Antonio Canova, a portrait of the soul

His works were requested by popes, sovereigns, artists and collectors for their classical purity and the capability of overcoming the barriers of time. And still today, they leave us... speechless!

Nico Zardo

Between the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, Antonio Canova attains such widespread fame that he is considered the new Phidias. The most important European courts compete over him, offering him important charges and commissions. He refuses the life annuity offered by Francis II of Austria in exchange for residency in Venice and, having returned to Rome in 1802 (he had left the city in 1798), he accepts from Pope Pius VII the charge of Inspector General of Antiquities and Beaux Arts of the State of the Church. For the artist from the region of Veneto, the advent of Napoleon (crowned in 1804) coincides with a period of great artistic production: from the Napoleon of Apsley House, to the Napoleonic busts, from the statue of Letizia Ramolino to the famous Paolina of Villa Borghese. At the same time, he resists the French proposal of becoming General Director of the new Napoleonic Museum.


THE ARTIST ACCEPTS COMMISSIONS AND RECOGNITIONS AND IS NOT TEMPTED BY OFFICES THAT WOULD PROBABLY HAVE DISTANCED HIM FROM THE DAILY WORK TO WHICH HE IS VERY TIED.These aspects of clear-cut solidity of character emerge both from his self-portraits – displayed at the Gipsoteca of Possagno (province of Treviso) for the exhibition ”La mano e il volto di Antonio Canova” (The hand and the Face of Antonio Canova) - as well as from his writings. In a letter of 1806 to his friend Quatrèmere de Quincy, he writes: “...It takes much more than to steal here and there ancient pieces and to bring them together without discretion, to win fame as an artist. You must sweat day ad night on the Greek models, sink yourself in their style, assimilate it in your blood, create your own style having always in mind the beautiful nature, and reading it in the same rules.”


BESIDES HAVING AN EXTRAORDINARY CAPACITY FOR ARTISTIC PRODUCTION, his ability – innovative for a certain period of time – lied in knowing how to seize through painting and sculpture not only the external appearance of the figure but the frame of mind of the person portrayed, establishing with the viewer a surreal dialogue that fixes the moment and transmits it in time. The comparison between the self-portraits and those painted by friends and admirers (among them, F.X. Fabre, T. Lawrence, R. Suhrland, F. Gerard, J. Jackson) makes for an interesting reading of the artist himself. In the former, what prevails is the sincerity of the mirror in representing the physical aspect and his great desire to be recognized as a complete artist through instruments such as paintbrushes, hammer and scalpel. In the latter, the artist’s fame takes the upper hand, represented by painter-friends and admirers through a heroic and myth-inspiring image. Then, Canova understandably departs from this image in portraying himself when he goes from painting to sculpture and, writes Marco Guderzo, one of the curators of the Possagno exhibit - “...how can a sculptor of such fame not give in to the temptation of creating a marble work representing himself? So he sculpts a bust depicting himself. This time Canova succeeds in saying about himself everything that can be entrusted to eternity, thanks to a semblance inferred from the canons of tradition. The involvement of the spectator in an atmosphere of total participation makes a portrait ‘live’.”


THE WIDESPREAD POPULARITY AND HIGH LEVEL OF CONSIDERATION enjoyed by the artist in the European artistic environments and noble courts were fruit not only of Canova’s artistic qualities, but also of his initiatives in favor of the artistic heritage of Italian artists. In 1815, after the defeat of Waterloo, Canova is in Paris, with his step-brother Giovanni Battista Sartori: thanks to a clever diplomatic action, he is able to return to Italy many art works purloined by Napoleon in France. For this great action in defense of Italian art, Pius VII conferred to him the title of Marquis of Ischia, with an annuity of three thousand scudos that he bequeathed to art academies.


ANTONIO CANOVA WAS BORN IN POSSAGNO (a small town between the cities of Vicenza and Treviso) in 1757. After the death of his father Pietro and the re-marriage of his mother, Angela Zardo, he is left in the care of his grandfather Pasino Canova, a stonemason, who introduces him to sculpture. In 1769, after a period of training in Torretti’s sculpture studio in Pagnano d’Asolo, he attends the life-drawing classes at the Academy of Venice. He opens a studio of his own and creates the first works that will make him famous in Venice and in the entire region of Veneto: Orpheus and Eurydice (1776), Daedalus and Icarus (1779).


IN 1779, CANOVA MAKES HIS FIRST TRIP TO ROME. Thanks to the friendship of the ambassador of Veneto, Girolamo Zulian, who commissioned him Theseus on the Minotaur (1781) and Psyche (1793), he begins an extraordinary career producing his most beautiful works (from The Grazie to Cupid and Psyche, from the Sepulchral Monuments of Popes Clement XIII and XIV and Maria Cristina of Austria, to the numerous mythological characters such as Venus and Mars, Perseus Winner over Medusa, Hector and Aiace) and working for sovereigns, princes, popes and emperors from all over the world.


CANOVA REMAINED TIED TO HIS NATIVE HOME IN POSSAGNO, that today houses the Pinacoteca Gallery and the Gipsoteca containing a collection of plaster casts. It is in his city that in 1819 he commissioned the construction of the Temple that he wished to donate to his community as a parochial church. And in the majestic building, completed just ten years after his death (which took place in Venice on October 13, 1822) have been placed his remains. •




The initiatives for the 250th birthday of Antonio Canova (1757-1822) began in 2003-2004 with the exhibition at the Museo Civico of Bassano del Grappa and at the Gipsoteca of Possagno, where Canova’s works already housed there were integrated with important pieces coming from the Hermitage of St. Petersburg. They continued in Rome, at Villa Borghese (October 2007-February 2008) with works that retrace the relationship between the artist and the Borghese and Bonaparte families. At the Palazzo Reale of Milan (February-June 2008) with “Canova alla corte degli Zar” (Canova at the czar’s court) among other works, The Grazie, La Danzatrice con le mani sui fianchi (the dancer with her hands on her hips), l’Amorino alato (The Winged Cupid) and the Maddalena penitente (The Reprentant Mary Magdalene) were exhibited. In Possagno, where Canova was born, from October 2008 to January 2009, the exhibition entitled “The hand and face of Antonio Canova” contained portraits of the artist produced by the major painters of the time. In the city of Forlì, from 25 January to 21 June 2009, the San Domenico Museums host the exhibition “Canova. L’ideale classico tra scultura e pittura” (Canova: the classical ideal between sculpture and painting), where the work of the artist is placed in relation to international neoclassicism.

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