From Melos to Paris
Olivier Voutier was twenty-three and an ensign in the French navy when he first set foot on Greek soil. He had a high forehead, black hair, and a carefully trimmed mustache that shot straight up in a waxed point at each end. His slender, athletic build was close to being slight, but he was possessed by a romantic fervor that made him prideful and gave him a forceful appearance. He wore a well-tailored uniform that completed the picture he presented of precise military sheen. In fact, he loved wearing uniforms. Later in his life, Voutier had a weakness for the gold braids, ribbons, and medals he would win during his years of combat. He would pose for portraits wearing all his medals and with a brace of pistols tucked into his broad belt.
It was spring in the year 1820. Voutier was assigned to the Estafette, a two-masted warship, which for more than a month had been at anchor in the magnificent harbor on the island of Melos, a piece of rock halfway between Crete and mainland Greece. Unfortunately, to most tastes, the harbor was the only thing about Melos that was magnificent. The Greek islands in the Aegean are often idyllic, but Melos was not. Long stays in the harbor there were bleak exercises in boredom, and the Estafette had nothing to do but wait for orders.
Fortunately, Voutier had an escape from the boredom.
He was interested in what was then a completely new and unformed science: archeology. On April 8 he left the Estafette with two sailors carrying shovels and picks. They were going to dig into the hillsides of Melos for whatever remnants of the glories of Greece and Rome they could find.
In fact, Voutier was looking for more than that. He was a young man in search of a cause, and Greece was where he found it. He saw the Greeks, heirs of classical civilization, demoralized and humiliated under the rule of the Ottoman Turks. Just a year after the long anchor at Melos he abruptly resigned his commission in the French navy and joined the Greek war for independence. He became a hero of the struggle.
That morning on Melos it wasn't difficult to find the most promising place to dig. The ruins of an ancient theater, as well as stone walls and pieces of broken columns, were still clearly visible on an escarpment on the side of the island's tallest hill. Voutier and the sailors began to dig there near the remains of a wall and circular tower that had once defended the gate of the ancient town. They found a seemingly endless number of marble fragments, as well as a bust, a carved foot, and two nicely chiseled statues missing their heads, hands, and feet.
As Voutier and the two sailors were digging, another man, a local farmer as it turned out, was also working just twenty paces away trying to remove the stones from an ancient wall to use in a structure he was building on his farm. Voutier, glancing over that way, 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.
As Voutier drew near, he could see that the farmer was busy again, covering something with dirt. Peering into the darkness of the chamber where the farmer was working, Voutier saw a statue, or at least the upper half of one, lying on its side and still partly buried. Its odd shape made it useless as a building block, so the farmer had decided to cover it over. Voutier gave him a small bribe to dig up the statue instead. It didn't take long to push aside the accumulated dirt and stones and prop the object up. It was the nude upper body of a woman. The tip of her nose and the small bun of hair gathered at the back of her head were both broken off. There was an ugly hole in her right side that Voutier assumed was the result of some crude restoration from long ago. Stains, nicks, and scrapes, evidently from the time when it had first fallen over, covered the surface of the statue. But despite these imperfections, Voutier sensed from the first glance that he was seeing something extraordinary. This torso was more glorious than anything he could have hoped to find when he set out that morning with the two sailors and a few picks and shovels.
Voutier insisted that the farmer search for the lower half of the statue, but his insistence revealed his excitement. Now the farmer wanted more money to continue digging. Voutier paid. He joined the farmer inside the niche, an oval enclosure about five yards wide. The walls were cut stone and had once been painted in a pattern that was still faintly visible. Overhead was an arched roof.
After a little digging here and there amid the rubble on the floor, the farmer found the lower half of the statue and brought it up out of the dirt. But the two parts couldn't be reassembled because a large section missing from the right side made it impossible to balance the top half on the lower. Yet another bribe persuaded the farmer to continue digging, but this time, since the missing piece was considerably smaller than the other two, the search took more work and time. When the farmer wanted to quit, Voutier calmly prodded him until he finally discovered the missing middle section.
At last Voutier and the farmer, perhaps with help from the two sailors, were able to place the top half of the statue on the lower. When they slid the middle section between the two larger pieces, the statue balanced, and they were able to see it as it was intended: a woman, nude from the waist up, her legs covered in wet drapery that was falling from her hips. This was of course the statue that would become known to the world as the Venus de Milo.
The farmer's only interest in the statue was what money he could get for it. But Voutier, though he had to contain himself as best he could, knew that this was an experience granted to very few. He was in the presence of a masterpiece that no one had seen for almost two thousand years. Here, in a buried niche on a minor island, was a work of art that was a culminating expression of the Greek genius. It had been reborn before his eyes,
and now it stood there in full glory for him to contemplate. Voutier later wrote a single sentence to describe these first few moments: "Those who have seen the Venus de Milo are able to understand my stupefaction."
As soon as he had recovered from his astonishment, Voutier turned his attention to practical matters. To prevent a fall, the top half was removed and placed on the ground beside the lower half. Now it was time to try to claim the statue before anyone else was able to, preferably even before anyone else knew about it. Voutier hurried to the small town at the top of the hill about fifteen minutes from the ruins. There he found the only representative of the French government on the island, a vice-consul named Louis Brest.
After about thirty minutes Voutier arrived back at the niche with Vice-consul Brest in tow. While Voutier was gone, the farmer, whose name was Yorgos, had had enough time to make a thorough search of the small enclosure. He found a marble hand holding an apple, a piece of a badly mutilated arm, and two herms. Herms are quadrangular pillars about three feet high with a carved head at the top. Their purpose is no longer clear, but apparently they were usually used as some sort of boundary marker. One herm had the head of a bearded man, and the other the head of a young man. Each one was standing in an inscribed base.
Voutier had brought a sketch pad and a pencil with him on his digging expedition, and now he set to work on what would turn out to be four drawings: one of the upper half of the statue, one of the lower half, and one of each herm in its inscribed base. He copied the two inscriptions clearly enough to be read. His plan was to use the drawings to convince the captain of the Estafette to take the statue on board.
While he was drawing Voutier prodded Brest to buy the statue. Yorgos had decided he wanted four hundred piasters for it, about the price of a good donkey. Brest was a rotund, methodical person, thirty-one years old, who tried to maintain the dignity of his office by wearing a blue uniform with gold braid. The sudden exertion of getting to the site, the close atmosphere inside the small niche, the ancient dust that had just been disturbed and was still floating in the air, the play of light and shadows on the statue and the oddly painted brick walls-all that was too much for Vice-consul Brest. Besides, he had no official budget. If he were to buy the statue, he would have to do so with his own money and then hope to be reimbursed by the French government. While that might happen, it also might not. "Are you sure," he whispered to Voutier, "that it's worth that much? Please don't make me risk losing my money."
With that Voutier left the vice-consul behind and returned with his drawings to the Estafette. (Voutier ordered the two sailors to bury the artifacts they had found before he approached Yorgos. He was never able to return for them. It's possible they remain buried on Melos to this day.) On board he showed the drawings to his captain, a certain Robert, an intense, demanding officer known to his crew, more out of respect than fear, as Robert the Devil. Voutier tried to persuade him to sail immediately for Constantinople to get authorization from the French ambassador there to buy the statue. The drawings impressed Robert, but he had orders to wait at Melos. He couldn't ignore them because of the sudden enthusiasm of an ensign for a statue.
Voutier now gave up in frustration. That was how the navy was these days; perhaps under the emperor it would have been different. (Voutier was a passionate Bonapartist.) Now, his initial enthusiasm thwarted, he seems to have lost all interest in the statue and remained silently in the background during the events that followed. He put his drawings away with his personal effects, and though he guarded them through his long and adventurous life, it would be fifty years before he revealed them publicly.
Sulfur and vampires
Melos appeared during some distant epoch when a volcano erupted underneath the sea that left a thin strip of land about twelve miles long with a wide opening in its northwest corner. The sea flows from there into a round bay that was once the crater of the volcano. The water is deep, and the bay, almost four miles across, is protected on all sides, making Melos the best natural harbor in the eastern Mediterranean.
As inviting as the harbor is, the land itself is unwelcoming. Melos is a large, hollow rock riddled with caverns, crevices, and catacombs. The seawater flows in and out, leaving behind salts and other minerals that combine with iron ore left from the volcanic explosion to produce smoldering fires. In former times these fires in turn ignited the sulfur, which was once abundant and had a beautiful greenish tint. The hot sulfur formed noxious clouds that fouled the water in the few springs and gave the air in the low areas a horrible stench.
For generations the principal town was in the lowlands, but by the late eighteenth century the air and water there had become so pernicious that the inhabitants were prone to contract painful or even fatal diseases. At Castro, on the side of the tallest hill on the island, the air was better and the water didn't taste of sulfur. Most of the population moved there, but it was a long climb up from the harbor that could take more than an hour. The road, such as it was, had been covered with volcanic soil that was principally tiny pieces of black glass. The footing was unsure, and each step caused a long, annoying crunch.
Melos has been continuously occupied for about six thousand years. Even before the classical age of Greece it was home to certain cult religions that seem to have been imported from Crete. There was silver there once, and high-quality alum, which had myriad medicinal uses in the ancient world. The weak and infirm made pilgrimages to the hot sulfur springs, and even healthy Greeks would come and drink deeply of the water to purge themselves.
During all those six thousand years only two events have turned the attention of the world to Melos. The first occurred in the winter of 416-415 b.c., during the Peloponnesian War, when an Athenian invasion force landed on the island. Melos had allied itself with Sparta against Athens. After a brief siege, the invaders conquered the island, put all the men to death, and sold the women and children into slavery. The Athenians then sent a colony of their own citizens to settle on the island.
Even this bloody episode would be forgotten if Thucydides in his History had not dramatized a council between the Athenian leaders and the leading citizens of Melos. The Athenians demanded complete surrender and a yearly tribute; in return, they pledged not to murder the men or enslave the women and children. The islanders refused in the vain hope that they could hold out long enough to be rescued by the Spartans and thus preserve their independence. The dramatization, known as the Melian Dialogue, is a staple in college introductory political science classes. It subtly shows that even those who are doomed militarily still have political power, since the Athenians really had no interest in murdering and enslaving the entire population. All they wanted was allegiance in the form of a tribute. That left room for negotiation about the terms and amount of the tribute and any other aspects of the surrender. The Melians' failure to understand what power they had despite their military weakness led to disaster.
The second notable event in the history of Melos was the discovery of the Venus de Milo in the spring of 1820.
About four thousand people lived on Melos then. They were constantly in the grip of fears both real and imagined. The real fear was of the brutal whims of the despotic Turks who ruled them. The imagined fear was of ghosts, goblins, vampires, and other spooks.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Disarmed by Greg Curtis. Copyright © 2003 by Gregory Curtis. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.