Antonio Canova (November 1, 1757 - October 13, 1822) was an Italian sculptor who became famous for his marble sculptures that delicately rendered nude flesh. The epitome of the neoclassical style, his work marked a return to classical refinement after the theatrical excesses of Baroque sculpture.
His father and grandfather followed the occupation of stone-cutters or minor statuaries; and it is said that their family had for several ages supplied Possagno with members of that calling. As soon as Canova's hand could hold a pencil, he was initiated into the principles of drawing by his grandfather Pasino. The latter possessed some knowledge both of drawing and of architecture, designed well, and showed considerable taste in the execution of ornamental works. He was greatly attached to his art; and upon his young charge he looked as one who was to perpetuate, not only the family name, but also the family profession.
The early years of Canova were passed in study. The bias of his mind was to sculpture, and the facilities afforded for the gratification of this predilection in the workshop of his grandfather were eagerly improved. In his ninth year he executed two small shrines of Carrara marble, which are still extant. Soon after this period he appears to have been constantly employed under his grandfather. Amongst those who patronized the old man was the patrician family Falier of Venice, and by this means young Canova was first introduced to the senator of that name, who afterwards became his most zealous patron.
Between the younger son, Giuseppe Falier, and the artist a friendship commenced which terminated only with life. The senator Falier was induced to receive him under his immediate protection. It has been related by an Italian writer and since repeated by several biographers, that Canova was indebted to a trivial circumstance - the moulding of a lion in butter - for the warm interest which Falier took in his welfare. The anecdote may or may not be true. By his patron Canova was placed under Bernardi, or, as he is generally called by filiation, Giuseppe Torretto, a sculptor of considerable eminence, who had taken up a temporary residence at Pagnano, one of Asolo's boroughs in the vicinity of the senator's mansion.
This took place whilst Canova was in his thirteenth year; and with Torretto he continued about two years, making in many respects considerable progress. This master returned to Venice, where he soon afterwards died; but by the high terms in which he spoke of his pupil to Falier, the latter was induced to bring the young artist to Venice, whither he accordingly went, and was placed under a nephew of Torretto. With this instructor he continued about a year, studying with the utmost assiduity.
After the termination of this engagement he began to work on his own account, and received from his patron an order for a group, Orpheus and Eurydice. The first figure, which represents Eurydice in flames and smoke, in the act of leaving Hades, was completed towards the close of his sixteenth year. It was highly esteemed by his patron and friends, and the artist was now considered qualified to appear before a public tribunal.
The kindness of some monks supplied him with his first workshop, which was the vacant cell of a monastery. Here for nearly four years he labored with the greatest perseverance and industry. He was also regular in his attendance at the academy, where he carried off several prizes. But he relied far more on the study and imitation of nature. A large portion of his time was also devoted to anatomy, which science was regarded by him as the secret of the art. He likewise frequented places of public amusement, where he carefully studied the expressions and attitudes of the performers. He formed a resolution, which was faithfully adhered to for several years, never to close his eyes at night without having produced some design. Whatever was likely to forward his advancement in sculpture he studied with ardour. On archaeological pursuits he bestowed considerable attention. With ancient and modern history he rendered himself well acquainted and he also began to acquire some of the continental languages.
Three years had now elapsed without any production coming from his chisel. He began, however, to complete the group for his patron, and the Orpheus which followed evinced the great advance he had made. The work was universally applauded, and laid the foundation of his fame. Several groups succeeded this performance, amongst which was that of Daedalus and Icarus, the most celebrated work of his noviciate. The terseness of style and the faithful imitation of nature which characterized them called forth the warmest admiration. His merits and reputation being now generally recognized, his thoughts began to turn from the shores of the Adriatic to the banks of the Tiber, for which he set out at the commencement of his twenty-fourth year.
His arrival in Rome, on 28 December, 1780, marks a new era in his life. It was here he was to perfect himself by a study of the most splendid relics of antiquity, and to put his talents to the severest test by a competition with the living masters of the art. The result was equal to the highest hopes cherished either by himself or by his friends. The work which first established his fame at Rome was Theseus Vanquishing the Minotaur, now in the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum, in London. The figures are of the heroic size. The victorious Theseus is represented as seated on the lifeless body of the monster. The exhaustion which visibly pervades his whole frame proves the terrible nature of the conflict in which he has been engaged. Simplicity and natural expression had hitherto characterized Canova's style; with these were now united more exalted conceptions of grandeur and of truth. The Theseus was regarded with fervent admiration.
Canova's next undertaking was a monument in honor of Clement XIV; but before he proceeded with it he deemed it necessary to request permission from the Venetian senate, whose servant he considered himself to be, in consideration of the pension. This he solicited, in person, and it was granted. He returned immediately to Rome, and opened his celebrated studio close to the Via del Babuino. He spent about two years of unremitting toil in arranging the design and composing the models for the tomb of the pontiff. After these were completed, other two years were employed in finishing the monument, and it was finally opened to public inspection in 1787. The work, in the opinion of enthusiastic dilettanti, stamped the author as the first artist of modern times.
After five years of incessant labor, he completed another cenotaph, to the memory of Clement XIII, which raised his fame still higher. Works now came rapidly from his chisel. Amongst these is Psyche, with a butterfly, which is placed on the left hand, and held by the wings with the right. This figure, which is intended as a personification of man's immaterial part, is considered as in almost every respect the most faultless and classical of Canova's works. In two different groups, and with opposite expression, the sculptor has represented Cupid with his bride; in the one they are standing, in the other recumbent. These and other works raised his reputation so high that the most flattering offers were sent to him from the Russian court to induce him to remove to St Petersburg, but these were declined, although many of his finest works made their way to the Hermitage Museum. "Italy", says he, in writing of the occurrence to a friend, "Italy is my country - is the country and native soil of the arts. I cannot leave her; my infancy was nurtured here. If my poor talents can be useful in any other land, they must be of some utility to Italy; and ought not her claim to be preferred to all others?"
Numerous works were produced in the years 1795-1797, of which several were repetitions of previous productions. One was the celebrated group representing the Parting of Venus and Adonis. This famous production was sent to Naples. The French Revolution was now extending its shocks over Italy; and Canova sought obscurity and repose in his native Possagno. Thither he retired in 1798, and there he continued for about a year, principally employed in painting, of which art also he had some knowledge. Events in the political world having come to a temporary lull, he returned to Rome; but his health being impaired from arduous application, he took a journey through a part of Germany, in company with his friend Prince Rezzonico. He returned from his travels much improved, and again commenced his labors with vigour and enthusiasm.
The events which marked the life of the artist during the first fifteen years of the period in which he was engaged on the above-mentioned works scarcely merit notice. His mind was entirely absorbed in the labors of his studio, and, with the exception of his journeys to Paris, one to Vienna, and a few short intervals of absence in Florence and other parts of Italy, he never quit Rome. In his own words, "his statues were the sole proofs of his civil existence."
There was, however, another proof, which modesty forbade him to mention, an ever-active benevolence, especially towards artists. In 1815 he was commissioned by the Pope to superintend the transmission from Paris of those works of art which had formerly been conveyed thither under the direction of Napoleon. By his zeal and exertions - for there were many conflicting interests to reconcile - he adjusted the affair in a manner at once creditable to his judgment and fortunate for his country.
In the autumn of this year he gratified a wish he had long entertained of visiting London, where he received the highest tokens of esteem. The artist for whom he showed particular sympathy and regard in London was Benjamin Haydon, who might at the time be counted the sole representative of historical painting there, and whom he especially honored for his championship of the Elgin marbles, then recently transported to England, and ignorantly depreciated by polite connoisseurs. Among Canova's English pupils were sculptors Sir Richard Westmacott and John Gibson.
Canova returned to Rome in the beginning of 1816, with the ransomed spoils of his country's genius. Immediately after, he received several marks of distinction: he was made President of the Accademia di San Luca, the main artistic institution in Rome, and by the hand of the Pope himself his name was inscribed in "the Golden Volume of the Capitol", and he received the title of Marquis of Ischia, with an annual pension of 3000 crowns.
He now contemplated a great work, a colossal statue of Religion. The model filled Italy with admiration; the marble was procured, and the chisel of the sculptor ready to be applied to it, when the jealousy of churchmen as to the site, or some other cause, deprived the country of the projected work. The mind of Canova was inspired with the warmest sense of devotion, and though foiled in this instance he resolved to consecrate a shrine to the cause. In his native village he began to make preparations for erecting a temple which was to contain, not only the above statue, but other works of his own; within its precincts were to repose also the ashes of the founder. Accordingly he repaired to Possagno in 1819. After the foundation-stone of this edifice had been laid, Canova returned to Rome; but every succeeding autumn he continued to visit Possagno, in order to direct the workmen, and encourage them with pecuniary rewards and medals.
In the meantime the vast expenditure exhausted his resources, and compelled him to labor with unceasing assiduity notwithstanding age and disease. During the period which intervened between commencing operations at Possagno and his decease, he executed or finished some of his most striking works. Amongst these were the group Mars and Venus, the colossal figure of Pius VI, the Pietà, the St John, the recumbent Magdalen. The last performance which issued from his hand was a colossal bust of his friend, the Count Cicognara.
In May 1822 he paid a visit to Naples, to superintend the construction of wax moulds for an equestrian statue of the perjured Bourbon king Ferdinand VII. This journey materially injured his health, but he rallied again on his return to Rome. Towards the latter end of the year he paid his annual visit to the place of his birth, when he experienced a relapse. He proceeded to Venice, and expired there at the age of nearly sixty-five. His disease was one which had affected him from an early age, caused by the continual use of carving-tools, producing a depression of the ribs. The most distinguished funeral honors were paid to his remains, which were deposited in the temple at Possagno on 25 October, 1822. His heart was interred in a marble pyramid he designed as a mausoleum for the painter Titian in the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice, now a monument to the sculptor.
Among Canova's heroic compositions, his Perseus with the Head of Medusa (photo, right) appeared soon after his return from Germany. The moment of representation is when the hero, flushed with conquest, displays the head of the "snaky Gorgon", whilst the right hand grasps a sword of singular device. By a public decree, this fine work was placed in one of the stanze of the Vatican hitherto reserved for the most precious works of antiquity.
In 1802, at the personal request of Napoleon, Canova returned to Paris to model a bust of the first consul. The artist was entertained with munificence, and various honors were conferred upon him. The statue, which is colossal, was not finished till six years after. On the fall of the great emperor, Louis XVIII presented this statue to the British government, by whom it was afterwards given to the Duke of Wellington.
Palamedes, Creugas and Damoxenus, the Combat of Theseus and the Centaur, and Hercules and Lichas may close the class of heroic compositions, although the catalogue might be swelled by the enumeration of various others, such as Hector and Ajax, and the statues of George Washington (commissioned by the State of North Carolina to be displayed in its Capitol Building), King Ferdinand of Naples, and others. The group of Hercules and Lichas is considered as the most terrible conception of Canova's mind, and in its peculiar style is scarcely to be excelled.
Under the head of compositions of grace and elegance, the statue of Hebe takes the first place in point of date. Four times has the artist embodied in stone the goddess of youth, and each time with some variation. The last one is in the Museum of Forlì, in Italy. The only material improvement, however, is the substitution of a support more suitable to the simplicity of the art. Each of the statues is, in all its details, in expression, attitude and delicacy of finish, strikingly elegant.
The Dancing Nymphs maintain a character similar to that of the Hebe. The Three Graces and the Venus are more elevated. The Awakened Nymph is another work of uncommon beauty. The mother of Napoleon, his consort Maria Louise (as Concord), to model whom the author made a further journey to Paris in 1810, the princess Esterhazy and the muse Polymnia (Elisa Bonaparte) take their place in this class, as do the ideal heads, comprising Corinna, Sappho, Laura, Beatrice and Helen of Troy.
Of the cenotaphs and funeral monuments the most splendid is the monument to the archduchess Maria Christina of Austria, consisting of nine figures. Besides the two for the Roman Pontiffs already mentioned, there is one for Alfieri, another for Emo, a Venetian admiral, and a small model of a cenotaph for Horatio Nelson, besides a great variety of monumental relieves.