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A Graeco-Roman head of Aphrodite on a much restored and overworked body which may be an ancient fragment or could be entirely a neoclassical restoration.

Grained Greek marble

Height (statuette): 69cm
Height (head): 9.5cm

Museum number: M566

Vermeule catalogue number: Vermeule 387help-vermeule-catalogue-number

Curatorial note

A small head of the popular Graeco-Roman type derived from Praxiteles' celebrated Aphrodite [or in Latin, Venus] of Knidos as reconstructed from coins of that island and from the multitude of surviving later copies and modifications.1 The Museo Capitolino in Rome possesses a small Roman adaptation comparable in size with, and inferior in quality to, this Soane head.2

The collection of full-size heads of the Knidian Aphrodite brought together in the room devoted to Praxiteles' works in the Louvre, Paris, gives an excellent demonstration of the difference between inspired copies and less-than-average Roman modifications. Their examples include:
(1) Louvre No. 3518, the beautiful 'Kaufmann' head, executed in highly crystalline Parian marble (acquired by purchase, 1951-2027);
(2) Louvre No. 421, a competent Roman copy in Pentelic marble (Richter, American Journal of Archaeology, XXXVII, 1933, p.349);
(3) Louvre, Catalogue Sommaire, no.1366 bis (Christian Blinkenberg, Knidia, Copenhagen, 1933, p.167, no. IV, 4; Chartonneaux, in Monuments et Mémoires. Fondation Piot, 34, 1950, p.51, n.1);
(4) Louvre, Catalogue Sommaire, no.479 (Blinkenberg, Knidia, Copenhagen, 1933, p.167, no.IV, 5; C. Guida, in Africa Italiana IV, 1931, p.30, fig.27).
Vermeule judged these to be 'Roman modifications of lifeless feeling and not overly pleasant taste'.

Such a grouping vividly illustrates how far the copies wander in treatment of the eyes, arrangement of the hair and the carving technique in the surface detail. The Soane head, in spite of its small scale, is not without considerable life and has a purity of hair style and features which speak more of secondary later Hellenistic work rather than Roman garden sculpture. The Greek marble gives the head a lively quality when contrasted with the worked-over and restored body to which it is attached.

There are many similarly composed statues in Italian collections and those originating from the workshops of the neoclassical restorers: Venuses of which the greater parts are either completely worked-over or eighteenth century copies of such popular antiquities as the Venus de Medici in Florence or the Capitoline Venus in the museum of that name in Rome. A good example of such work which recalls the spirit of the Soane statuette is exhibited in the Villa Borghese3 and the Aphrodite formerly at Lowther Castle4 is analagous to what the Soane piece appears to be: two fragmentary antique copies joined together after their re-discovery to create, with further modern additions, a restored statue.

Excavations at Knidos in recent years have produced the site of the temple and scraps of the original statue, together with an inscription referring to the masterpiece and to Praxiteles.5

A number of articles in the 1980s discussed the claims of the 'Colonna' version of the statue to be the most accurate reduction of the original.6

1 A. Furtwängler, Masterpieces of Greek Sculpture, ed. and trans. E. Sellers, 2 vols, London, 1895, p.322, note 3; G.E. Rizzo, Prassitele, Milan and Rome, 1932, p. 48ff.
2 H.S. Jones (ed.), The British School at Rome, Catalogue of ancient sculptures preserved in the municipal collections of Rome: The sculptures of the Museo Capitolino, 2 vols, Oxford, 1912, p.113, no. 34, pl. 30.
3 Villa Borghese inventory No. CVIII - 683; Paola della Pergola, The Borghese Gallery, p. 12.
4 A. Michaelis, Ancient Marbles in Great Britain, trans. C.A.M. Fennell, Cambridge, 1882, p. 488f. P. Arndt, Photographische Einzelaufnahmen antiker Sculpturen, Munich, 1893-1912, 3068f.; Christian Blinkenberg, Knidia, Copenhagen, 1933, p. 187, V. 4-5.
5 See S. Hayes, Land of the Chimaera, London, 1974, Chapter 8, pp. 39-47.
6 M. Pfrommer, 'Zur Venus Colonna: Ein Späthellenistische Redaktion der knidischen Aphrodite', in Istanbuler Mitteilungen, 1985, pp. 173-80; see also Istanbuler Mitteilungen 39 (1989) pp.535-60 for articles by four authors, Pfommer, Mandel, Reisberg and Kelperi on the claims of this statue.

Provenance help-art-provenance

Sale of antiquities from the collection of Aubrey Beauclerk, 5th Duke of St Alban's, Christie's 29 April 1801, Lot 91, 'A small whole length figure of Venus after bathing, the drapery supported on a vase by her side'. Shown in J.M. Gandy's 1811 watercolour view of Soane's Museum, SM P384.


Description of Sir John Soane's Museum, 1930, p. 86 and fig. 52.
Jonathan Yarker and Clare Hornsby, 'A speculative Grand Tour excavation: Aubrey Beauclerk, Thomas Brand and Thomas Jenkins at Centocelle', The British Art Journal, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Spring 2011), pp.21-29: see p.27 and f.n. 92.

If you have any further information about this object, please contact us: worksofart@soane.org.uk