The Venus Callipyge, literally meaning Venus of the Beautiful Buttocks is an ancient Roman marble statue, thought to be a copy of an older Greek original. It depicts a partially draped woman, raising her gown to uncover her hips and buttocks, and looking back and down over her shoulder, as if to evaluate them.
The statue’s pose gives the figure a distinctly erotic aspect suggesting that it may represent a story recorded by Athenaeus of two girls in Syracuse who were trying to decide which of them had the more shapely buttocks:
Once upon a time a farmer had two beautiful daughters. One day these girls, getting into a dispute as to which one had a more beautiful backside, went out onto the public street. And by chance a young man was passing by, the son of a rich old man. They showed themselves to him, and when he saw them he voted in favor of the older girl. And falling in love with her, when he got back to town he told his younger brother everything that had happened. And the younger brother also went to the country and saw the girls, and he fell in love with the other daughter.
When the boys’ father tried to get them to marry someone of the upper classes, they refused, and so he brought the girls in from the country, and married them to his sons. And so these girls were called fair-buttocked by the citizens. And when they got wealthy and famous, they founded a temple of Aphrodite and called the goddess the Fair-Buttocked.
By 1802 the statue was in the Museo degli Studi, now the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, where it remains today.
In 1836, the photographer Famin called it a “charming statuette” but noted that it was:
…placed in a reserved hall, where the curious are only introduced under the surveillance of a guardian, though even this precaution has not prevented the rounded forms which won for the goddess the name of Callipyge, from being covered with a dark tint, which betrays the profane kisses that fanatic admirers have every day impressed there.
It was re-popularised by the 20th century lyrics of the French songwriter Georges Brassens, in his Vénus Callipyge, which paraphrases Athenaeus’ story and ends:
C’eût été le temple de la Grèce/ Pour qui j’eusse eu plus de dévotion
This would have been the temple of Greece/ For which I would have professed the most devotion.
Artwork inspired by the Venus Callipyge.