One of the most famous examples of ancient Greek sculpture, the Venus de Milo is immediately recognizable by its missing arms and popularly believed to represent Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty, who was known to the Romans as Venus. The artwork was discovered in 1820 on the Aegean island of Melos (also called Milos). An ensign in the French navy, Olivier Voutier, whose ship was anchored in the harbor at Melos, decided to kill time one day by going ashore and searching for antiquities. While digging near the ruins of an ancient theater, Voutier noticed that a local farmer, who’d been removing stones from a nearby wall for use as building materials, seemed to have found something inside the wall. Upon investigating, Voutier learned the farmer had located the top half of a statue of a woman. Recognizing the statue as potentially significant, the Frenchman, with the farmer’s help, unearthed its lower half not far away. Voutier told his superiors about the discovery and the French acquired the artwork, which came to be known as the Venus de Milo, for a relatively modest sum. It arrived in France in 1821 and was presented to Louis XVIII, who donated it to the Louvre Museum, where it remains today.

The Louvre initially promoted the Venus de Milo as a masterpiece from the Greek classical era. Now, however, the Venus de Milo is thought to have been produced around 100 B.C., during a later period known as the Hellenistic age. Originally carved in two blocks of marble then fitted together, the statue stands 6 feet 7 inches from head to toe and is the creation of an artist named Alexandros of Antioch, about whom little is known.

As for the Venus de Milo’s missing limbs, there long have been claims they were broken off in 1820 during a fight on the shore of Melos, as French and Turkish sailors vied for possession of the artwork. But, in fact, most scholars today believe the sculpture’s arms already were missing when it was found by Voutier and the farmer. (Also missing now is the metal jewelry scholars say decorated the statue’s arms, head and ears in ancient times, as well as the colored paint on its face, hair and drapery.) Speculation remains about the Venus de Milo’s original pose, although evidence suggests its once held an apple in its left hand.