Winged Victory

The Winged Victory of Samothrace at the top of the Daru staircase Musée du Louvre, département des Antiquités grecques, étrusques et romaines © 2008 Musée du Louvre / Cécile Dégremont
The Winged Victory of Samothrace at the top of the Daru staircase
Musée du Louvre, département des Antiquités grecques, étrusques et romaines© 2008 Musée du Louvre / Cécile Dégremont

The Winged Victory of Samothrace, one of the most well-known and prestigious pieces in the Louvre, is back in place at the head of the Daru staircase after having been restored. We are now able to see the subtle juxtaposition of the two different colors of marble that make up the statue and the ship prow base. The statue is in white marble from Paros and the complementary base in a grey marble from the Island of Rhodes. Before the restoration both marbles were covered with the poisse of time that gave a brownish tint. The Daru staircase has also been cleaned.

But what is Winged Victory? How did she end up in Paris? This is a statue of a winged female figure – the messenger goddess Victory -and a base in the shape of the prow of a ship. The statue was a magnificent offering to the Great Gods of Samothrace following a naval victory and dates from the Hellenistic period. It is an unequalled masterpiece of Greek sculpture, by the striking virtuosity of its drapery as well as the incredible ingenuity of its structure. Very early, the Greeks represented personified concepts such as Peace, Fortune, Revenge or Justice, as goddesses. Victory, Nike in Greek, was one of the earliest of these incarnations. A female figure, her large wings enable her to fly over the earth, spreading news of victory. She is a messenger. This sculpture represents Victory at the moment when she ends her flight, landing on the prow of the victorious ship. Her wings still spread, her right foot touches the ship, her left foot still suspended in the air as she lands. Though her arms and head are missing today, itis assumed that her right arm was lifted and bent at the elbow in a victorious salute, her open palm extended in front of her. The sculptor successfully captured in stone the moment when the billowing drapery is pressed against her body in a gust of wind; moment when motion and stillness meet. The statue is not made from a single block of marble, but composed of several parts sculpted separately then assembled, originally held together by bronze or iron joints. This technique is specific to the Hellenistic period in Asia Minor and in the Cyclades: the Venus of Milo is a comparable example, but the construction of the Victory is much more complex, due to the cantilever of the wings. It is likely that this incredibly creative sculptor was in Samothrace between 220 and 185 B.C.

After Restoration, La Victoire de Samothrace © 2014 Musée du Louvre / Antoine Mongodin
After Restoration, La Victoire de Samothrace © 2014 Musée du Louvre / Antoine Mongodin

The Victory was discovered on April 15, 1863 by Charles Champoiseau, then interim vice-consul of France in Adrianople, the modern city of Edirne in Turkey. In the spring of 1863, he set out to explore the ruins of the sanctuary to the Great Gods on the island of Samothrace, which then belonged to the Ottoman Empire. There, he uncovered one of the most spectacular monuments of Hellenistic sculpture. The first part to be found was the torso, bust and left wing which were carefully sent back to France to the Louvre. The naval-base was discovered later. The head and arms still remain lost and the search goes on, but in the 1950s the palm of the right hand and some fingers were discovered at the sanctuary. A first restoration included reattaching the left wing and creating a right wing based on a symetric mould of the left as well as some plaster fills. During the conservation treatment a distemper was used to dissimulate the plaster additions and unify the statue’s overall appearance. Over time, this distemper has aged into an ochre colour, dulling the glossiness of the marble. In 1883 Victory was place on the upper level of the new Daru staircase, designed by Lefuel during the expansion of the Museum under Napoleon III. The sculpture was repositioned farther back on the staircase in the 1930s. During the years of World War II, the 30 ton statue was moved to safety in the Château de Valençay along with the Venus de Milo and Michelangelo’s Slaves.

In 2014 the fourth conservation and restoration has been completed. The new techniques used in 2014 allowed the restorers to remove the discolored distemper from the 1883 restoration, to glimpse via infrarouge some blue color in the wings and on the hem of the robes as well as to reposition the statue on the base and thus remove the iron bar that had been holding her upright for the last century. She is now back in place to be seen by the 7 million visitors that pass by her each year.

The 18 month, 4 million euro, restoration project was financed completely by donations from international corporations and individuals.

Long live Victory!