Kallipygos: The nude female behind in Classical Greek and Hellenistic sculpture

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Aphrodite Kallipygos, National Archaelogical Museum, Naples, Italy

“ήν καλλιπύγων ζεύγος εν Συρακούσαις”

Ήταν στις Συρακούσες ένα ζευγάρι κοπελιές μ’ ωραία πισινά”

“There was in Syracuse a pair of girls with beautiful buttocks”

Athinaeos, Deipnosophistae, 554d, Vol. 12

Athinaeos wrote a wonderful story about culture and dining in the Greco-Roman world of the 3rd century AD. His masterpiece is considered to be the first cookbook, but it is a lot more.

He tells a story about two girls with beautiful buttocks and concludes by referring to a temple in Syracuse, dedicated to Aphrodite Kallipygos.

Kallipygos is a composite Greek word, meaning the one who has beautiful buttocks.

Kalos = beauty

pygos = buttock, or behind, or arse

Aphrodite Kallipygos, National Archaelogical Museum, Naples, Italy
Aphrodite Kallipygos, National Archaelogical Museum, Naples, Italy

The statue of Aphrodite Kallipygos in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples is a Roman copy of the Greek original, dating back to the 1st century BC (1).

The woman lifts her dress and turns to see her buttocks reflected in the water of a pond or something like that.

She may be one of the two sisters mentioned by Athinaeos, but we will never know.

The original sculpture is attributed to 2nd century BC, and thus belongs to the Hellenistic period.

The attribution of a work to a period (Classical Greek or Hellenistic) is indicative. A lot of the information on the original sculpture is questionable, and the resemblance of the copy to the original is also subject to scrutiny. It is well known that the Roman copiers had quite an eclectic attitude towards making copies.

Aphrodite Cnidus, Glyptothek, Munich
Aphrodite Braschi, Glyptothek, Munich (Photo by Panathinaeos)

The works included in the post contain a representation of the female nude.

I use the word “nude” rather than “naked”, in reference to a distinction that originated in Kenneth Clark’s “The Nude” (2).

According to Clark, the “nude” is an invention of the Greeks, an “idealization”. The “naked” is the ordinary, the mundane.

I will use the term “nude” differently, to imply a multiplicity of layers of sense and representation, compared and contrasted to the “naked” that has a single layer, the physical / instinctual.

The first Greek sculpture depicting a female in full nudity was most likely Praxiteles’ Aphrodite.

It was the middle of 4th century BC when the Greek sculptor Praxiteles was commissioned by the island of Kos to produce a sculpture of goddess Aphrodite.

He produced two, one fully clothed, and another fully nude.

The citizens of Kos were too conservative to accept the nude sculpture, and it was purchased by the city of Knidos, on the Minor Asia peninsula just south of Kos.

Aphrodite Braschi, back, Glyptothek Munich
Aphrodite Braschi, back, Glyptothek Munich. (Photo by Panathinaeos)

The Aphrodite of the Glyptothek in Munich is one of the many copies of Praxiteles’ Knidian Aphrodite, made in the Roman period.(3)

It shows Aphrodite placing her drape on top of a “hydria” (water jar), as she is ready to take her bath. Her right hand (broken) covers her pubic area.

Until the depiction of the fully nude female by Praxiteles, Greek Art was only depicting full male nudity.

Even after the Aphrodite of Knidos, the dominant theme in nudity was male, be it athletes, warriors, gods, deities, and so on.

The Three Graces Roman copy of a Greek work of the second century B.C. Marble. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The Three Graces
Roman copy of a Greek work of the second century B.C.
Marble. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The impact of the Knidian Aphrodite on the Greek world was huge.

The three graces, surviving today as a Roman copy of the 2nd century B.C. Greek original, is a good example of the impact. The original belongs to the “Hellenistic” period. Its distinctive feature is that instead of one female figure we have a group of three in harmony.

The Hellenistic period was a “lighter” period compared to the “classical”, during which the artists celebrated the joy of life and emphasized earthly, hedonistic aspects of the human existence. They also depicted vices (e.g. The Drunken Woman) It is as if the classical period landed on earth.

The Three Graces Roman copy of a Greek work of the second century B.C. Marble. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The Three Graces
Roman copy of a Greek work of the second century B.C.
Marble. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

We have three female figures, more relaxed compared to the rather uncomfortable Aphrodite of Knidos, ready to take their baths, as their towels indicate, enjoying the moment.

Notice that they do not attempt to cover their body. Their hands rest elegantly on the other graces’ shoulders.

The Roman copy sculpture was placed in a garden or  a public building like a bath.

The Broghese Hermaphrodite, Louvre, PAris, France.
The Borghese Hermaphrodite – front, Louvre, Paris, France.

Hermaphroditus was the son of Aphrodite and Hermes.

The marble sculpture that reclines on a marble mattress sculpted by Bernini in 1620 was discovered in the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. It is an early Roman Empire copy of a bronze sculpture created by Greek sculptor Polycles around the middle of the 2nd century BC.

The sculpture was sold to Napoleon and thus it found itself in the Louvre.

Another copy is displayed today in Villa Borghese of Rome.

hermaphrodite_back_750
The Borghese Hermaphrodite – back, Louvre, Paris, France.

This is a highly sensual sculpture.

The hermaphrodite is seemingly asleep, but there is expectation all over.

The breasts and male genitals are visible, leaving no doubt as to the hybrid nature of the creature, man and woman bound together.

A 18th century visitor commented: “This is the only happy couple that I have seen”.

Sources

1. The National Archaeological Museum of Naples. Electa Napoli, 1996.

2. Kenneth Clark. The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form.

3. Raimund Wuensche. Glyptothek, Munich.  C.H. Beck. Verlag, Munich 2007.