This superb life-size marble nude represents the iconic courtesan of ancient Greece, Phryne. Carved by the celebrated Milanese sculptor Francesco Barzaghi, it captures the electric moment of the unveiling of Phryne's nude body before a room of Greek judges at her trial for impiety.
Barzaghi's Phryne, a masterpiece of Italian 19th-century sculpture, derives its composition from Jean-Léon Gérôme’s painting Phryne before the Areopagus in the Kunsthalle Hamburg, which had caused a sensation when exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1861. Tilting her head and partially shielding her face in a gesture of modesty, Phryne stands exposed to her male audience. The courtesan is both revealed and concealed, creating a tension which is both sensuous and alluring.
Phryne was the most famous courtesan (or hetaira) in ancient Greek history. Renowned for her beauty, her real name was Mnēsarétē, but she was named Phryne (toad) due to her complexion. It is said that she was the model for Praxiteles’ celebrated Cnidian Aphrodite and that she had inspired Apelles’ painting Aphrodite Anadyomene. Fabulously rich, Phryne, like most courtesans, was an exception within Greek society, standing outside established gender norms. Whilst noble women were confined to the domestic sphere, hetairai socialised with the highest ranking men at symposia and were celebrated as much for their wit and charm as for their looks. Phryne’s ascendancy came to a swift end, however, when she was accused of profaning the Eleusinian Mysteries, a capital offence, and summoned to trial. Despite a rousing speech in her defence, her advocate, the orator Hyperides failed to move the judges. In a daring move, just before sentencing, Hyperides, swept off the courtesan's clothes, revealing a body so beautiful that the judges were unable to condemn this divine-looking being to death.
Barzaghi’s Phryne was exhibited at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1867. Despite the fact the present marble is dated 1868, it is possible that it is the one exhibited in Paris, since an engraving featured in L'Esposizione Universale del 1867 illustrata, 1867, shows the model with the same column with Greek key pattern and handles with bearded heads. Another version, without the column, is in the Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Milan. A version with a different base with wave pattern was exhibited at the American Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876.
Francesco Barzaghi was a key sculptor in the Scapigliatura movement in Milan. He was ambitious and prolific, contributing in as many international exhibitions as possible, always to great acclaim. Barzaghi studied at the Accademia di Brera before working on the project for the Duomo of Milan, where he was employed in carving saints. He is well-known for his numerous monuments such as his Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II in Lodi. Having built an international reputation for himself, Barzaghi was given a post as professor at the Accademia di Brera in 1880 and continued to teach there until his death in 1892.
A. Panzetta, Nuovo Dizionario degli Scultori Italiani dell'Ottocento e del Primo Novecento, Turin, 2003, vol. I, p. 76; http://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/francesco-barzaghi_(Dizionario-Biografico)/ [accessed 20 December 2017]