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The Stories Behind 6 Famous Marble Sculptures
Get inspired 31 Jul 2022

The Stories Behind 6 Famous Marble Sculptures

Marble has been the material of choice for sculptors since early antiquity. Dating back to ancient Greece and Rome, this material has several advantages that lend themselves to the craft of monumental sculpture. Compared to its more common geological neighbor limestone, marble triumphs in its ability to absorb light before refracting it, resulting in a soft and attractive visual effect, particularly suited to the representation of human skin. As we will discover, this characteristic was adored by sculptors in ancient Greece, Rome and beyond. Dive in with Artsper, into the stories behind the 6 most famous marble sculptures of all time.

Of the many types of marble, the pure white type of marble is generally used for sculpture. Colored types remain mainly reserved for decorative purposes. The degree of hardness makes it possible to carve marble without too much difficulty. The result is a sculpture of desired durablity (if not exposed to acid rain or sea water). Among the best known types and quarries of marble is the Paros marble of the classical period, used for the Venus de Milo and many other sculptures of ancient Greece.

The two depictions of Aphrodite: 1. Venus de Milo

The marble sculpture of Aphrodite, Venus de Milo
Venus de Milo, 150 – 130 BCE, Louvre, France  © Wikipedia

The Venus de Milo is a 2.4 metre tall statue of a Greek goddess, most likely the Greek goddess of love Aphrodite. Part of the interest surrounding this famous statue today derives from the fact that although well-preserved, the statue is not fully intact, missing both of its arms, feet, an earlobe and its original plinth. She is depicted half-clothed with a bare torso.

Another name for this sculptural goddess–whose Roman counterpart is Venus, is the Aphrodite of Milos. The work was originally attributed to the fourth-century Athenian sculptor Praxiteles. However, further to the later discovery of an inscription on its base, the sculpture is now attributed to Alexandros of Antioch.

Possessing an interesting history linked to France’s cultural heritage, Venus de Milo‘s fame owes much to a major propaganda effort by the French authorities in the 19th century. In the wake of the its exportation from Greece to France under Napoleon Bonaparte’s watch, the statue was placed in the Louvre. It was in this era that France’s museum of national heritage began to face numerous challenges for the repatriation of certain artworks. An example of such a challenge came in 1815 when France returned the Venus de’ Medici to Italy. Reluctant to let the Venus de Milo go, the French authorities led a successful, patriotic publicity campaign to keep on French soil, where it remains to this day.

The two depictions of Aphrodite: 2. Venus de’ Medici

The marble sculpture of Venus de' Medici
Venus de’ Medici, 1st century BCE, Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy © Uffizi

As previously mentioned, the Venus de’ Medici is also a great masterpiece of Parian marble. Parian marble is created from fine-grained semi translucent pure-white matter. It is entirely flawless marble quarried during the classical era on the Greek island of Paros in the Aegean Sea. This Medici version of Venus is a Hellenistic sculpture of Aphrodite that is 1.53 metre high. It has become one of the navigational points for scholars tracing the progress of the Western classical sculptural tradition. Currently housed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, this statue welcomes thousands of visitors each year.

3. The archetypal ancient Greek male form: Laocoön and his sons

The marble sculpture of Laocoön and his sons
Laocoön and his sons, 323 BCE – 31 CE, Vatican Museums, Vatican City © Wikipedia

Another example of Parian marble sculpture from ancient Greece is Laocoön and his sons. The statue was unearthed in Rome in 1506. It was then immediately exposed to the public in the Vatican Museums, where it stands to this day. The figures are almost life-size, making the group just over 2 metres high. The Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus are depicted being attacked by sea serpents. Said to display “the prototypical icon of human agony” in Western art, the statue depicts an agony unlike any other seen in Christian art showing the Passion of Jesus and the martyrs. Instead, this suffering has no redeeming power or reward.

4. The Elgin Marbles of disputed national heritage

One part of the Parthenon's marble sculptures named the Elgin Marbles
One part of the Elgin Marbles, 447 – 438 BCE, British Museum, United Kingdom © Architectural Digest

Parian marble’s main rival comes in the form of Pentelic marble. Similarly flawless in its white appearance, Pentelic marble also holds a faint yellow tint. This has produced a desirable trait of shining with a golden hue under direct sunlight. It is today mined mostly on the neighbor island of Paros, Naxos, in the mountains near the village of Kinidaros. Pentelic marble, found near Athens, has been used for most of the sculptures of the Parthenon. Perhaps one of the most famous examples of Pentelic marble are the Elgin Marbles, also known as the Parthenon Marbles.

The Elgin Marbles are a collection of classical Greek marble sculptures made under the supervision of the architect and sculptor Phidias and his assistants. They are original pieces from the Parthenon and other sacred and ceremonial structures built on the Acropolis in Athens in the fifth century BCE.

From 1801 to 1812, agents of Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, removed about half of the remaining sculptures from the Parthenon and had them shipped to Britain. To justify his decision, Elgin argued that he had obtained an official decree. The collection is on display at the British Museum in the purpose-built gallery. Ever since, their removal from the Parthenon, the Elgin Marbles have been the subject of a long-running dispute. In 2014, UNESCO offered to mediate between Greece and the United Kingdom to resolve the dispute surrounding the sculpture’s repatriation. It is the view of the Trustees of the British Museum as well as countless decades of British government that the repatriation of this ancient cultural treasure is off the cards.

5. Roman Pentelic marble sculpture

One of the Roman marble sculptures of Augustus
Augustus de Primaporta, early 1st century, Musei Vaticani, Italy © Wikipedia

The study of Roman sculpture is often considered more complicated due to close ties with Greek sculpture. Many examples of Roman sculpture are known only as Greek “copies.” At one time, this guise of imitation was considered by art historians to be a sign of the narrowness of the Roman artistic imagination. However by the end of the twentieth century, Roman art began to be re-evaluated on its own terms. One such sculpture from the Roman artistic tradition is the famous example of Augustus de Primaporta.

The statue’s subject, Augustus rose quickly to power to become the first emperor of Rome after ending a century of civil war. Augustus was a strong believer in the importance of public art and used his patronage of the creative arts to endorse his newly established of role leadership. He commissioned about 70 portrait statues of himself. Collectively, they suggest his noble bloodline going back to Romulus, the founder of Rome. This marble statue, dated to the 1st century CE, was found in the ruins of the villa of Livia (Augustus’ wife) at Prima Porta and is now on display in the Vatican. It underlines the military power of Augustus and refers to the past golden age of the Republic, to which, during his reign, he claimed to return.

6. The Renaissance marble sculpture David by Michelangelo

One of the marble sculptures by Michelangelo entitled David
Michelangelo, David, 1501 – 1504, Galleria dell’Accademia, Italy © Wikipedia

Michelangelo certainly deserves a place on this list of most famous marble sculptures of all time. Drawing from the classical ancient Greek tradition, Michelangelo’s work, David, is a masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture. Created between 1501 and 1504, the 5.17 metre-high statue was sculpted out of Pentelic marble. Because of the nature of the figure it represented, the statue quickly became a symbol of the defense of civil liberties embodied by the Republic of Florence, an independent city-state threatened on all sides by more powerful rival states and by the hegemony of the Medici family. David’s eyes, with their look of warning, appear fixed on Rome where the Medici family lived.

And there you have it–Artsper has rounded up the top 6 most famous marble sculptures of all time. The marble material has entranced sculptors for over a millennia and does not appear to be ceasing any time soon! 

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