In November of 2010, the University of Southern California received a rare and beautiful ancient marble head of the Goddess of Love, Aphrodite, or Venus as the ancient Romans called her. When I was Dean of the School of Fine Arts in the mid-1990s, I recall receiving one day in the mail a letter with a few snapshots of a marble female head with a note from Jane Dart, one of our Friends of Fine Arts, asking me, as a scholar of classical antiquity, what I could tell her about this antique sculpture. Because of its idealized facial features and classical hairstyle, it was immediately obvious that the image before me was a head of a Greek goddess.
After doing a little research, I realized that this head once belonged to a free-standing statue of Aphrodite of the “Arles Aphrodite” type, named for a slightly over life-size Greco-Roman statue that was found in Arles (France), an ancient Roman colonial city in what was then ancient Gaul. This late second century B.C. classicizing copy of a lost Greek original sculpture is to be found today in the Louvre Museum in Paris. Stylistically, this work appears to have been influenced by even earlier Greek models dating to the late Classical period in the fourth century B.C., especially works attributed to the Greek master sculptor Praxiteles, who created the famous Aphrodite of Knidos (Knidian Aphrodite), the first significant nude female statue in all of Western civilization. Though restored, the Arles Aphrodite in the Louvre is the most complete statue of the entire lost Greek original. Although other Greco-Roman copies of this noted type have come down to us, all other images are unfortunately now headless. Therefore, the appearance of the previously unknown head of the Arles Aphrodite type from the collection of the Dart family is an important addition to scholarship and to the study of a sculptural type prized by both ancient Greek and Roman society.
My research on this well-known statue revealed that the postulated prototype for the Arles Aphrodite may in turn have later served as the model for the now lost cult image of Venus Victrix (“Venus the Conqueress”) that once stood in her temple in Rome. This structure was built into the top of the auditorium of the great Theater of Pompey, the whole of which Pompey the Great dedicated as a Temple of Venus Victrix in 55 B.C. In fact, it may have been this lost statue of Venus Victrix that helped popularize the creation of other Greco-Roman copies of this sculpture, several of which have come down to us, including the head that belonged to the Dart family.
After doing preliminary research on this previously unknown head of Aphrodite, I called Jane to tell her what I had discovered. Needless to say, she was delighted to learn about my findings. She invited me to her beautiful home on Seventeen Mile Drive on the Monterey Peninsula to see her Aphrodite head. I remember how beautiful the day was and how much I enjoyed visiting with Jane the Monterey Museum of Art with its wonderful “Jane and Justin Dart Wing” that housed a number of paintings by American artists. Over lunch I suggested to Jane that I publish her Aphrodite so as to make it known to the scholarly world at large and to the general public. Jane generously agreed to my proposal.
In honor of Jane and her late husband Justin W. Dart, who was a Trustee of the University of Southern California from 1961 to 1971 and Chair of the Board of Trustees from 1967 to 1971, I named the head the “Dart Aphrodite.” At the time of my visit, I had not known that Jane, a wonderfully warm and unassuming lady, was a well-known film star in the 1930s, working under the stage name “Jane Bryan,” who starred in a number of films with such Hollywood legends as Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, and Edward G. Robinson. Jane also had starred in two movies, “Girls on Probation” (1938) and “Brother Rat” (1938), with Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman, who remained friends of hers for many years. Both Jane and Justin Dart later encouraged Ronald Reagan to pursue a political career.
In 1996, I published this important sculpture in the scholarly journal Latomus 55 (1996) 757-785 under the title “The ‘Dart Aphrodite’: A New Replica of the ‘Arles Aphrodite Type,’ the Cult Image of Venus Victrix in Pompey’s Theater at Rome, and Venusian Ideology and Politics in the Late Republic - Early Principate.”
This past year (2010), Jane’s son Stephen Dart, whom I had met during my stay with Jane, was in touch with me to tell me that his mother had passed away a year previously. Although I was very saddened by this news, just hearing from Stephen Dart brought back such fond memories of Jane and the wonderful though brief time I had spent with her. Stephen had been in touch with me because he and his siblings, G. Michael Dart and Jane Dart Tucker, wished to gift his parents’ beautiful marble head of Aphrodite to USC. Thanks to Howard Gillman, Dean of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, this treasured gift was donated to the collection of USC’s Archaeology Research Center, which is located in room 335 of the Ahmanson Center for Biology. For the University’s community and general public, the “Dart Aphrodite” is now on public display on the second level of the Ronald Tutor Campus Center at the top of the grand staircase in the “Trojan Family Room” (Rotunda). Those interested in other objects of the great civilizations of the ancient Mediterranean world may visit the Archaeology Research Center in the Ahmanson Center.
I would like to thank not only the Dart family for their generous gift to USC in memory of their loving parents, but also to Susan Wilcox, USC Dornsife associate dean of advancement; Cindy Robinson, educational program coordinator at the Campus Center; Lynn Swartz Dodd, curator of the University’s Archaeology Research Center; Bruce Zuckerman, director of the archaeological research collection and the Myron and Marian Casden Director and Professor of Religion and Linguistics in USC Dornsife; and Selma Holo, professor of art history in USC Dornsife and director of USC’s Fisher Musuem of Art, for the role they played in helping with the acquisition and display of the “Dart Aphrodite.”
— John Pollini, Professor of Classical Art and Archaeology, Department of Art History