This post has been prepared by Michał Kuźmiński, a student of Cultural Studies – Mediterranean Civilization at the Faculty of “Artes Liberales”, University of Warsaw, within the Our Mythical Childhood Seminar. Michał is at the moment in Rome, at his Erasmus Plus stay, and, as much as the situation permits, he is reporting on the traces of some ancient gods, goddesses, and heroes in Urbs aeterna.
According to Hesiod, goddess Aphrodite was born from the sea foam near Cyprus . She appeared on the sea shore not far from the city of Paphos, where her cult was always highly popular and the people boasted about the goddess of love originating from their city. Due to that she earned a nickname Cyprogenes referring to her birthplace – Cyprus.
As a goddess of love, passion, and beauty Aphrodite enjoyed a very privileged position in the ancient pantheon. She was addressed by the entire population, since the agonies of misplaced feelings are among the most universal troubles shared by humans. Thus, Aphrodite was worshipped commonly by the ordinary people. But private piety was not the only case; the goddess of love played also important role in the official cult.
Aphrodite played significant role in the myths which constituted the cultural identity of Romans. Known in their pantheon as Venus, she was believed to be the special carer of the Roman state and the mythological source of the country and the nation. According to one of the myths, Venus had a love affair with Anchises – a member of the Trojan royal family. They had a son, Aeneas, who became a founder of the city of Lavinium in Italian peninsula. That moment was the very beginning of the history which led from merging the Trojan refugees and local Latins to creation of Romans and founding of Rome.
Therefore, the cult of Venus was a significant component of Roman identity in respect of the people’s history. However, she was also important for more private history of one family – gens Iulia. It was one of the most pre-eminent and ancient noble families in Rome. Its members believed to be descendants of Aeneas and as a result originating from Venus herself. The most famous member of this family was Gaius Julius Caesar – Roman dictator and talented general, who used the history about the divine origins of his family in order to elevate its prestige.
Some of his attempts left material traces which can be still seen today. In the very heart of Rome Caesar ordered to build a forum of his name, just next to the old Forum Romanum. Apart from the practical reasons (creation of additional public space beside the existing forum which became too small for growing city), Forum of Caesar was meant to be a visible sign of Caesar’s power and high position. In the centre of the new complex a temple devoted to Venus Genetrix (Venus the Mother) was built, creating a convincing image of the family with divine origins and the pre-eminent position in the society and politics. The remains of both the Forum of Caesar and the temple of Venus can be seen today from a level of Via dei Fori Imperiali (a wide alley created in time of the other dictator – Benito Mussolini) which in fact was another architectural project with aim to demonstrate specific ideological concepts.
However, not only men recoursed to Venus in creating their public image. The goddess of beauty and love was natural choice for women who wanted to present themselves as the most attractive and desirable ones. Not far from the strict historical centre of Rome we find a splendid Villa Borghese, aristocratic residence from the 17th century surrounded by tranquil gardens. The building houses today a famous collection of art: paintings and sculptures, among them Paolina Borghese as Venus Victorious, a work by Antonio Canova.
Paolina, who was a sister of Napoleon Bonaparte, married Camillo Borghese. Husband was so proud of his stunning wife that he commissioned her portrait in disguise of the goddess of love. Paolina is reclining on a long sofa exposing naked upper part of her body. In one hand she is holding an apple, an obvious reference to the judgement of Paris. Thus, Paolina was depicted as Venus who has just won the contest for the most beautiful goddess. Therefore, through this image the woman already extremely beautiful distanced herself from all the other people even more.
But Venus was not only a symbol of divine beauty used by the wealthy and powerful people to separate themselves from the ordinary ones. There are also depictions of the goddess less monumental and much closer to the universal human experiences. In fact, they were far more wide-spread than the others and can be found in many places as a range of copies in slightly different versions. One such example we can see in the Capitoline Museums. It is a so called Capitoline Venus – statue of standing naked goddess that is a Roman variant of a Greek sculpture from 4th century BC. Venus was captured in the moment right after bath, her towel lying on a vase. She covers her intimate parts with hands, as if she was surprised naked by someone who should not see her.
We find another statue which depicts a similar situation in the museum in Palazzo Massimo. However, in this version the naked goddess is crouching, not standing. As a result of bending, a few folds on the abdomen of goddess became visible which is something that we would not associate with the image of a perfect goddess of beauty. Thus, Venus from this kind of statues, imperfect, depicted in common situations, becomes somehow less distant for the ordinary people.
Venus can be, however, even more familiar to us. It is because, despite being the goddess, she experienced a heavy loss. According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses another lover of Venus was Adonis . Unfortunately, the beautiful young man got heavily wounded by the wild boar during the hunt. As a consequence, he bled to death in Aphrodite’s arms. In Palazzo Barberini, which houses a magnificent collection of paintings, we find a work which refers to this myth. It is a painting by Luca Cambiaso, a 16th-century artist. Lying Adonis is almost dead, his eyes are barely open. Venus is sitting next to him, tenderly embracing his head. The naked goddess is very beautiful but the most striking is her visible pain caused by the loss which is so familiar to every human being.
Thus, Venus can be encountered in Rome in many places and in various guises. She shows us different faces, every time referring to some other part of life and human experience. That is explained by her relation with people – always so close to their ordinary problems. Also today she sparks our imagination and inspires diverse reflections on the nature of life.
 Hesiod, Theogony, Works and Days, Testimonia, transl. Glenn Most, Harvard University Press, London 2006, p. 19.
 Ovid, The Metamorphoses, transl. Horace Gregory, The Viking Press, New York 1960, pp. 295–296.
Hesiod, Theogony, Works and Days, Testimonia, transl. Glenn Most, Harvard University Press, London 2006.
Ovid, The Metamorphoses, transl. Horace Gregory, The Viking Press, New York 1958.
Claridge Amanda, Rome. An Oxford Archaeological Guide, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2010, pp. 165-166.
Leeming David, The Oxford Companion to World Mythology, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2005, pp. 21-22.
Haskell Francis, Penny Nicholas, Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture 1500–1900, Yale University Press, New Haven-London 1981, p. 323.
About Paulina Borghese as Venus Victorious: https://galleriaborghese.beniculturali.it/en/canova-paolina-borghese-as-venus-victorious/ (accessed 20 May 2021).
About Venus Capitolina: http://www.museicapitolini.org/en/collezioni/percorsi_per_sale/palazzo_nuovo/gabinetto_della_venere/statua_della_venere_capitolina (accessed 20 May 2021).
See also Michał Kuźmiński’s post about Hercules in Rome: https://ourmythicalchildhoodblog.wordpress.com/2021/04/08/in-the-footsteps-of-hercules-in-rome-by-michal-kuzminski/.
Post written by Michał Kuźmiński
Elaborated by Dorota Rejter