The Aphrodite of Cnidus: beauty on trial
Tradition has it that when he created the Aphrodite of Cnidus in the 4th century BC, Praxiteles drew inspiration from the beautiful Phryne, a famous hetaira in ancient Athens and probably a lover of his.
Unfortunately, since some assumed Praxiteles was not the only man to be so deeply touched by the courtesan’s beauty, Phryne was accused of impiety and brought to court.
Jurist and historian Eva Cantarella has noted, “In her case, the violation seems to have been a kind of very banal behavior: a simple swim in the sea, apparently in Eleusis, near the Temple of Poseidon. Before going into the water, she dared to take her clothes off, bearing a body of such beauty that – according to the legend – Apelles, when he saw her, was inspired to paint his Venus ‘Rising from the Sea’ (or ‘anadyomene’).”
During her trial, Phryne was defended by the orator Hypereides, who was also completely in love with her and, according to Cantarella, “would go down in history for the proof he gave of his talent: seeing Phryne’s complicated position, he produced a real ‘coup de théâtre’ and tore the dress off his client. Seeing her incredible beauty with their own eyes, the jury could not help but acquit her of all charges” (translated from E. Cantarella, “I supplizi capitali. Origine e funzioni delle pene di morte in Grecia e a Roma”, Feltrinelli, Milan 2011).
With such model, we can start to understand how Pliny the Elder could state, in his “Naturalis historia”, “the Venus by Praxiteles stands out not only among his statues, but among the statues of the whole world: many have traveled by ship to Cnidus just to see it.”
To see the Roman copy we present here, made in the 1st-2nd century, you can simply make a stop at the National Roman Museum (in Rome’s Palazzo Altemps).