In Book 36.4 of his Natural History, Pliny the Elder tells the basic story about the Athenian sculptor Praxiteles' (fl.375-340 B.C.) creation (c. 350 B.C.) of two cult statues of Venus. Praxiteles' Cnidian Venus was the first full-scale female nude in Greek art, but when he offered a choice of it or one with drapery to the city of Cos (near Turkey), they opted for the traditional, modest version, leaving to the lucky people of Cnidos (Caria, in Asia Minor) the very famous innovative artwork now bearing their name.
Below you'll find the relevant passage from Pliny's Natural History in public domain English translation followed by the Latin describing the original, which has been lost and is only remotely available to us in such forms as this Roman copy.
When speaking22 of the statuaries, we have already given the period at which Praxiteles flourished; an artist, who, in the glory which he acquired by his works in marble, surpassed even himself. There are some works of his in the Ceramicus23 at Athens; but, superior to all the statues, not only of Praxiteles, but of any other artist that ever existed, is his Cnidian Venus; for the inspection of which, many persons before now have purposely undertaken a voyage to Cnidos. The artist made two statues of the goddess, and offered them both for sale: one of them was represented with drapery,24 and for this reason was preferred25 by the people of Cos, who had the choice; the second was offered them at the same price, but, on the grounds of propriety and modesty, they thought fit to choose the other. Upon this, the Cnidians purchased the rejected statue,26 and immensely superior has it always been held in general estimation. At a later period, King Nicomedes wished to purchase this statue of the Cnidians, and made them an offer to pay off the whole of their public debt, which was very large. They preferred, however, to submit to any extremity rather than part with it; and with good reason, for by this statue Praxiteles has perpetuated the glory of Cnidos. The little temple in which it, is placed is open on all sides, so that the beauties27 of the statue admit of being seen from every point of view; an arrangement which was favoured by the goddess herself, it is generally believed. Indeed, from whatever point it is viewed, its execution is equally worthy of admiration. A certain individual, it is said, became enamoured of this statue, and, concealing himself in the temple during the night, gratified his lustful passion upon it, traces of which are to be seen in a stain left upon the marble.28
20 Praxitelis aetatem inter statuarios diximus, qui marmoria gloria superavit etiam semet. opera eius sunt Athenis in Ceramico, sed ante omnia est non solum Praxitelis, verum in toto orbe terrarum Venus, quam ut viderent, multi navigaverunt Cnidum. duas fecerat simulque vendebat, alteram velata specie, quam ob id praetulerunt quorum condicio erat, Coi, cum eodem pretio detulisset, severum id ac pudicum arbitrantes; reiectam Cnidii emerunt, inmensa differentia famae.
21 voluit eam a Cnidiis postea mercari rex Nicomedes, totum aes alienum, quod erat ingens, civitatis dissoluturum se promittens. omnia perpeti maluere, nec inmerito; illo enim signo Praxiteles nobilitavit Cnidum. aedicula eius tot aperitur, ut conspici possit undique effigies deae, favente ipsa, ut creditur, facta. nec minor ex quacumque parte admiratio est. ferunt amore captum quendam, cum delituisset noctu, simulacro cohaesisse, eiusque cupiditatis esse indicem maculam.
Lore About the Cnidian Venus
- Praxiteles modeled it after the famous and beautiful courtesan Phryne who is said to have also inspired the Coan Apelles to paint a "Venus Rising From the Sea" and
- Venus saw it and wondered how Praxiteles had managed to see her naked.