16 Fascinating Facts About ‘Venus de Milo’

A famous artist once said of the statue, ”Thou art the familiar companion, the woman that each believes he knows, but that no man has ever understood, the wisest not more than the simple. Who understands the trees? Who can comprehend the light?”

‘Venus de Milo.’
‘Venus de Milo.’ / CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images (Venus de Milo), Iuliia Isaieva/Moment/Getty Images (background)

For much of the world, the mystery of the Venus de Milo lies in its missing arms. But there’s much more to this iconic statue than a couple of absent appendages.

1. The nameVenus de Milo is a bit misleading.

The Venus de Milo with an arch above.
‘Venus de Milo.’ / Todd Gipstein/GettyImages

It’s popularly believed that this Grecian statue depicts the Greek goddess of love and beauty, who was often rendered half-naked. However, the Greeks would have called this deity Aphrodite. Nonetheless, the Roman-inspired name Venus de Milo caught on.

2. The statue is named in part for where it was discovered.

On April 8, 1820, a farmer named Yorgos Kentrotas—who was plucking stones from a wall to use on his farm—came across the statue in pieces within the ruins of an ancient city on the island of Milos (formerly known as Melos).

3. It almost got reburied.

A French naval officer named Olivier Voutier and two sailors were indulging in the then-new pursuit of archaeology among the same ruins in which Kentrotas was looking for rocks. According to Curtis Gregory in his book Disarmed, “Voutier ... noticed that the man had stopped digging for the moment and was staring at something in a niche he had uncovered in the wall. His posture was curious enough that Voutier went to look himself.”

When the officer got closer, he saw that Kentrotas was covering up whatever he had seen with dirt. When Voutier got there, he spied the upper half of a statue. “Its odd shape made it useless as a building block, so the farmer had decided to cover it over,” Curtis wrote. ”Voutier gave him a small bribe to dig up the statue instead.” He apparently had to pay Kentrotas a couple more times to unearth all the pieces of the statue.

4. Alexandros of Antioch is credited with the statue’s creation.

Drawing of ‘Venus de Milo’ on its lost plinth.
Drawing of ‘Venus de Milo’ on its lost plinth. / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A sculptor of the Hellenistic period, Alexandros is believed to have carved this masterpiece between 130 and 100 BCE. The inscription on the plinth—the slab on which the statue rested—that identified him as Venus de Milo’s creator disappeared nearly 200 years ago (more on that in a bit).

5. The statue might not depict Venus.

Some have suggested the sculpture is not Aphrodite/Venus, but Amphitrite, the sea goddess who was particularly adored on Milos. Still others have proposed the statue depicts Victory, or perhaps a sex worker. The statue’s missing arms could have provided context clues: A spear could have meant one thing, a spool of thread another. If she held an apple—as some reports claim—it could mean she was Aphrodite, holding the award given to her by Paris before the Trojan War began. To this day, it’s a matter of passionate debate.

6. Venus de Milo became a gift to the king of France.

Venus De Milo
‘Venus De Milo’ in the Louvre circa 1930. / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

After Kentrotas and Voutier unearthed the spectacular sculpture, they kicked off a chain of events that would eventually lead to the Marquis de Rivière presenting Venus de Milo to Louis XVIII. In turn, the ruler gave the statue to the Louvre, where it’s still on display.

7. What happened to the Venus de Milo’s arms is a mystery.

One theory has it that the arms were broken off during a scuffle between French and Turkish troops as the statue was removed from Milos; another theory suggests that as Venus de Milo was being reassembled, the arms were discarded for having a “rougher” appearance. But “most scholars today believe the sculpture’s arms already were missing when it was found by Voutier and the farmer,” wrote Elizabeth Nix on History.com.

According to Curtis, Kentrotas found additional fragments as he dug out the statue, including “a marble hand holding an apple, a piece of a badly mutilated arm, and two herms ... quadrangular pillars about three feet high with a carved head at the top.”

8. The original plinth was ditched on purpose.

Sight unseen, early 19th century art historians decided the newly discovered Venus must have been the work of Greek artist Praxiteles, and publicized the work as such. This attribution would have placed the piece in the Classical period (5th through 4th centuries BCE), which was more respected artistically than the Hellenistic period. To save face and better promote Venus de Milo—even at the cost of misinforming the public—the plinth was removed before it was presented to the king.

9. Venus de Milo was meant to make up for a national embarrassment.

Venus De Medici And Herkales; Art Institute
Venus De Medici And Herkales. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

During his conquests, Napoleon Bonaparte had plundered one of the finest examples of Greek sculpture, Venus de’ Medici, from Italy. In 1815, the French government returned that beloved sculpture, but in 1820, France embraced the chance to fill the hole its absence left in French culture and national pride, promotingVenus de Milo as being even greater than Venus de’ Medici upon her Louvre debut. The ploy worked, and the piece was met with almost universal praise from artists and critics.

10. Renoir was not impressed by Venus de Milo.

Perhaps the most famous of Venus de Milo’s detractors, the celebrated Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir dismissed this delicate depiction of grace and female beauty as “a big gendarme.” He created his own sculpture of Venus in 1914.

Auguste Rodin, however, was a different story: He wrote an entire essay titled “To the Venus de Milo” in which he said, “thou, thou art alive, and thy thoughts are the thoughts of a woman, not of some strange, superior being, artificial and imaginary. Thou art made of truth alone, outside of which there is neither strength nor beauty. It is thy sincerity to nature which makes thee all powerful, because nature appeals to all men. Thou art the familiar companion, the woman that each believes he knows, but that no man has ever understood, the wisest not more than the simple. Who understands the trees? Who can comprehend the light?”

11. Venus de Milo went into hiding during World War II.

By the autumn of 1939, war threatened to descend on Paris, so Venus de Milo—along with some other priceless pieces, such as Winged Victory of Samothrace and Michelangelo’s Slaves—were whisked away for safekeeping at various châteaux in the French countryside.

12. The statue is missing its jewelry.

Head of Venus de Milo
‘Venus de Milo’ is missing its earlobes. / Fine Art/GettyImages

Venus is missing more than just her arms. She was originally draped in jewelry, including an armband, earrings, and a headband. These flourishes are long lost, but in some cases, the holes for fixing them to the piece remain in the marble; in the case of the statue’s earrings, Curtis writes that they were “valuable enough that robbers broke off her earlobes to get them.” A slight groove in the statue’s neck indicates that it wore a choker.

13. Venus de Milo lost its color.

While it’s easy for today’s art admirers to think of Greek statues as white, the marble was often painted in the style of polychromy. However, no trace of the original paint scheme remains on Venus de Milo today.

14. The statue is taller than most people.

Venus De Milo
The ‘Venus de Milo’ is 6 feet, 8 inches tall. / Evening Standard/GettyImages

Even with the statue’s slight slouch, Venus de Milo stands at 6 feet, 8 inches tall.

16. The statue could be a copy.

Art historians have noted that Venus de Milo bears a striking resemblance to Aphrodite of Capua, which is a Roman-era copy of a possibly late 4th century BCE bronze Greek original. That would be at least 170 years before Alexandros carved his goddess, leading some to speculate that both statues are actually replicas of an older statue.

16. Today, Venus de Milo is admired for its imperfection.

The missing arms of Venus de Milo have been so much more than the source of numerous art historian lectures, debates, and essays. Their absence has also been an accidental invitation to the world to imagine how they might be positioned, what they might hold, and whom they would make her. Unexpectedly, the statue’s missing arms are what lend the statue its beauty.

In 2015, The Guardian's Jonathan Jones explained the piece’s appeal: “The Venus de Milo is an accidental surrealist masterpiece. Her lack of arms makes her strange and dreamlike. She is perfect but imperfect, beautiful but broken—the body as a ruin. That sense of enigmatic incompleteness has transformed an ancient work of art into a modern one.”

A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2023.