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The Story of the Venus de Milo

Written by Gregory CurtisAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Gregory Curtis


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: July 18, 2012
Pages: 272 | ISBN: 978-0-307-48383-6
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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In the spring of 1820, on the Aegean island of Melos, an unsuspecting farmer was digging for marble building blocks when he unearthed the statue that would come to be known as the Venus de Milo. From the moment of its discovery a battle for possession ensued and was won, eventually, by the French. Touted by her keepers in the Louvre as the great classical find of the era, the sculpture gained instant celebrity–and yet its origins had yet to be documented or verified.

From the flurry of excitement surrounding her discovery, to the raging disputes over her authenticity, to the politics and personalities that have given rise to her mystique, Gregory Curtis has given us a riveting look at the embattled legacy of a beloved icon and a remarkable tribute to one of the world’s great works of art.


Chapter 1

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.
Gregory Curtis|Author Q&A

About Gregory Curtis

Gregory Curtis - Disarmed

Photo © Wyatt McSpadden

Gregory Curtis is the author of Disarmed: The Story of the Venus de Milo. He was the editor of Texas Monthly from 1981 until 2000. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, Fortune, Time, and RollingStone, among other publications. A graduate of Rice University and San Francisco State College, he lives with his wife in Austin, Texas.


Author Q&A

A Conversation with Greg Curtis

When and where was the Venus de Milo discovered?

In 1820 on Melos, an island in the Aegean halfway between Crete and mainland Greece.

Why is it in the Louvre?

Because the nation of France bought it from the people of the island of Melos. This purchase was the result of fevered negotiations that all revolved around the private ambitions of the men involved. Each one saw the statue as a way of achieving his own secret goals. This intricate story is told in the first chapter of Disarmed.

Where did you get the idea for this book?

For a long time I had thought about writing a book about works of art that were considered great art but were also popular icons. There aren’t too many of them — the Venus de Milo, of course; the Mona Lisa; The Thinker by Rodin; American Gothic by Grant Wood; and a few others. I was interested in trying to explain their qualities as art and also what it was about them that touched such a universal chord. But one evening I was talking with a friend who said that the project sounded more like a series of magazine articles than a book. That comment jolted me because I immediately thought he was correct. “Why don’t you pick just one?” he said, and that’s exactly what I did.

Why did you pick the Venus de Milo?

For one thing, I have always really liked it. I believe it was the first work of art I was aware of. When I was a kid I saw a picture of the statue on a book of Classicos matches from Mexico. Those matches are still made, by the way, and still have the same picture. I keep a box of them on my desk.

Another reason was that the sculptor is unknown — although as it turns out we do know his name and two or three details about his life. But that’s all we know. To write about The Thinker you would inevitably have to also write Rodin’s biography or to write about the Mona Lisa you would have to write about Leonardo himself. I wanted to write just about the art and the events surrounding it.

Last, there are numerous books about the Mona Lisa and the other masterpieces on my list. There have been many books and articles about the Venus de Milo, too, but the great majority of them were written in the 19th century and intended only for scholars. There wasn’t anything contemporary except for one French monograph from 1985 and there wasn’t anything now or in the past like the book I wanted to write. So, it was a subject I could have entirely to myself.

What surprises did you find in the history of the sculpture?

One of the first sources I read was a French book from the late 19th century that claimed that the statue had had arms when it was discovered but they had been broken off when the statue was dragged across the beach at Melos during a fight between French sailors and Turkish soldiers. “Oh, my God.” I thought, “No one knows about this. This is going to be big news.” And what a scene to be able to put in the book! Very quickly, though, I learned I was wrong on both counts. The fight was fairly well known and shows up when the statue is mentioned in contemporary works about art history. But, more important, the story is completely false and is easily disproved. In Disarmed I explain the origin of this story and why it has come to be accepted as true even though it is a complete fabrication.

I was also intrigued by the individuals who played a part in the story of the statue. The cast of characters includes a French sailor who became a hero of the Greek revolution, a defrocked priest who acted as a double agent, a diplomat secretly in love with a woman on the island of Melos, and King Louis XVIII himself.

Did you know anything about art history when you began?

I’ve always had an amateur’s interest in archaeology, and I know enough about art to be able to walk around an art museum and not be completely bewildered. But I wasn’t an expert in either art history, the classical world, or archaeology when I began and I don’t pretend to be one now, except in things that pertain to the Venus de Milo.

Diving headfirst into a whole new subject was one of the great pleasures of research and writing. I knew from the beginning that I wasn’t going to write a scholarly book. I wanted to write for a general audience, but I also wanted to be authoritative. That’s why I took care to make my research as thorough as possible.

Where did you do your research?

I went to Paris in May 2001. I spent a lot of time in the Louvre looking at the statue and I also interviewed Alan Pasquier, the curator in charge of Greek and Roman antiquities, who wrote the French monograph I mentioned earlier. Then I spent about a week at the Bibliothèque d’Art et d’Archéologie reading the papers that had been published at the time when the statue came to Paris.

After Paris, I put in many hours at the New York Public Library and also found important sources at the Stanford Library. But most important was the University of Texas library in Austin where I live. I couldn’t have done the book without a major research library in my back yard. I spent untold hours there.

Later, in March 2003 I visited Melos, the Aegean island where the statue was discovered. I also returned to Paris, interviewed M. Pasquier again, visited the statue, and spent some more time at the Bibliothèque. Most of the important sources were in French or German. There was very little in English about the statue or its history. Now, with the publication of Disarmed, American readers can learn the story of the Venus de Milo in their own language.

From the Hardcover edition.



“Fresh, full of adventure, conflict, and a sense of discovery.” –The Baltimore Sun

“Masterful. . . . Entertaining. . . . Interesting and anecdote-filled. . . . A meaningful contribution to the legend of the stony seductress.” –Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Lively and engaging. . . . Readable and enlightening. . . . Filled with striking and compelling characters.” –The Dallas Morning News

“Absorbing. . . . Enormously entertaining. . . . Curtis is a writer of generous wit, who packs his book with delicious portraits of the scholars, writers, artists and politicians who contributed to the mythologizing of the Venus de Milo.” –San Jose Mercury News

“Fascinating. . . . Reads like a mystery.” –The Washington Post Book World

“Part thriller, part art history, part rumination on the Greeks. . . . Curtis writes faster and better than just about any academic art historian.” –Newsweek

“Absorbing. . . . Enormously entertaining. . . . Curtis is a writer of generous wit, who packs his book with delicious portraits of the scholars, writers, artists and politicians who contributed to the mythologizing of the Venus de Milo.” –San Jose Mercury News

“An engaging and engrossing book. It makes one want to head right off to Paris, to that long gallery in the Louvre, and have a look again.” –Larry McMurtry

“Curtis does a solid job of presenting art history as narrative non-fiction, moving the statue swiftly across many epochs and giving a taste of what it meant to each.” –Chicago Tribune

“Fascinating, scholarly, surprising, and extremely entertaining.” –Jan Morris

“Gripping. . . . [Curtis] disassembles each argument with the cranky urgency of a contemporary critic. And when he’s cleared the marble dust he takes his own crack at telling Venus’s story.” –Forbes FYI

“A memorable, fascinating, thrilling book. In vivid prose based on research of great integrity, he makes us see new depths beneath the statue’s beauty. He has created a work that will endure in your memory like the statue itself.” –Robert A. Caro

“In this colorful history of the statue and the riddles surrounding her, Curtis breathes warm life into this icon of female inscrutability.” –Men’s Journal

“I found Disarmed completely compelling. After a while, I started to think that the book would wind up getting, via a single sculpture, to everything–and it very nearly does: art, sex, politics, religion. It’s even, for me, in an oblique way, about war and “disarmament.” What a subtle, clever, nuanced work.” –David Shields

“Riveting. . . . Brisk and brilliant. . . . Highly readable, well-researched and even passionate. . . . Lush, learned, and surprisingly entertaining. . . . A stunning debut.” –Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Disarmed will be a startling book for readers expecting a dutiful art history lesson about a statue. It is instead a fiery and eccentric story, in whose pages all sorts of unforgettable characters fight for possession not just of the Venus de Milo herself, but of the tranquil, eternal, maddeningly elusive ideal of human perfection she represents.” –Stephen Harrigan

“Sparkling. . . . Deliciously convoluted. . . . Curtis . . . renews our appreciation for a masterpiece as beautiful as it is mysterious.” –Booklist

“A fascinating tale admirably told.” –Rosamond Bernier

“Lively and engaging. . . . Very readable and enlightening. . . . Curtis’s story is filled with . . . striking and compelling characters.” –The Trenton Times

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