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  • Other “Ways of Seeing”:Female Viewers of the Knidian Aphrodite
  • Mireille M. Lee (bio)

In his 1972 book Ways of Seeing, art historian John Berger claimed: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at” (47). Such was certainly the case for Praxiteles’ statue of Aphrodite at Knidos, arguably the most famous sculpture in antiquity. Although most commentators, ancient and modern, have assumed a male spectator, women were also viewers of the Knidia.1 A reassessment of the nudity of the Knidian Aphrodite suggests that women were in fact her primary intended audience, and that the statue would have held particular significance for hetairai.

Although the fourth-century BCE marble statue by Praxiteles does not survive, its appearance is known from dozens of copies in various media and from literary descriptions of the statue, all of which postdate Praxiteles’ work by several centuries.2 Generally hailed as the first monumental female nude in western art, the Knidia stands in contrapposto, with her head turned to the left.3 Her right hand covers the pubic area in the so-called pudica gesture; her left hand grasps a voluminous piece of cloth.4 A vessel at her feet suggests that the goddess has removed her garment in order to bathe.5 Her hair is neatly arranged with a central part and chignon, with a fillet encircling her head. Many copies represent her wearing jewelry, most frequently a bracelet on her upper left arm.

Male Commentators, Ancient and Modern

Ancient commentators on the Knidian Aphrodite were primarily concerned to explain her scandalous nudity, which elicited uncontrollable lust on the part of her male viewers. According to Pliny the Elder (HN 36.21), a young man was so overcome with passion for the Knidia, he hid himself in the temple at night and “embraced” her, leaving a stain of semen: ferunt amore captum quendam, cum delituisset noctu, simulacro cohaesisse, eiusque cupiditatis esse indicem maculam (They say that a certain man was once overcome with love for the statue and, after he had hidden himself [in the shrine] during the nighttime, embraced the statue and that there is a stain on it as an indication of his lust).6 [End Page 103]

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Figure 1.

Aphrodite of Knidos, Roman copy after Greek original. Museo Pio Clementino, Vatican Museums, Vatican State (Photo Credit: Nimatallah/Art Resource, New York)

Most modern commentators have taken the ancient sources at facevalue and assume that the intended viewer of the Knidia was male. The satirical account of the writer known as Pseudo-Lucian (Am. 13–4) suggests that the statue was equally desirable for both hetero- and homosexual viewers:

ὁ γοῦν Χαϱιϰλῆς ἐμμανές τι ϰαὶ παϱάφοϱον ἀναβοήσας, Εὐτυχέστατος, εἶπεν, θεῶν ὁ διὰ ταύτην δεθεὶς Ἄϱης, ϰαὶ ἅμα πϱοσδϱαμὼν λιπαϱέσι τοῖς χείλεσιν ἐφ’ ὅσον ἦν δυνατὸν ἐϰτείνων τὸν αὐχένα ϰατεφίλει σιγῇ δ’ ἐφεστὼς ὁ Καλλιϰϱατίδας ϰατὰ νοῦν ἀπεθαύμαζεν. ἒστι δ’ ϰαὶ σεσ-ηϱότι γέλωτι μιϰϱὸν ὑπομειδιωσαι . . . ὁ γοῦν ’Aθηναῖος ἡσυχῇ πϱὸ μιϰ-ϱοῦ βλέπων ἐπεὶ τὰ παιδιϰὰ μέϱη τῆς θεοῦ ϰατώπτευσεν, ἀθϱόως πολὺ τοῦ Χαϱιϰλέους ἐμμανέστεϱον ἀνεβόησεν, Ἡϱάϰλεις, ὅση μὲν τῶν μεταφϱένων εὐϱυθμία, πῶς δ’ ἀμφιλαφεῖς αἱ λαγόνες, ἀγϰάλισμα χειροπληθές⋅ [End Page 104] ὡς δ’ εὐπεϱίγϱαφοι τῶν γλουτῶν αἱ σάϱϰες ἐπιϰυϱτοῦνται μήτ’ ἄγαν ἐλλιπεῖς αὐτοῖς ὀστέοις πϱοσεσταλμέναι μήτε εἰς ὑπέϱογϰον ἐϰϰεχυμέναι πιότητα . . .

Charikles, indeed, shouted out in a mad and deranged way, “Happiest of all gods was Ares who was bound for this goddess,” and with that he ran up and stretching his neck as far as he could kissed it on its shining lips. But Callikratidas stood silently, his mind numbed with amazement . . . Well, the Athenian, when he had looked on quietly for a little, caught sight of the love parts of the goddess, and immediately cried out much more madly than Charikles, “Heracles! What a fine rhythm to her back! Great flanks! What a handful to embrace! Look at the way the beautifully delineated flesh of the buttocks is arched, neither too wanting and drawn in too close to the bones themselves, nor allowed to spread out excessively fat. . ..”7

The passage ends with the anecdote about the stain that Pliny also reported.8

Despite the satirical and formulaic nature of the literary sources, and the cultural and temporal distance of their authors from the original statue, the textual evidence has generally been taken at face-value. Modern commentators have focused on the nudity of the statue and its erotic effect on her male viewers. Robin Osborne (1994, 85) identified the Knidian Aphrodite as “an uncommonly powerful work.” Citing the supposed responses of male viewers recorded in the ancient literary sources, he concludes (1994, 85): “Rich though the message of this statue is about male sexuality, it has very little to say about female sexuality.” Hence, he suggests (1994, 86...


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