Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Ludovisi Throne

Something can happen to marble, under the right hands, as here in the Birth of Aphrodite panel of the Ludovisi Throne, that seems to introduce entirely new ideas about the material itself. Here, the hard and dry evoke the soft and wet. To me this is one of those uncanny works of extraordinary appeal at which worship would not be out of order. The patterning is extraordinary; notice the interplay of diagonals in the arms and legs. The rippling verticals and the expansive catenaries are both impressive drapery effects that enhance our sensory response.

She is probably Aphrodite, at birth, rising from the seas after they've conjoined with the severed genitals of Ouranos.
When first he had cut off the genitals with the adamant and cast them from the land on the swelling sea, they were carried for a long time on the deep. And white foam arose about from the immortal flesh and in it a maiden grew. First she was brought to holy Cythera, and then from there she came to sea-girt Cyprus. And she emerged a dread and beautiful goddess and grass rose under her slender feet. (188–195)

Gods and human beings call her Aphrodite, and the foam-born goddess because she grew amid the foam (aphros), and Cytherea of the beautiful crown because she came to Cythera, and Cyprogenes because she arose in Cyprus washed by the waves. She is called too Philommedes (genital-loving) because she arose from the genitals. Eros attended her and beautiful desire followed her when she was born and when she first went into the company of the gods. From the beginning she has this honor, and among human beings and the immortal gods she wins as her due the whispers of girls, smiles, deceits, sweet pleasure, and the gentle delicacy of love. (195–206) Hesiod
She might also be Persephone rising with the springtime after serving out the winter as Queen of the Dead.

My child, tell me, surely you have not tasted any food while you were below? Speak out and hide nothing, but let us both know. For if you have not, you shall come back from loathly Hades and live with me and your father, the dark-clouded Son of Cronos and be honoured by all the deathless gods; but if you have tasted food, you must go back again beneath the secret places of the earth, there to dwell a third part of the seasons every year: yet for the two parts you shall be with me and the other deathless gods. But when the earth shall bloom with the fragrant flowers of spring in every kind, then from the realm of darkness and gloom thou shalt come up once more to be a wonder for gods and mortal men. And now tell me how he rapt you away to the realm of darkness and gloom, and by what trick did the strong Host of Many beguile you? (Homeric Hymn to Demeter)

Both are great stories, and maybe its yet a third option nobody has thought of. Regardless. We know that a story of that sort, a myth, is being told; that much is clear. We are constantly invited in, as we are with all great works, to explore. Lord Clark speaks of "that landscape of the breasts."

“...those carvings in which the body is covered by a light, clinging garment, what the French call a draperie mouillĂ©e. This device was used from archaic times onward, the earliest sculptors seeming to recognize how drapery may render a form both more mysterious and more comprehensible. The section of a limb as it swells and subsides may be delineated precisely or left to the imagination; parts of the body that are plastically satisfying can be emphasized, those less interesting can be concealed; and awkward transitions can be made smooth by the flow of line. Drapery makes the bodies of the sixth-century maidens as beautiful as those of the young men, and consoles us for the absence of female nudes by the presence of the korai; and in that isolated masterpiece, the Ludovisi Throne, the body of the naked flute player moves us less than that of the lightly draped Aphrodite. The flute player’s pose has not allowed the sculptor to develop the leading motives of the nude, whereas in the Aphrodite, who rises with such benign confidence between the arms of her attendants, he has discovered that landscape of the breasts and thorax which for some mysterious reason, connected, perhaps, with our earliest physical needs, is one of the most satisfying the eye can rest upon. In the execution of this passage, how skillfully he has used the pleats of her shift, which outline her shoulders, vanish under the pressure of the swelling breasts, and occupy with delicate curves that plane of her chest which, without them, would have seemed to flat for continuous beauty! The modeling of her attendants’ legs, half seen through their flimsy skirts, is done with equal subtlety and sensuous understanding” (Kenneth Clark, The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, 119).