All Lit Up


For the average preadolescent boy, a book of matches lying around the house would normally lead to mischief in the form of melted Barbie dolls or worse. For the young Gregory Curtis, an encounter with a book of Classicos offered an image that would become his lifelong muse.

On the cover of the Mexican matchbook was a picture of the most famous statue in the world, the Venus de Milo. From the moment he saw the armless goddess’ picture, Curtis was irrevocably touched. “I believe it was the first work of art I was aware of,” Curtis says from his home in Austin, Texas. He was so enamored with the marble maiden that she became the subject of his first book.

Disarmed: The Story of the Venus de Milo tells the statue’s history from its chance discovery to its current home in the Louvre — as well as the conflict and the conflicting theories that followed it. According to the author, officials at the Louvre were so insistent that Venus was from the classical period that they hid evidence to the contrary; Curtis suggests that they removed an inscribed base that credited the Hellenistic-era sculptor Alexandros.

Curtis is not an art historian and does not claim to be an expert on the subject of art or the classical world — unless it pertains to the Venus de Milo. He edited the Texas Monthly for nearly twenty years and contributed to The New York Times, Fortune, Time and Rolling Stone, but he has no formal art education or, as he puts it, “letters behind the name.”

Curtis’ writing reflects expertise but leaves pretensions behind. “It’s not a book for scholars,” Curtis says. “The research is solid, but it’s not written like an academic book for that audience. I wanted to write for a general audience, but I also wanted to be authoritative.” He conducted research in libraries at home and abroad and at the Louvre, interviewed experts and visited the island of Melos during the tourist off-season in his efforts to bring the story to life.

Curtis starts with the French naval officer who initially claimed his country’s ownership of the statue, suggesting that boredom led him on amateur archeological expeditions on the remote Greek island. Another character in Curtis’ book used the statue as an excuse to search Melos for his dream girl. A French aristocrat-turned-ambassador took advantage of the statue’s discovery to get out of his post in Constantinople without losing face.

Curtis, who once called Kansas City home (he attended Southwest High School), plans to discuss the statue as well as his research when he appears at Unity Temple this week. And in keeping with his layman’s approach, it won’t be all about him. “I might read a paragraph from the book here or there,” he says, “but it will be more conversational.”

As for the box of Classicos? Curtis won’t say whether he ever intended to play with the matches he found. He does admit to keeping a matchbook depicting Venus de Milo on his desk, but he says it’s just nostalgic.