Venus: A Victorian scandal

Venere di Canova, or Venus as she is known, was the first public artwork to be erected in the city. It is a direct copy of a work by the 18th-century Italian sculptor Antonio Canova. (The title Venere di Canova means “Canova’s Venus”).

The statue is of Venus emerging from a bath. Startled by someone, she attempts to cover herself. This was a common subject in Classical Roman sculpture and in later Renaissance and Neo-Classical art. 

At its unveiling on September 3, 1892, there was an outcry over the figure’s lack of clothing. Conservative Victorian Adelaide was offended by a nude body appearing in a public space. The council probably expected this reaction: Mayor Bullock noted at the unveiling that the statue was placed near the Government House guard house to deter “larrikinism and vandalism”.

Wealthy pastoralist and philanthropist William Horn funded the work. An art lover, he donated two other sculptures to Adelaide’s streets, Hercules and The Athlete (now removed). He had read classics at Oxford University in 1872 and so chose classical subjects. Defending the sculpture from the moral indignation of the day, he referred to its classical and artistic origins. He said he intended it to educate and enlighten the Adelaide public and to encourage a love of art.  

Despite the outcry and several attempts to damage the sculpture’s creamy flesh, Venus was eventually accepted. However, her sufferings were not over. When the Allies’ victory was announced in August 1945, youths poured kerosene over the statue and tried to set it alight. Thankfully, the flames promptly died.