The "hunt for Praxiteles" involves identifying the most reliably documented statue types, described in the source texts, depicted on coins, and copied by later generations.
The Aphrodite of Cnidus, and nude figures of Aphrodite
The Greek and Roman worlds' most celebrated statue enjoyed a remarkable reputation in Hellenistic times, and its fame was even greater and more widespread in the Roman period. Pliny tells us that Praxiteles made two statues of Aphrodite, one draped, the other naked. Both were presented to the people of the Greek island of Kos, who chose the draped figure. The people of Cnidus took the nude figure, thereby ensuring their city's lasting fame. Almost 200 representations of the figure are known today – more or less fragmentary copies, statuettes in marble, bronze, silver, glass, and terracotta, coins and reliefs, all reproducing the best-documented statue type of Praxiteles's career. However, the variety of these copies makes it difficult to piece together a clear picture of the original work. The figure seems to have been carved around 364-361 BC, from Paros marble, with a polychrome finish probably executed by the painter Nicias, highlighting the statue's langorous gaze and the velvety softness of the flesh.
Aphrodite is shown standing with her right hand covering her genitals, and her other hand holding a garment draped over a vase standing to her left.
The copies fall broadly into two groups: one shows a confident, poised goddess radiating serene aplomb, of which the finest example is the so-called Colonna Venus; a second group, typified by the Venus Belvedere, shows a naked woman very much on her guard, her anxious look expressing her fear of prying eyes. Some experts identify the Colonna Venus type as the closest to Praxiteles's original work. In the 4th century BC, figures of goddesses became more humanized, but did not display mortal weaknesses. The Venus Belvedere is a Hellenistic reinterpretation of the figure – more earthly, eroticized, and profane.
Other commentators base their arguments on the figure's appearance as depicted on coins from Cnidus. For them, the Venus Belvedere and other statues of this type bear the closest resemblance to the original: the unadorned hair, divided by a central parting, falls in long, wavy strands to the nape of the neck, where it is gathered in a chignon. The face is a subtle blend of classical balance and newer features: a softer gaze, rounded cheeks, plump lips… Should this figure be interpreted as a faithful likeness of the courtesan Phryne? Or does the statue's transcendent beauty express a timeless, Platonic ideal?