Capitoline Venus (copy of the Aphrodite of Knidos)

Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, emerges from her bath, but what did her nudity mean to the Greeks?


Capitoline Venus, 2nd century C.E., marble, 193 cm (Capitoline Museums, Rome) (Roman copy of the Aphrodite of Knidos, a 4th century B.C.E. Greek original by Praxiteles)

Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the Capitoline Museum in Rome, and we’re looking at a copy of an extremely famous Greek sculpture.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:10] This one is known as the “Capitoline Venus,” but we know the original as the “Aphrodite of Knidos,” and it dates from the 4th century B.C.E.

Dr. Zucker: [0:19] It was sculpted by Praxiteles, who is one of the most famous sculptors from ancient Greece. Praxiteles’ sculpture is known to be the very first example of a full-scale, fully nude woman.

Dr. Harris: [0:31] More than 50 copies of Praxiteles’ sculpture survive, so it was clearly a very popular sculpture among the ancient Romans.

Dr. Zucker: [0:38] There are copies in marble — the original was marble — but there are also copies in bronze. The ancient Roman writer, Pliny, tells us the story of its origin. Praxiteles made two versions of this sculpture and offered them for sale to the city of Cos.

[0:52] One of them was nude and one of them was fully clothed. Cos, thinking that it was more proper to take the clothed one, did so, and the island of Knidos instead bought the nude, which became far more popular.

Dr. Harris: [1:05] The people of Knidos built a special sanctuary for her that was in the round.

Dr. Zucker: [1:12] Now, through history, this sculpture has also come to be known as the Modest Venus, because it shows the woman, although nude, loosely covering herself.

Dr. Harris: [1:20] This seems like a bit of false modesty. Getting out of her bath and seeming to cover herself.

Dr. Zucker: [1:26] Well, this is the goddess Venus, who is the goddess of love, beauty, but also sexuality. There are stories that date back to antiquity of men falling in love with her and mistaking her for flesh and blood.

Dr. Harris: [1:37] What’s interesting to me is that here in the Capitoline Museum, she’s in a round room, very much like the sanctuary at Knidos. There’s nothing else in this room to distract us from viewing her. She is presented to us as the epitome of beauty. But female nudity was really new in ancient Greek art, and that’s one reason for her fame.

[1:57] Ancient Greek art was about, for many centuries, the male nude.

Dr. Zucker: [2:01] When we think of the Western tradition in art, we think of the female nude primarily, but for the ancient Greeks, as you said, starting with the Archaic Period, full-scale nudes of young men were common. These were called kouroi, and you would have a kouros, a single male nude, nude from head to toe, standing straight and quite forthright, not covering himself in any way, and these were considered extremely dignified.

[2:27] In some ways, they are not especially sexual. What’s so interesting is that this figure is much more sexualized in the act of covering herself.

Dr. Harris: [2:36] There were earlier female figures in ancient Greek art, but they weren’t nude. There was the female variant of the kouros, called a kore, and those were often draped in very beautiful ornate clothing. This was a real novelty when Praxiteles did this.

Dr. Zucker: [2:51] It’s interesting to remember that this sculpture was probably painted initially and would have been perhaps even more lifelike. It reminds us also of the special quality of sculpture, that it exists in the round, as we do.

[3:06] It takes up space as we do. It does not require illusion as painting does. Just one technical note, since this sculpture was originally made in marble, it was designed to have a third leg, that is, a third stabilizing form, to create a tripod to help support the extraordinary weight of the stone.

[3:24] In this case, that extra bit is carved to look like a vase or a pitcher that’s been covered with a cloth that seems to have just slipped off her. This idea of both revealing and covering is central to the sculpture.

Dr. Harris: [3:37] Pliny, who writes about Praxiteles’ sculpture of Venus, writes about how he surpassed even himself when he carved this figure in marble.

[3:45] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Capitoline Venus (copy of the Aphrodite of Knidos)," in Smarthistory, April 5, 2016, accessed May 18, 2024,