a few others. I was interested in trying to explain their qualities as art and also what it was about them that touched such a universal chord. But one evening I was talking with a friend who said that the project sounded more like a series of magazine articles than a book. That comment jolted me because I immediately thought he was correct. "Why don't you pick just one?" he said, and that's exactly what I did.

Why did you pick the Venus de Milo rather than any of the others?

For one thing, I always really liked it. I believe it was the first work of art I was aware of. When I was a kid I saw a picture of the statue on a book of Classicos matches from Mexico. Those matches are still made, by the way, and still have the same picture. I keep a box of them on my desk.

Another reason was that the sculptor is unknown - although as it turns out we do know his name and two or three details about his life. But that's all we know. To write about The Thinker you would inevitably have to also write Rodin's biography or to write about the Mona Lisa you would have to write about Leonardo himself. I wanted to write just about the art and the events surrounding it.

Last, there are numerous books about the Mona Lisa and the other masterpieces on my list. There have been many books and articles about the Venus de Milo, too, but the great majority of them were written in the 19th century and intended only for scholars. There wasn't anything contemporary except for one French monograph from 1985 and there wasn't anything now or in the past like the book I wanted to write. So, it was a subject I could have entirely to myself.

When was the statue discovered?


Where was it discovered?

On Melos, an island in the Aegean halfway between Crete and mainland Greece.

Why is it in the Louvre?

Because the nation of France bought it from the people of the island of Melos. This purchase was the result of fevered negotiations that all revolved around the private ambitions of the men involved. They each saw the statue as a way of achieving his own secret goals. This intricate story is told in the first chapter of Disarmed.

Did you have any idea at all about the story behind the statue?

None. I didn't even know there really was a story and at first I thought…well, I'm not sure exactly what I was thinking except that I never had any doubts that there was a book in there somewhere. I did know to look for a narrative and fortunately there was one, although it took some digging to put together.

Where did you do your research?

I went to Paris in May 2001. I spent a lot of time in the Louvre looking at the statue and I also interviewed Alan Pasquier, the curator in charge of Greek and Roman antiquities, who wrote the French monograph I mentioned earlier. Then I spent about a week at the Bibliothèque d'Art et d'Archéologie reading the papers that had been published at the time when the statue came to Paris. That was a lovely week. The weather was glorious. I got up early in the morning, ate a croissant for breakfast, and took the metro to work. The Bibliothèque was just north of the Palais Royale. At noon I got some take out food and ate in the garden there and then went back to work until six when the building closed. Then I took a long walk through the streets, stopped for a kir at a café, and then walked some more until I found a likely restaurant for dinner.

After Paris, I put in many hours at the New York Public Library and also found important sources at the Stanford Library. But most important was the University of Texas library in Austin where I live. I couldn't have done the book without a major research library in my back yard. I spent untold hours there. Later, in March 2003 I visited Melos, the Aegean island where the statue was discovered. I also returned to Paris, interviewed M. Pasquier again, visited the statue, and spent some more time at the Bibliothèque. Most of the important sources were in French or German. There was very little in English about the statue or its history. Fortunately, I was able to read the French sources. I had the German sources translated. Frustrating as it sometimes was, I loved doing the research.

Did you know anything about art history when you began?

Not to speak of. I've always had an amateur's interest in archaeology, and I know enough about art to be able to walk around an art museum and not be completely bewildered. But I wasn't an expert in either art history, the classical world, or archaeology when I began and I don't pretend to be one now, except in things that pertain to the Venus de Milo.

Diving headfirst into a whole new subject was one of the great pleasures of research and writing. I knew from the beginning that I wasn't going to write a scholarly book. I wanted to write for a general audience, but I also wanted to be authoritative. That's why I took care to make my research as thorough as possible. Once, M. Pasquier and I were talking about the 19th century scholars who had written about the Venus de Milo and suddenly we looked at each other and smiled. We realized that we were probably the only two people in the world who had read all the work of those venerable, but generally forgotten scholars.

Were there disappointments during your research?

A few, but fortunately nothing major. I suppose the biggest one was Fontaine's Journal. Fontaine was the architect of the Louvre in 1821 when the Venus de Milo arrived there and he was involved in complicated intrigues concerning the statue. I was ecstatic when I learned he had kept a journal and that it had been recently published. I was certain it would contain detailed accounts of those intrigues in the back hallway of the Louvre. Fortunately for me, the Stanford library acquired it - it's a very expensive edition - and I remember my excitement when these two thick, beautiful, red tomes were brought to me. Well, it turned out to be quite useful and I quote from it in my book, but it just wasn't the rich mother lode of detail and anecdote I had hoped it would be.

The other disappointment occurred quite early. One of the first sources I read was a French book from the late 19th century that claimed that the statue had had arms when it was discovered but they had been broken off when the statue was dragged across the beach at Melos during a fight between French sailors and Turkish soldiers. "Oh, my God." I thought, "No one knows about this. This is going to be big news." Also, what a scene to be able to put in the book! Very quickly, though, I learned I was wrong on both counts. The fight was fairly well known and shows up when the statue is mentioned in contemporary works about art history. But, more important, the story is completely false and is easily disproved. In Disarmed I explain the origin of this story and why it has come to be accepted as true even though it is a complete fabrication.

What was the most difficult information to find?

The French accounts of the negotiations to buy the statue refer repeatedly to the "primates of the island" on Melos and the "dragoman of the arsenal" who also had an important role. What were the primates and what was a dragoman? Those accounts never bothered to answer either question. I searched through a lot of books before finding the answers.

What is the most obscure and useless fact you found?

The plural of dragoman is dragomans, not dragomen.