The Times has a piece on the top 50 most beautiful women in the world, which includes this little tidbit:

When Zeuxis set out to depict the legendary, ship-launching beauty of Helen of Troy, he amalgamated five different faces, like some classical photofit. The finished image is now lost. This only goes to prove that no one is the most beautiful woman in the world.

I'd never read this particular story before, so (of course) I did some googlin'. The story is mentioned in the beginning of the second book of Cicero's de Inventione (thanks to BW on the Classics list for that ref) ... here's the text from the Latin Library:

Crotoniatae quondam, cum florerent omnibus copiis et in Italia cum primis beati numerarentur, templum Iunonis, quod religiosissime colebant, egregiis picturis locupletare voluerunt. Itaque Heracleoten Zeuxin, qui tum longe ceteris excellere pictoribus existimabatur, magno pretio conductum adhibuerunt. Is et ceteras conplures tabulas pinxit, quarum nonnulla pars usque ad nostram memoriam propter fani religionem remansit, et, ut excellentem muliebris formae pulchritudinem muta in se imago contineret, Helenae pingere simulacrum velle dixit; quod Crotoniatae, qui eum muliebri in corpore pingendo plurimum aliis praestare saepe accepissent, libenter audierunt. Putaverunt enim, si, quo in genere plurimum posset, in eo magno opere elaborasset, egregium sibi opus illo in fano relicturum.

Neque tum eos illa opinio fefellit. Nam Zeuxis ilico quaesivit ab iis, quasnam virgines formosas haberent. Illi autem statim hominem deduxerunt in palaestram atque ei pueros ostenderunt multos, magna praeditos dignitate. Etenim quodam tempore Crotoniatae multum omnibus corporum viribus et dignitatibus antisteterunt atque honestissimas ex gymnico certamine victorias domum cum laude maxima rettulerunt. Cum puerorum igitur formas et corpora magno hic opere miraretur: "Horum," inquiunt illi, "sorores sunt apud nos virgines. Quare, qua sint illae dignitate, potes ex his suspicari." "Praebete igitur mihi, quaeso," inquit, "ex istis virginibus formonsissimas, dum pingo id, quod pollicitus sum vobis, ut mutum in simulacrum ex animali exemplo veritas transferatur."

Tum Crotoniatae publico de consilio virgines unum in locum conduxerunt et pictori quam vellet eligendi potestatem dederunt. Ille autem quinque delegit; quarum nomina multi poetae memoriae prodiderunt, quod eius essent iudicio probatae, qui pulchritudinis habere verissimum iudicium debuisset. Neque enim putavit omnia, quae quaereret ad venustatem, uno se in corpore reperire posse ideo, quod nihil simplici in genere omnibus ex partibus perfectum natura expolivit. Itaque, tamquam ceteris non sit habitura quod largiatur, si uni cuncta concesserit, aliud alii commodi aliquo adiuncto incommodo muneratur.

... and Loeb-like, but vertically parallel, here's Yonge's translation (via Peitho's Web):

SOME men of Crotona, when they were rich in all kinds of resources, and when they were considered among the most prosperous people in Italy, were desirous to enrich the temple of Juno, which they regarded with the most religious veneration, with splendid pictures. Therefore they hired Zeuxis of Heraclea at a vast price, who was at that time considered to be far superior to all other painters, and employed him in that business. He painted many other pictures, of which some portion, on account of the great respect in which the temple is held, has remained to within our recollection; and in order that one of his mute representations might contain the preeminent beauty of the female form, he said that he wished to paint a likeness of Helen. And the men of Crotona, who had frequently heard that he exceeded all other men in painting women, were very glad to hear this; for they thought that if he took the greatest pains in that class of work in which he had the greatest skill, he would leave them a most noble work in that temple.

Nor were they deceived in that expectation: for Zeuxis immediately asked of them what beautiful virgins they had; and they immediately led him into the palaestra, and there showed him numbers of boys of the highest birth and of the greatest beauty. For indeed, there was a time when the people of Crotona were far superior to all other cities in the strength and beauty of their persons; and they brought home the most honourable victories from the gymnastic contests, with the greatest credit. While, therefore, he was admiring the figures of the boys and their personal perfection very greatly; "The sisters," say they, "of these boys are virgins in our city, so that how great their beauty is you may infer from these boys." "Give me, then," said he, "I beg you, the most beautiful of these virgins, while I paint the picture which I promised you, so that the reality may be transferred from the breathing model to the mute likeness." Then the citizens of Crotona, in accordance with a public vote, collected the virgins into one place, and gave the painter the opportunity of selecting whom he chose. But he selected five, whose names many poets have handed down to tradition, because they had been approved by the judgment of the man who was bound to have the most accurate judgment respecting beauty. For he did not think that he could find all the component parts of perfect beauty in one person, because nature has made nothing of any class absolutely perfect in every part. Therefore, as if nature would not have enough to give to everybody if it had given everything to one, it balances one advantage bestowed upon a person by another disadvantage.

The subject doesn't seem to have been fairly popular among later artists as one might think -- I only came across an example by Angela Kaufmann in the 18th century.


John Chakerian scripsit:

FYI, there have been a number of works based on the Zeuxis story. In addition to the kaufmann, there was at least a Vincent, a Beccafumi, and a sketch here, where the German might have more info about it.