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Disarmed by Gregory Curtis
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Disarmed by Gregory Curtis
Paperback $16.00
Nov 09, 2004 | ISBN 9781400031337

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  • Nov 09, 2004 | ISBN 9781400031337

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“Fresh, full of adventure, conflict, and a sense of discovery.” –The Baltimore Sun

“Masterful. . . . Entertaining. . . . Interesting and anecdote-filled. . . . A meaningful contribution to the legend of the stony seductress.” –Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Lively and engaging. . . . Readable and enlightening. . . . Filled with striking and compelling characters.” –The Dallas Morning News

“Absorbing. . . . Enormously entertaining. . . . Curtis is a writer of generous wit, who packs his book with delicious portraits of the scholars, writers, artists and politicians who contributed to the mythologizing of the Venus de Milo.” –San Jose Mercury News

“Fascinating. . . . Reads like a mystery.” –The Washington Post Book World

“Part thriller, part art history, part rumination on the Greeks. . . . Curtis writes faster and better than just about any academic art historian.” –Newsweek

“Absorbing. . . . Enormously entertaining. . . . Curtis is a writer of generous wit, who packs his book with delicious portraits of the scholars, writers, artists and politicians who contributed to the mythologizing of the Venus de Milo.” –San Jose Mercury News

“An engaging and engrossing book. It makes one want to head right off to Paris, to that long gallery in the Louvre, and have a look again.” –Larry McMurtry

“Curtis does a solid job of presenting art history as narrative non-fiction, moving the statue swiftly across many epochs and giving a taste of what it meant to each.” –Chicago Tribune

“Fascinating, scholarly, surprising, and extremely entertaining.” –Jan Morris

“Gripping. . . . [Curtis] disassembles each argument with the cranky urgency of a contemporary critic. And when he’s cleared the marble dust he takes his own crack at telling Venus’s story.” –Forbes FYI

“A memorable, fascinating, thrilling book. In vivid prose based on research of great integrity, he makes us see new depths beneath the statue’s beauty. He has created a work that will endure in your memory like the statue itself.” –Robert A. Caro

“In this colorful history of the statue and the riddles surrounding her, Curtis breathes warm life into this icon of female inscrutability.” –Men’s Journal

“I found Disarmed completely compelling. After a while, I started to think that the book would wind up getting, via a single sculpture, to everything–and it very nearly does: art, sex, politics, religion. It’s even, for me, in an oblique way, about war and “disarmament.” What a subtle, clever, nuanced work.” –David Shields

“Riveting. . . . Brisk and brilliant. . . . Highly readable, well-researched and even passionate. . . . Lush, learned, and surprisingly entertaining. . . . A stunning debut.” –Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Disarmed will be a startling book for readers expecting a dutiful art history lesson about a statue. It is instead a fiery and eccentric story, in whose pages all sorts of unforgettable characters fight for possession not just of the Venus de Milo herself, but of the tranquil, eternal, maddeningly elusive ideal of human perfection she represents.” –Stephen Harrigan

“Sparkling. . . . Deliciously convoluted. . . . Curtis . . . renews our appreciation for a masterpiece as beautiful as it is mysterious.” –Booklist

“A fascinating tale admirably told.” –Rosamond Bernier

“Lively and engaging. . . . Very readable and enlightening. . . . Curtis’s story is filled with . . . striking and compelling characters.” –The Trenton Times

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Greg Curtis

When and where was the Venus de Milo discovered?

In 1820 on Melos, an island in the Aegean halfway between Crete and mainland Greece.

Why is it in the Louvre?

Because the nation of France bought it from the people of the island of Melos. This purchase was the result of fevered negotiations that all revolved around the private ambitions of the men involved. Each one saw the statue as a way of achieving his own secret goals. This intricate story is told in the first chapter of Disarmed.

Where did you get the idea for this book?

For a long time I had thought about writing a book about works of art that were considered great art but were also popular icons. There aren’t too many of them — the Venus de Milo, of course; the Mona Lisa; The Thinker by Rodin; American Gothic by Grant Wood; and a few others. I was interested in trying to explain their qualities as art and also what it was about them that touched such a universal chord. But one evening I was talking with a friend who said that the project sounded more like a series of magazine articles than a book. That comment jolted me because I immediately thought he was correct. “Why don’t you pick just one?” he said, and that’s exactly what I did.

Why did you pick the Venus de Milo?

For one thing, I have always really liked it. I believe it was the first work of art I was aware of. When I was a kid I saw a picture of the statue on a book of Classicos matches from Mexico. Those matches are still made, by the way, and still have the same picture. I keep a box of them on my desk.

Another reason was that the sculptor is unknown — although as it turns out we do know his name and two or three details about his life. But that’s all we know. To write about The Thinker you would inevitably have to also write Rodin’s biography or to write about the Mona Lisa you would have to write about Leonardo himself. I wanted to write just about the art and the events surrounding it.

Last, there are numerous books about the Mona Lisa and the other masterpieces on my list. There have been many books and articles about the Venus de Milo, too, but the great majority of them were written in the 19th century and intended only for scholars. There wasn’t anything contemporary except for one French monograph from 1985 and there wasn’t anything now or in the past like the book I wanted to write. So, it was a subject I could have entirely to myself.

What surprises did you find in the history of the sculpture?

One of the first sources I read was a French book from the late 19th century that claimed that the statue had had arms when it was discovered but they had been broken off when the statue was dragged across the beach at Melos during a fight between French sailors and Turkish soldiers. “Oh, my God.” I thought, “No one knows about this. This is going to be big news.” And what a scene to be able to put in the book! Very quickly, though, I learned I was wrong on both counts. The fight was fairly well known and shows up when the statue is mentioned in contemporary works about art history. But, more important, the story is completely false and is easily disproved. In Disarmed I explain the origin of this story and why it has come to be accepted as true even though it is a complete fabrication.

I was also intrigued by the individuals who played a part in the story of the statue. The cast of characters includes a French sailor who became a hero of the Greek revolution, a defrocked priest who acted as a double agent, a diplomat secretly in love with a woman on the island of Melos, and King Louis XVIII himself.

Did you know anything about art history when you began?

I’ve always had an amateur’s interest in archaeology, and I know enough about art to be able to walk around an art museum and not be completely bewildered. But I wasn’t an expert in either art history, the classical world, or archaeology when I began and I don’t pretend to be one now, except in things that pertain to the Venus de Milo.

Diving headfirst into a whole new subject was one of the great pleasures of research and writing. I knew from the beginning that I wasn’t going to write a scholarly book. I wanted to write for a general audience, but I also wanted to be authoritative. That’s why I took care to make my research as thorough as possible.

Where did you do your research?

I went to Paris in May 2001. I spent a lot of time in the Louvre looking at the statue and I also interviewed Alan Pasquier, the curator in charge of Greek and Roman antiquities, who wrote the French monograph I mentioned earlier. Then I spent about a week at the Bibliothèque d’Art et d’Archéologie reading the papers that had been published at the time when the statue came to Paris.

After Paris, I put in many hours at the New York Public Library and also found important sources at the Stanford Library. But most important was the University of Texas library in Austin where I live. I couldn’t have done the book without a major research library in my back yard. I spent untold hours there.

Later, in March 2003 I visited Melos, the Aegean island where the statue was discovered. I also returned to Paris, interviewed M. Pasquier again, visited the statue, and spent some more time at the Bibliothèque. Most of the important sources were in French or German. There was very little in English about the statue or its history. Now, with the publication of Disarmed, American readers can learn the story of the Venus de Milo in their own language.

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