The Acropolis Museum in Athens has launched a brand new series of exhibitions titled “Temporary and unexpected visitors,” showcasing spectacular artworks on loan from other major museums around the world.
This initiative, spearheaded by the Museum Director, Professor Nikolaos Stampolidis, aims to enrich visitors’ appreciation of aesthetics and ancient art, and foster an active network of loans between leading archaeological museums.
In commemoration of this year’s World Women’s Day on March 8th, the award-winning Acropolis Museum unveiled its first exhibit in the new series: an exquisite marble sculpture from Pompeii known as the “Venus in a gold bikini,” on temporary loan from the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, Italy.
A celebration of feminine beauty, the statuette, accompanied by a slickly-produced video presentation, will remain on display on the ground floor of the Museum until May 28. Entry is free, and a bilingual explanatory leaflet is available for visitors.
Unearthed during large-scale excavations at the world famous archaeological site of Pompeii in 1954, the sculpture was buried alongside other artworks under thick layers of volcanic ash, following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD that completely destroyed the city. The excavators dubbed the building where it was discovered the “House of Venus in a Gold Bikini.”
Noted for its exceptional quality and state of preservation, the 62cm-tall polychrome sculpture, a Roman copy of a Hellenistic original, depicts a partially nude Aphrodite (Roman Venus) untying the laces of the sandal on her left foot, under which a tiny Eros squats. To her left stands a youthful Priapus with an erect phallus, the embodiment of lust. Due to its rarity and explicit nature, the statuette was first exhibited in the Gabinetto Segreto (“Secret Cabinet”) of the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, a collection of 1st-century Roman erotic art from Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum.
The most striking aspect of the sculpture is Aphrodite’s elaborate golden corset, resembling the style of a bikini. The costume appears to be held up by two pairs of straps and features a criss-crossed top and a star-shaped motif at her navel. This effect was achieved by gilding, the application of extremely thin sheets of gold to the marble surface. The translucent whiteness of her body in vivid contrast to the decorative “bikini” alludes to the description of the goddess in Book 9 of Homer’s “Iliad,” the famous Judgement of Paris that led to the Trojan War: “… not though she vied in beauty with golden Aphrodite …”
Aphrodite was revered in the ancient Greek world as the Olympian goddess of love, beauty and reproduction. Given by her father Zeus in marriage to Hephaestus, the lame god of fire and metallurgy, she was known to wear a magic girdle that made everyone, gods and mortals alike, fall helplessly in love with her. Like Zeus, she was notorious for her adultery.
One infamous story, relayed in Book 8 of Homer’s “Odyssey,” tells of Aphrodite’s love affair with Ares, the bloodthirsty god of war. Her deception was discovered by the all-seeing sun god Helios, who spied the couple having sex in Hephaestus’ bed. Enraged, the smith-god fashioned a near-invisible golden hunting net to catch them in the act, which he secretly attached to the posts and sides of his bed. Once ensnared, he called upon the other Olympians to gloat at the captured adulterers.
Aphrodite was especially popular in Cyprus, Kythera, and the city-state of Corinth, where cult centers were dedicated to her worship. In one popular myth, recounted by the 8th century BC poet Hesiod, the goddess was born out of the sea-foam and washed ashore on the west coast of Cyprus at Paphos – Aphrodite Anadyomene (“Aphrodite Rising from the Sea”) – after the titan Cronos castrated the sky-god Uranus and threw his genitals into the sea. She is often depicted in ancient and later Renaissance art riding a scallop shell, a symbol of the female vulva.
The newly unveiled sculpture at the Acropolis Museum features two of Aphrodite’s many offspring, Eros being the most famous. The personification of love and desire, he is depicted in this sculpture as a small child, squatting beneath his mother’s left foot. Also in attendance is a youthful (and sexually aroused) Priapus, another, albeit more obscure, son, who, according to some legends, was fathered by her own father Zeus.
The inclusion of Priapus adds another dimension to the sculpture’s erotic aura. A fertility god with roots in the Hellespont region of Asia Minor, he was treated with comic disrespect by the ancient Greeks and Romans, often depicted with a bright red face and an oversized penis. According to scholars, statues of Priapus were erected inside garden walls as a sort of scarecrow to ward off intruders.
For more information about the “Venus in a gold bikini” sculpture, visit the Acropolis Museum website.