the Lost Venus

Between 1911 and 1922 the first Italian archaeological expedition began in the colonies of Cyrene, Leptis Magna, Tripoli and Sabratha, then a second phase started in the fascist era from 1923 until 1943.

During the excavations in Cyrene in 1913 one of the greatest masterpieces of classical art raised to light. A Venus dated at 130 a.C. with an excellent and very fine shape. The Venus of the Adrianean age in Pario marble refers to the Anadyomene type by the greek sculptor Praxiteles and has an extraordinary historical and artistic relevance.

However, as we will see, the events of this statue will be rather troubled. To understand all the misadventures we must start from the beginning. In 1912 the Peace of Lausanne was signed to sanction the end of the Italo-Turkish war with which Italy began its colonial rule in Libya. For the whole of the next thirty years, resistance guerrillas took place by the Libyan people. In 1913 in a moat of the Sanctuary of Apollo near the baths inaugurated by the emperor Trajan was found the statue than named as Venus of Cyrene. The original model of the statue is that of Venus Cnidia by Praxiteles, known from a long series of roman copies, which revolutionized the greek canons in the representation of the female figure. The goddess who has just come out of the water covers her pubis with the right hand while with the other hand she picks up a cloth resting on an hydria on her left. The right leg is supporting while the left slightly bent. 

In the Cnidia Aphrodite the body exalts sensual forms without ever touching the vulgarity. No other artist had represent a nude female figure before Praxiteles.

The Venus was then transported to Rome and exhibited at the Octagonal Hall of the former Planetarium of the Roman National Museum. The value of the work of art, as well as historical and artistic, was above all political. Also considering such a media echo followed its discovery and entry in Italy. Thousands of enthusiasts and scholars were able to admire the Venus of Cyrene in its place where it remained for 94 years. 

In 2002 with a decree of the Court of Auditors the Minister of Cultural Heritage and Activities ordered the transfer to the Institutes of the Libyan Republic. In anticipation of the very dubious restitution of the statue to Libya, the minister had however thought well to transfer the Venus of Cyrene from good of the demanio (not alienable) to good of the patrimony of the state (alienable). A cunning stratagem that would have simplified the return operations. Despite the contrary opinion of thousands of Italians, the opposition of the official organizations in defense of the Italian artistic and cultural heritage, as well as the appeal to the TAR of Lazio, the motivations were mandatory: “the area in which it was fortuitously found the work of art at the time was part of the Libyan territory “.

To ratify the agreement for the restitution of the statue was the “Treaty of Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation” signed between Italy and Libya in Benghazi on 30 August 2008 by the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the leader of the Revolution, Muammar El Geddafi. However, in the treaty there is no direct mention about protection or the return of cultural goods, at least not in the ways that were then followed and never in a bilateral and equitable manner.

At the time of return no plaster cast were made. The only known presence on the Italian territory was a plaster cast made in the ’30s already in the possession of the Rector of the University of Naples, which then passed under various properties and which have lost track. 

However, the solemn and pompous ceremony to return to Benghazi with the noble statue humiliated between two future ghosts was not the sad epilogue of a bitter and smoky story.

The Venus of Cyrene was exposed in a tiny bare and shabby museum located in an area from which tourists kept away for security reasons. 

Cultural heritage is a universal heritage so national and international institutions should engage in a serious and responsible way to ensure their conservation and sharing to the public. It is unacceptable that an absolute masterpiece of Hellenistic art such as the Venus of Cyrene should be denied to the public and to the collective culture only to favor strange political mechanisms.

the Venus in the Cyrene Sculpture Museum

The entire area of Benghazi has become the cradle of revolution, then the base of Islamic militias and ultimately the first line of war between the rebels and the government. In 2011 the findings of the so-called Tresor of Cyrene, preserved since 1917 in the basement of the Commercial Bank, were looted and sold on the underground market of works of art. In 2013, the city of Cyrene, a UNESCO heritage site, was occupied by a horde of new barbarians who made destruction and destruction of the entire archaeological area.

There is no information about the Venus of Cyrene, it has disappeared from the museum. It is not excluded that it has been destroyed and that no one will ever be able to admire it. The news is unfortunately very sporadic or almost non-existent, as reported on the official website of the Sculpture Museum of Cyrene, the statue is officially mentioned in the long list of stolen works.

Nowadays the cast belonging to the FeliceCalchi Collection (most likely pertinent to the mold taken on the ‘30s) is one of the rare or unique testimonies of the statue, absolute classical art masterpiece of all time.


the FeliceCalchi’s plaster cast