Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Scramble for the Past: The Venus de Milo

Zainab Bahrani, Zeynep Çelik, Edhem Eldem (eds) "Scramble for the Past: A Story of Archaeology in the Ottoman Empire" - reviewed by William Armstrong
"Unearthed in the 19th century, the Venus de Milo is one of the items that most clearly illustrates archeology’s inextricability from politics. A brilliantly distilled essay here by Philippe Jockey describes how this essentially unremarkable Ancient Greek statue of ordinary workmanship was inflated by the French almost exclusively out of hard-nosed political considerations. Discovered on the Aegean island of Milos in 1820, Jockey explains how the Venus de Milo’s “aesthetic qualities alone would never have engaged the passions of more than a few specialists. Rather, the statue was discovered at the right moment and by the right people … Simply put, the Venus de Milo was and remains today, more than any other artwork of antiquity, a mirror of the international relations of the times.” Immediately sent back to the Louvre for display, the Venus exemplifies how the “scramble for the past” (a title echoing the imperial “Scramble for Africa”) was not only a competition for material objects to fill newly established European museums, but “also a rivalry among nations at the height of European geopolitical interests in the east.”
It was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that the Ottomans began to preserve ancient objects by creating their own museums, imitatating western models and ultimately serving a political purpose.

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