Saturday, December 06, 2008

How the Venus de Milo really lost her arms.....

(written by my father about when he lived at Oakley Court)

Replying to my wife, you told us that you were intrigued by the story of the Venus of Milo. We have kept some relevant notes, but above all the memory of Mr.Olivier telling us this bit of history is still fresh in our minds.

In 1948 we found a flat to let which was not easy at that time and went to see the landlord, Mr.Olivier. He was pleased to find that I spoke French since he was of course French himself and he let us have the flat for 5 Guineas/week, half my income.

From time to time he invited us to join him for a game of canasta or just for a chat and one evening he told us his story.

"When I was a young man I was called to my uncle's house, as he was on the point of dying and wished to speak to me. He had a last request which I was to fulfill.

My uncle was the son of Louis Brest, who in 1820 was French Consul on the island of Milo, an Ottoman protectorate. He called me to his bedside and asked me whether I had seen the Venus of Milo in the Louvre. Of course I had and I wondered how that could be important to his last wish. He then told me that the pedestal bore an inscription stating that this famous statue was offered to the nation (France) by the Marquis de Riviere, ambassador in Constantinople and by Dumont d'Urville, commander of a French man-of-war. My uncle commanded me to go to the Louvre, have this inscription blotted out and have his father's name, Louis Brest, inscribed instead. Needless to say I thought he was a bit ga-ga but I was willing to promise anything. However I asked him to tell me why.

His story sounded rather like a typical Marseilles invention. Apparently whilst Louis Brest was consul in Milo, his gardener used to dig up bits of archeological remains from time to time. One day he came to the consul and said he had found something that was perhaps worth seeing and indeed careful excavation revealed the magnificent statue. The consul had it cleaned and set up the the entrance hall of the consulate for everyone to admire. Well all kinds of people went in and out of the consulate and it soon got round that this statue was exceptional. One person who visited the consulate was a Greek archeologist and he was quite agitated when he eventually left. The next day the Greek ambassador arrived and admired the statue, then he said that this was of course a Greek statue and should in due course be sent to Athens where it would have a place of honour in the museum. My grand-uncle prevaricated, he thought this would not be possible, he would have to consult the French government to whom "the request should properly be forwarded. As soon as the Greek had left he sent a courier to the Foreign Office in Paris, explaining his dilemma. By return he was told that on no account should he allow the Greeks to take possession, a ship of the French fleet happened to be cruising in the Mediterranean and would be instructed to call at Milo to take the statue back to France.

A few days later or rather a few nights later, burglars, hired by the Greeks, broke into the consulate and despite a struggle in which the arms broke off, the consular servants could not stop the thieves carrying away the statue. It was loaded onto a Greek merchant ship in the harbour and this was due to sail the following day. However early in the morning of the following day, the French battleship sailed into the harbour, blocking the entrance. It trained it's guns onto the Greek merchantman and told them, surrender the statue intact or sink to the bottom. Dumont d'Urville, the French commander, did not mince his words. The consul's problem was how to resolve this stalemate.

Now, the Greeks wanted the statue, a Greek relic, the French wanted the statue, a French find, but in fact the island of Milo was under Turkish rule. Louis Brest was a good friend of the Sultan in Constantinople and got in touch with him for help and for a ruling on what should happen. With true eastern diplomacy the Sultan pointed out that the statue had been discovered in the grounds of the French consulate, that in international law these grounds were French. He had a firman (document) drawn up, dated 8th October 1820, in Turkish and Greek stating that under the circumstances the statue quite evidently belonged to France and that if the Greek did not surrender it immediately they would incur his great displeasure and so it was that the statue was transferred to the man-of-war named 'ESTAFETTE' and transported to France.

Now, my dear nephew, you will understand why my father's name should be inscribed on the pedestal and not that of d'Urville. He did nothing except sail his ship as ordered whilst my father was the discoverer and avoided its loss to the nation by his diplomacy. With that my uncle sank back and looked at me. What he evidently saw was a look of disbelief and he hit a small gong to summon his servant :"Jules, go to my desk and at the back of the bottom drawer you will find a rolled up document, bring it here and show it to my nephew". There indeed was the original document drawn up by the Sultan in Constantinople. I was to take this with me to the Louvre and arrange for my uncle's will to be fulfilled.

Eventually I did go to the Louvre and told them my uncle's story. They were of course most interested, particularly when they saw the original document. They wanted to buy this since it proved the real history of the discovery, but I refused to let them have it. It was mine and I intended to keep it. As a compromise the Louvre agreed to make an addition to the inscription on the pedestal, mentioning Louis Brest's part, but they would not erradicate the name of Dumont d'Urville...............". And that is the truth of what happened way back in 1820. "

This time it was our eyes which registered mild disbelief and Mr.Olivier soon dispelled this. We were sitting in his library and he drew back a small curtain to reveal a stout steel door to his strong-room. He went in (without us!) and brought out the original document in Greek and Turkish, giving the Sultan's edict, together with a translation in French. The translation dated back to 1919, authenticated by Heron de Villefosse, curator of antiquities at the Louvre.

This was an exciting story and it is a pity I cannot reproduce Mr.Olivier's delightful mixture of English and French with a nasal Marseilles twang.

Later my father in Switzerland, having read my letters about the affair, found several articles in the local papers giving different accounts of the discovery. He contacted Mr.Olivier and later Mr.E.Miolesco in Istanbul to try and get more information, but without much success. Finally he wrote to the Journal de Geneve giving them our story and stating that, on a visit to England he himself had also seen Mr.Olivier's document.

I enclose the original newspapers of 1951 giving different versions, the last one, dated 26th August containing my father's comments. You will note with pleasure that he refers to Oakley Court 'chateau' as Little Windsor. We would of course like you to return these papers to us in due course for our own archives. I have also made a copy for you of a letter written by Olivier to Miolesco who had requested sight of the firman. I would suppose that the document is now finally lodged with the Louvre.

If you have a good raconteur on your staff, I am sure this would make a pleasant bed-time story in the bar. I personally believe Mr. Olivier's account as the only true one, the embellishments may be his but the basis is indisputable.

Yours sincerely,


Blogger timbobig said...

Wonderful story!

8:35 pm  
Blogger Rosie said...

And it's true and not many know! But it's there for anyone to see if they look.

11:42 am  

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