Aphrodite and the Gods of Love is the first ever exhibition devoted to the Goddess Aphrodite in the United States. Aphrodite (Venus), one of the most compelling of the ancient divinities, personifies female beauty and human love. The exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston, tells the story of Aphrodite’s influence in the daily lives of the ancient Greeks and Romans through beautiful artworks that range from large marble sculptures, to painted Greek vases, precious metals, mosaics, and coins. The exhibition traces Aphrodite’s early worship in the Near East as a fertility Goddess, her legendary birth in the waters off Cyprus, and her emergence as a love-Goddess for the Greeks. It also highlights the Goddesses’ role as a beauty icon on objects used for female beautification — bathing utensils, mirrors, perfume, and cosmetic containers. Variations of female nudes, most famously the MFA’s “Bartlett Head,” is displayed in the exhibition, as will jewelry, especially gold, which enhanced the splendor and seductive power of Aphrodite, known as “the golden one.” The show concludes with pieces illustrating the Roman adoption of Aphrodite as Venus, mother of Aeneas and divine ancestor of Augustus and other Roman emperors (Exhibition Sponsorship 1). On view October 26, 2011, to February 20, 2012, in the Lois and Michael Torf Gallery, it is the first museum exhibition of classical works devoted solely to the goddess the Romans called Venus, “Aphrodite and the Gods of Love,” re-awakens an age of pagan belief through some of the finest Classical art in the world. Visitors will see stunning works depicting Aphrodite as the personification of idealized beauty, grace and feminine guile in a divinity. Organized by Christine Kondoleon, is the museum’s senior curator of Greek and Roman art, the exhibit features more than 160 works from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts Greek and Roman collection, among the finest holdings in the United States, complemented by 13 key loans that include several works never displayed before in the U.S. Nine of these lent works are from Rome and Naples — including the spectacular “Sleeping Hermaphrodite,” which has left Italy only once prior to this exhibition. Kondoleon has used these rare works to transform the Lois and Michael Torf Gallery into a pan-Mediterranean temple that chronicles the ancestry, violent birth and evolution of the goddess whose many brilliant facets illuminated the era. Kondoleon explained that Aphrodite was a primal goddess of manifold identities: She was seductress and the first woman portrayed naked. Believers prayed to her for success in marriage, war and lust (Bergeron 1). The exhibit aims to answer the questions, “Who was Aphrodite, and why was she so important to the Greeks and Romans?” In addition to celebrating the goddess’s legacy as an icon of romantic love and ideal beauty, the exhibition examines her more complicated nature as a powerful and sometimes capricious deity who influenced the daily lives of mortals, and explores the roles played by the other gods of love – Aphrodite’s children from her many love affairs — particularly the mischievous Eros (“Aphrodite and the Gods of Love” 1).

Aphrodite and the Gods of Love begins with the deity’s birth in Cyprus and origins rooted in Near Eastern mythology, followed by an exploration of the cult of Aphrodite, the goddess’s myth and her influence over marriage, the concept of beauty — both ideal and in daily life, and the role Eros and other gods of love played in ancient Greek lore. Additionally, the exhibition assembles for the first time works given to the MFA by noted Boston art collector Edward Perry Warren (1860 — 1929). In fact, half of the objects in the exhibition can be traced to him (either as gifts from Warren or works he purchased on behalf of the Museum). These are among the 4,000 objects that form the core of the Museum’s holdings of Greek and Roman art, a premier collection. Warren was responsible for the acquisition of the MFA’s most renowned classical work,” Head of Aphrodite” (“Bartlett Head”), (Greek, 330 — 300 AD, MFA), a sculpture of Aphrodite so admired that even Henry James wrote about her in his book of travel writing, The American Scene (Harper & Brothers Publishers, NY, 1907) (“Aphrodite and the Gods of Love” 2).

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In my opinion, the following three incarnations of Aphrodite stand out in the exhibit. The first is the famous “Bartlett Head,” named for Francis Bartlett, who provided the funds for its acquisition by the MFA in 1900. Celebrated in rapturous prose by Henry James within a few years of its first appearance in Boston, it was carved from luminous marble shortly after Praxiteles’s Knidos Aphrodite, and remains to this day one of the most admired examples of classical Greek sculpture. The life-size head fuses human beauty with a divine ideal in the 23 century A.D. that is as perfect and enigmatic as Venus de Milo (Bergeron 2). This goddess turns her head down to her lower right, as is indicated by the curve of the neck. This tilt, as well as the softness of the carving on the skin and the heavy lids, impart a certain gentle nature to the goddess, so that connoisseurs have been inclined to interpret her as Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty. Her long, wavy hair is bound in a thin taenia (ribbon) that is wrapped twice around her head, and pulled back into a bun at the nape of the neck. Some locks are pulled up in loops at the top of her head, an effect that appears as a topknot, and has been referred to as lampadion (“little-torch”) (see Boston 03.743 (Sculpture). The goddess’s shadowed eyes, set deep in her softly modeled face, seem to carve out a sense of interiority, much as Degas’s late bathers bend over an inviolate space defined by the contortions of their self-tending bodies (Smee 4f.).

A fresco from a villa in Pompeii, “Three Graces” (Roman, 1st Century AD, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples), shows the lovely attendants who assisted Aphrodite with her beauty regimen. The fresco depicts the daughters of Zeus, who doubled as Aphrodite’s handmaidens. The three slender, nude bodies are set against a background of lush vegetation, and their arms are sensually interlocked (Owen 2). Mirrors, perfume, jewelry, and cosmetics feature images of the goddess and reflect her influence in this area. Among the objects on view revealing Aphrodite’s role as adulterous seductress and instigator of sexual desire are the gilt-bronze Mirror with women bathing before a statue of Aphrodite on a pillar (Roman, AD 110 — 117, MFA) and Mosaic panel (emblem) with cupid gathering roses in a garden (Roman, 2nd — 3rd century AD, MFA), which attests to the erotic power and economic significance of the perfume industry in antiquity (“Aphrodite and the Gods of Love” 3).

Another highlight in the exhibition is “Sleeping Hermaphrodite,” from the Roman Imperial period (1st century AD). Hermaphrodite was the child of Hermes and Aphrodite, and was born with a body of both male and female characteristics. The sculpture’s back resembles the feminine and slender backs of the exhibit’s other pieces, but the other side of the sleeping figure reveals Hermaphrodite’s breasts and male genitalia. “Sleeping Hermaphrodite” bespeaks the period’s acceptance, or at least acknowledgement, of androgyny and is one of the most captivating pieces in the exhibit (Owen 2).

“Aphrodite and the Gods of Love” is organized under the auspices of the President of the Italian Republic, in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy. Conservation support for objects in the exhibition was provided by the Leon Levy Foundation. Additional support was provided by The Hellenic Women’s Club

(Aphrodite and the Gods of Love 1). I consider “Aphrodite and the Gods of Love” an absolute must-see for anyone interested in the powerful goddess that ancient writers and artists described as complex and even dangerous.

Works Cited List

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Bergeron, Chris. EXHIBIT REVIEW: “Aphrodite and the Gods of Love’ reign at Museum of Fine Arts.” Gate House News Service. 19 November 2011. 1-3.

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Boston 03.743 (Sculpture). Accessed 22v November 2011.

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Owen, William. “MFA explores Aphrodite’s many guises.” 14 November 2011. Accessed 21 November 2011.

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Smee, Sebastian. “More to Aphrodite than meets the eye.” Boston Globe.

October 30, 2010. 1-6. Accessed 21 November 2011.