Phryne certainly knew how to keep her celebrity lover hooked. One day she asked Praxiteles which of his many works was his favourite. As well as a beautiful statue of the God of Love (Eros), the he had recently finished a Satyr statue he was particularly proud of. He told her that he would gift her his favourite work, but wouldn’t tell her which one it was. Cunning as ever, Phryne waited a while before sending one of her slaves running up to Praxiteles to tell him his studio was on fire. Not all works were lost, the slave panted, but if he didn’t come quickly they soon would be.
Making a dash towards his studio, Praxiteles desperately cried out that if his Satyr and Eros had been consumed by the flames all would in fact be lost. But a grinning Phryne intercepted him on his way out the door. There had been no fire, she said, but she had at least tricked him into revealing which works were his favourite. Smugly, she told him that she would take the Eros. Defeated, he obliged. This isn’t the only version however. Athenaeus relays the same story, but tells us that upon giving Phryne the statue, Praxiteles demanded they retire to his bedroom to make love “without an extra charge.”
The indication here is that, rather than being his lover, Phryne was still working in the capacity of a courtesan and Praxiteles was her client. The exceptional nature of her gift, however, led the artist to believe he deserved something extraordinary in return. According to Athenaeus, Phryne hesitated initially—unsurprisingly given the Weinsteinian situation she found herself in. She agreed eventually though, more out of fear for offending and angering Eros than for anything else.
The anecdote of Phryne tricking Praxiteles is a mere footnote to the main event of their relationship: her posing as his model for the famous Aphrodite statue. So what was the story behind this statue? Most of our informatoin comes from the first century AD Roman encyclopaedist Pliny the Elder. Pliny writes that around 330 BC, the people of the Greek island of Kos commissioned Praxiteles to make a statue of the goddess. He accepted, but in the end went above and beyond to sculpt two: one clothed and one naked.
When Praxiteles presented them to the people of Kos they were horrified. Though they may have been statues of the goddess of love and sex, one’s nudity contravened all artistic conventions of the time (while men had been appearing naked in statues for 300 years, female nudity—particularly divine female nudity—was unheard of). Kos’s residents bought the clothed statue. But their neighbours, the people of Knidos, invested in the nude Aphrodite. And what an investment it was.
It grabbed the attention of the king Nicomedes, who promised to cancel Knidos’s vast debts in exchange for the statue. The Knidians refused of course; they loved their statue too much. And to make sure it could be enjoyed from all angles they constructed an open temple to house it that would make it constantly visible for everyone in the vicinity. I use enjoyed hesitantly; several stories go that a young, local nobleman fell madly in love with the statue and at the height of his desires actually hid overnight in the temple so he could spend the night with it.