Antonio Canova


Antonio Canova (Possagno, November 1, 1757-Venice, October 13, 1822) was an Italian sculptor and painter of neoclassicism.

His style was largely inspired by the art of Ancient Greece and his works were compared by his contemporaries with the best production of antiquity, he was considered the best European sculptor since Bernini. His contribution to the consolidation of neoclassical art is comparable only to that of the theorist Johann Joachim Winckelmann and the painter Jacques-Louis David, although he was also sensitive to the influence of romanticism. He had no direct disciples, but he influenced sculpture throughout Europe over his generation, remaining a reference throughout the 19th century, especially among sculptors in the academic community. With the rise of the aesthetics of modern art he fell into oblivion, but his position of prestige was resumed from the mid-twentieth century onwards. He also maintained a continuing interest in archaeological research, was a collector of antiquities, and strove to prevent Italian art, ancient or modern, from being dispersed to other collections around the world. Considered by his contemporaries as a model of both artistic excellence and personal conduct, he carried out important activities for the benefit and support of young artists. He was director of the Academy of St. Luke in Rome and inspector general of Antiquities and Fine Arts of the Papal States, received several awards and was ennobled by Pope Pius VII who bestowed upon him the title of marquis of Ischia.

Antonio Canova was born in Possagno, a village in the Republic of Venice, located in the middle of the hills of Asolo, where the last undulations of the Alps are formed and disappear in the plains of Treviso.after the death of his father Pietro Canova, when he was three years old, a year later his mother remarried leaving him in the care of his paternal grandfather. He had a brother from his mother”s remarriage, Abbot Giovanni Battista Sartori, with whom he maintained very good relations and who was his secretary and executor. Apparently his grandfather, also a sculptor, was the first to notice his talent, and Canova was immediately initiated into the secrets of drawing.

First years

His youth was spent in art workshops, showing a predilection for sculpture. At the age of nine he was able to make two small marble altar-reliquaries that still exist, and from then on his grandfather commissioned different works from him. The grandfather was sponsored by the wealthy Falier family of Venice, and in view of the aptitudes of the young Canova the senator Giovanni Falier became his protector. Thanks to him, at the age of thirteen, he was placed under the direction of Giuseppe Bernardi, one of the most notable sculptors of his generation in the Veneto.

His studies were complemented by the access he had to important collections of antique sculptures, such as those held by the Academy of Venice and the collector Filippo Farsetti, which was useful in establishing new contacts with wealthy clients. Soon his works were praised for their precocious virtuosity and he received his first commissions, including two marble fruit baskets for Farsetti himself. When Canova was 16 years old, his master died and the workshop was taken over by his nephew, Giovanni Ferrari, with whom Canova remained for about a year. The copy he made in terracotta in 1772 of the famous Wrestlers of the Uffizi Gallery won him the second prize of the Academy.

His protector entrusted him with the execution of two large life-size statues: Orpheus and Eurydice, which were exhibited in St. Mark”s Square and admired by a member of the important Grimaldi family who commissioned a copy (now in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg). In the years following his stay in Venice until 1779, he sculpted numerous works, including an Apollo, which he donated to the Academy upon his election as a member of this institution, and the sculptural group Daedalus and Icarus. His style at that time had an ornamental character typical of Rococo, but it was also vigorous and with a naturalism typical of Venetian art that showed a tendency to idealization that he had acquired in his studies of the classics.


At the end of 1779 he moved to Rome, visiting Bologna and Florence in order to perfect his art. Rome was then the most important cultural center in Europe and a must for any artist aspiring to fame. The city was a great museum, full of ancient monuments and great collections, at a time when the formation of neoclassicism was in full swing and where there were authentic copies to study firsthand the great artistic production of the classical past.

Before his departure, his friends obtained for him an annual pension of 300 ducats, to be maintained for three years. He also obtained letters of introduction to the Venetian ambassador in Rome, the Cavalier Girolamo Zulian, a learned man in the arts, who received him with great hospitality, when the artist arrived there around 1779, and promoted the first public exhibition of a work by Canova in his own house, the work, was the copy of the group of Daedalus and Icarus, which he had ordered to be brought from Venice, and which aroused the admiration of all those who saw it. According to the account of Count Leopoldo Cicognara, one of his first biographers, despite the unanimous approval of Canova”s work, the artist felt very embarrassed at the time, often commenting on this situation as one of the most tense episodes of his life. Through Ambassador Zulian, Canova was introduced, with immediate success among the local community of intellectuals, among whom were the archaeologist Gavin Hamilton, the collectors William Hamilton and Cardinal Alessandro Albani, and the antiquarian and historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the leading mentor of neoclassicism, among many others who shared his love of the classics.

Already in Rome, Canova was able to deepen his study of the most important works of antiquity, completed his literary education, improved his fluency in French and was able to compete with the best masters of the time. The result was beyond his own expectations. His first work produced in Rome, sponsored by the Zulian ambassador, was Theseus and the Minotaur (1781), which was received with great enthusiasm. This was followed by a small carving of Apollo crowning himself (1781-1782) for Prince Rezzonico, a statue of Psyche (1793) for Zulian. Also at this time he had the support of the engraver Giovanni Volpato, who opened other doors for him, including those of the Vatican.

His next commission, through Volpato, was a funerary monument for St. Peter”s Basilica, for Pope Clement XIV, although before accepting it he decided to ask permission from the Senate of Venice, in consideration for the pension he had been granted. When he got it, he closed his workshop in Venice and immediately returned to Rome and opened a new studio near the Via del Babuino, where he spent the next two years completing the model of the great commission, and another two in the execution of the work, which was finally inaugurated in 1787, winning the praise of the most important critics of the city. During this period, he also carried out some minor projects, such as bas-reliefs in terracotta and a statue of Psyquis. More than five years were spent in the preparation of a cenotaph for Pope Clement XIII, delivered in 1792, a work that brought him even more fame.

In the following years, until the end of the century, Canova applied himself with enormous effort in producing a significant number of new works, including several groups of Eros and Psyche, in different attitudes, which served to receive an invitation to settle at the Russian court, but Canova refused citing his close relationship with Italy. Other works were Venus and Adonis, the group representing Hercules and Lichas, a statue of Hebe and an early version of the penitent Magdalene. But the effort was too much for his health, and the continuous use of the trephine to make sculptures whose use compresses the chest caused his sternum to collapse. Feeling tired after so many years of intense activity without interruption and in view of the French occupation of Rome in 1798, he retired to his hometown of Possagno, where he devoted himself to painting, and then made a pleasure trip through Germany in the company of his friend Prince Abbondio Rezzonico. He also passed through Austria, where he received a commission for a cenotaph for the Archduchess Maria Christina, daughter of Francis I, which resulted, years later, in a majestic work. On this same occasion he was asked to send to the Austrian capital a group of Theseus and the Centaur, which had originally been destined for Milan, and which was installed in a Greek-style temple built especially for this purpose in the gardens of Schönbrunn Palace.

On his return to Rome in 1800, he produced in a few months one of his most acclaimed compositions, the Perseus with the head of Medusa (1800-1801), inspired by the Apollo of Belvedere, judged worthy to rub shoulders with him, this work earned him the title of Chevalier, awarded by the pope. In 1802 he was invited by Napoleon Bonaparte to Paris to portray him and his family. According to the testimony of his brother, who accompanied him, the sculptor and the emperor held conversations on a great level of frankness and familiarity. He also met with the painter Jacques-Louis David, the most important of the French neoclassical painters.

On August 10, 1802, Pope Pius VII appointed the artist Inspector General of Antiquities and Fine Arts of the Papal States, a position he held until his death. In addition to being a recognition of his sculptural work, the appointment implied that he was also considered an expert in the ability to judge the quality of works of art and with an interest in the preservation of the papal collections. Among the duties of the position was responsibility for issuing authorizations for permits for archaeological excavations and overseeing restoration work, the purchase and export of antiquities, as well as the installation and organization of new museums in the Papal States. He even purchased 80 ancient pieces on his own account and donated them to the Vatican Museums. Between 1805 and 1814 he was the one who decided on scholarships for Italian artists for their further education in Rome. In 1810 he was appointed president of the Academy of St. Luke, the most important artistic institution in Italy at the time and which remained a bastion of stability in the field of Roman culture throughout the turbulent period of the French occupation, being confirmed in office by Napoleon. His administrative mission concluded with the task of rescuing, in 1815, the artistic plunder taken from Italy by the French emperor, and his zeal and effort to resolve the difficult work of accommodating divergent international interests and recovering various treasures for his country, including works by Raphael Sanzio, the Apollo of Belvedere, the Laocoon group and the Venus de Medici.

In the autumn of that same year he was able to realize his long-cherished dream of traveling to London, where he was received with great consideration. His trip had two main purposes: to thank the British government for the help it had given him in the recovery of the confiscated Italian spolia, and to become acquainted with the Elgin Marbles, a large group of pieces from the Parthenon in Athens, made by Phidias and his assistants, a knowledge which was a revelation to him and which contributed to confirm his impression that Greek art was superior in the quality of execution and in its imitation of nature. He was also asked to give his expert opinion on the importance of the set, which was being offered for sale by Lord Elgin to the British crown, he expressed himself in glowing terms, but refused their restoration, despite having been invited to do so, he considered that they should remain unrestored as authentic testimonies of Greek art. On his return to Rome in 1816 with the works returned by France, the pope granted him a pension of three thousand scudi and his name was inscribed in the Golden Book of the Capitol with the title of marquis of Ischia.

Last years

Canova began to prepare the project of another monumental statue, which showed the representation of Religion. Not out of servility, since he was a fervent devotee, but his idea of installing it in Rome ended up frustrated, even being financed by himself and being ready the model in its definitive size, it was finally executed in marble in a smaller size by Lord Brownlow”s wish and taken to London. Canova decided to build a temple in his hometown where he would take the original figure along with other pieces of his authorship and where his ashes would eventually rest. In 1819 the first stone was laid, and every autumn he returned to supervise the progress of the work and give orders to the builders, encouraging them with financial rewards and medals. However, the enterprise proved too costly, and the artist had to return to work at full capacity, despite his age and infirmities. From this period are some of his most significant pieces, such as the Mars and Venus set for the English Crown, the colossal statue of Pius VI, a Pietà (only the model) and another version of the Penitent Magdalene. His last finished work was a huge bust of his friend Count Cicognara.

In May 1822 he visited Naples to supervise the construction of the model for an equestrian statue of King Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies, the journey affected his delicate health although on his return to Rome he recovered somewhat, but on his annual visit to Possagno his condition worsened. He was transferred to Venice, where he died lucid and serene. His last words were Anima bella e pura (beautiful and pure soul), which he uttered several times before passing away. The testimonies of friends present at his passing explained that his face became increasingly luminous and expressive, as if absorbed in a contemplation of mystical ecstasy. The autopsy revealed an obstruction of the intestine due to necrosis at the level of the pylorus. His funeral, held on October 25, 1822, was performed with the highest honors, amidst the commotion of the whole city and scholars vied to carry his coffin. His body was buried in the Canovian Temple of Possagno and his heart was deposited in a porphyry urn in the Academy of Venice. His death caused mourning throughout Italy, and the funeral tributes ordered by the pope, in Rome, were attended by representatives of several royal houses of Europe. The following year a cenotaph began to be erected, of a design that had been created by Canova himself in 1792 at the request of Zulian, originally as a tribute to the painter Titian, but which was never realized. The monument, where the urn with his heart was transferred, can be visited in the basilica of Santa Maria dei Frari in Venice.

Private habits

According to the Memória Biográfica about the artist by his great friend Count Cicognara, Canova maintained throughout his life frugal habits and a regular routine, such as getting up early and immediately starting to work, after lunch he would retire to have a short rest. He had a chronic stomach ailment, which caused him severe pain in attacks that occurred throughout his life. He seems to have had a deep and sincere religious faith. He did not maintain a particularly brilliant social life, although he was constantly asked to assist in the circles of illustrious people who admired him, but it was more common for him to receive friends in his own home after his workday, in the evening, when he showed himself to be a well-mannered, intelligent, kind and warm host. According to his own words, his sculptures were the only preoccupation of his private life. It seems that on two occasions he was on the verge of marriage, however, he remained single for life. His group of friends was large and he devoted great affection to them. He had no regular disciples, but if he noticed any superior talent in any beginning artist he spared no expense in giving him good advice and encouragement to continue in the art; often financially supporting promising young artists and seeking them commissions for work. Even when he had a large body of work, he did not hesitate to leave his studio if called upon by another artist to give his opinion on art matters and offer technical advice.

He always maintained a perennial enthusiasm for the study of ancient art and archaeology. He liked classical literature and read frequently, he even got into the habit of having someone read for him while he worked, he considered the reading of good authors an indispensable resource for personal development and for his art. He was not a writer, but he maintained an abundant correspondence with friends and intellectuals, where he shows a clear, simple and lively writing style, which he refined in his later years without losing his strength and spontaneity. One of his letters of 1812 attests that he even considered publishing something about his art in its general principles, a fact that never materialized. Secretly, however, many of his observations and ideas were recorded by his circle of collaborators and were later made public. He seemed to be immune to jealousy, criticism and praise, and was never hurt by the success of others, instead, he spared no praise when he realized the greatness of the work of his fellow craftsmen, and expressed his gratitude for advice or criticism which he considered fair and appropriate. When a scathing criticism appeared in a newspaper published in Naples, he dissuaded his friends who wanted to promote a rejoinder, saying that his work would provide the appropriate response. Canova”s relations with the politics of his time, is exemplified in the works he created for the House of Austria and the House of Bonaparte, where the desires for legitimization and glorification of the rulers conflicted with the stance of political neutrality that the sculptor wished to maintain. He had works rejected or severely criticized for not conforming to the wishes of his clients, such as the group of Hercules and Lycas (1795), rejected by the Emperor of Austria, and also the same happened to him with the allegorical portrait he made for the French emperor with the title of Napoleon as a pacifying Mars. His opinion of Napoleon has been described as ambiguous, although at the same time he was an admirer, who accepted from his family various commissions, he was critical, especially for his invasion of Italy and the confiscation of a large collection of Italian works of art.

He valued the success of his works, which he accepted pleasantly, but he never showed that the desire for personal glory was his main objective, despite being one of the artists of his time most exposed to fame, having received several decorations and protection from many important nobles, for which he was ennobled in several states of Europe, he was appointed responsible for a high public offices and included as a member of numerous art academies, without having requested it. He spent a large part of the fortune he accumulated in charitable works, promoting associations and supporting young artists. On several occasions he acquired works of art with his own funds for public museums and book collections for libraries, often making his donations anonymously. Also on several occasions he had to be warned not to dissipate his income with other people”s problems.

His abiding fascination with classical antiquity led him to amass an important collection of marble and terracotta archaeological pieces. His collection of terracotta slabs from Campania was especially interesting, although it was never mentioned in his early biographies. The pieces were mostly fragments, but many were intact and of high quality, the typologies he preferred to collect proving that he was aware of the museological and collecting trends of his time. His interest in the material was related to the use of clay to create models of his works in marble, which he preferred to plaster, since it is easier to work with, and he also used it for the preparation of the reliefs he called “private recreation”, where he represented scenes inspired by his readings of Homer, Virgil and Plato.

Canova”s total production is extensive. Sculptures of large dimensions left about 50 busts, 40 statues and more than a dozen groups, along with funerary monuments and numerous models in clay and plaster for definitive works, some of which have never been transferred to marble, being, therefore, unique pieces, and in smaller works are found plaques and medallions in relief, paintings and drawings, below is a brief description of the origins of his personal style, his aesthetic ideas and some of his most famous sculptures.

Neoclassical culture

Neoclassicism was a philosophical and aesthetic current of long diffusion that developed between the middle of the 18th century and the middle of the 19th century in Europe and America. Reacting against the frivolity and decoration of the Rococo, the neoclassical current was inspired by the tradition of Greco-Roman classicism, the adoption of the principles of order, clarity, austerity, rationality and balance, with a moralizing purpose. This change flourished in two main areas: firstly, the ideals of the Enlightenment, which were based on rationalism, combated superstition and religious dogma, and sought personal improvement and social progress through ethical means, and secondly, a growing scientific interest in classical art and culture that emerged among the academic community throughout the 18th century, stimulating archaeological excavations, the formation of important public and private collections, and the publication of scholarly studies on ancient art and culture. The publication of several detailed and illustrated reports of expeditions by various archaeologists, notably among many others, that of the French archaeologist and engraver Anne Claude de Caylus, Recueil d”antiquités égyptiennes, étrusques, grecques et romaines (7 volumes, Paris, 1752-1767), the first to attempt to group works according to the criteria of style rather than genre, also addressing Celtic, Egyptian and Etruscan antiquities, contributed significantly to public education and the broadening of its vision of the past, fostering a new passion for all that was ancient.

Although classical art was appreciated since the Renaissance, it was relatively circumstantial and empirical, but now the interest was built on more scientific, systematic and rational bases. With these findings and studies it began to be possible to form for the first time a chronology of classical Greco-Roman antiquity, distinguishing what was proper to one or the other and giving birth to an interest in the purely Greek tradition, which had been eclipsed by the Roman heritage, especially since Greece was at that time under Turkish rule, therefore, in practice, inaccessible to scholars and tourists from all over the Christian West. Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the leading theorist of neoclassicism, with great influence especially among Italian and German intellectuals – he was part of the circle of Canova, Gavin Hamilton and Quatremere de Quincy – further praised Greek sculpture, seeing in it a “noble simplicity and serene grandeur”, appealed to all artists to imitate it, with the restoration of an idealistic art that was stripped of all transition, approaching the character of the archetype. His writings had a great impact, achieving a tendency to use ancient history, literature and mythology as a source of inspiration for artists. At the same time, other ancient cultures and styles such as Gothic and the folk traditions of northern Europe were being re-evaluated, making neoclassical principles largely shared with Romanticism, a crossroads of mutually fertile influences. There was also a political background to the movement, since the source of neoclassical inspiration was Greek culture and its democracy, and Roman culture and its republic, with the associated values of honor, duty, heroism and patriotism. However, since then, neoclassicism also became a courtly style and by virtue of its association with the glorious classical past, it was used by monarchs and princes, as a vehicle for propaganda of their personalities and deeds, or to provide their palaces with beauty in a simple decor, distorting in part its moralizing purpose. Neoclassicism was also adopted, of course, by the official academies for the training of artists, with the consolidation of the academic system of education, or academicism, a set of technical and educational principles that supported the ethical and aesthetic principles of classical antiquity and soon became the denomination for the style of its production, largely confused with pure neoclassicism.

Formation of your personal style

Emerged in this environment and illustrated with perfection of these principles, Canova”s art can be considered, according to Armando Balduino, the very summary of the neoclassical grecomania interpreted according to Winckelmann”s vision, fortunately avoiding the purely decorative, mechanically academic or propagandistic imitations that other neoclassical artists suffered. However, Canova slowly developed his understanding of ancient art, where he was aided by the scholars Gavin Hamilton and Quatremere of Quincy, who contributed to his emerging from the practice of copying and elaborating his original interpretation of the classics, even though he had shown a definite inclination early on to avoid the mere reproduction of established models, and even though he deeply revered ancient masters such as Phidias and Polyclitus. For him, direct study of nature was fundamental and originality important because it was the only way to create a true “natural beauty” found, for example, in classical Greek sculpture, whose canon constituted his most powerful reference. At the same time, his extensive knowledge of classical iconography allowed him to remove unnecessary elements to create a piece that referred to antiquity, but was covered with new meanings.

The sensuality contained and sublimated in the charm of his female figures was always a source of admiration, and he came to be named as “the sculptor of Venus and the Graces”, which is only partly fair, given the strength and virility of his heroic and monumental production. In the opinion of Giulio Argan:

The form is not the physical representation (that is, the projection or the ”double”) of the thing, but the thing itself sublimated, incorporated from the plane of sensory experience to that of thought. Thus, Canova realizes in art that same transformation of sensation into idealism that, in the philosophical field, is carried out by Kant, in literature by Goethe and in music by Beethoven.

Although some modern criticism sees Canova”s work as idealistic and rational, theorists of neoclassicism repeatedly emphasized this aspect, accounts of the period attest that this was not always the case, as a typically Romantic passionate ardor seems to have been a constituent element of his school, as Stendhal later identified it. Canova, once said that “our great artists (over the years have acquired an emphasis on the side of reason, but with this they no longer understood with the heart.” Her sculptures were often, of course, the object of obviously profane desire. Some people kissed his Italic Venus, and touching seemed equally necessary for a full appreciation of a sculpture. The meticulous polish of his compositions, accentuated the sensuality of the object and the touch implicit in the contemplation of a three-dimensional work, Canova himself lost in admiration before the Greek marbles he had seen in London, spent much time caressing them, saying that they were “real flesh”, as Quatremére de Quincy reported. However, at another time he stated that with his works he did not want to “deceive the observer, we know that they are marble – mute and immobile – and if they were taken as real, they would no longer be admired as works of art. I only wish to stimulate the imagination, and not to deceive the eye”. He also liked the baroque art of Rubens and Rembrandt, and after his first contact on his trip to Germany, he wrote that “the most sublime works… possess in themselves the life and the capacity to make one weep, rejoice and be moved, and this is true beauty”.

Methods of work

It is clear from the accounts of his contemporaries that Canova was a tireless worker, except for brief intervals he spent the whole day engaged in his work. In his youth, for many years he maintained the habit of not going to bed without first designing at least one new project, even when his social obligations or other duties had consumed much of his time, and this constant diligence explains why his work was so prolific.

For his compositions, Canova first sketched his idea in a drawing on paper and then personally created a prototype of small proportions in clay or wax, from which he could correct the original idea. He would then make a plaster model, the exact size of the final work and with the same degree of precision with respect to the details. To transfer it to marble, he had the help of a group of assistants who roughed out the block of stone, approximating the final form with the use of the system of marking the measured points of the original. At this point, the master would take the work back to completion. This method allowed him to be involved with the execution of several sculptures at the same time, leaving the bulk of the initial work to his assistants and taking care only of the details of the final composition, also giving it the subtle and refined final polish, which lent his works an excessively glassy and lustrous shine, with a velvety appearance, which was the subject of praise and where his masterful technique was fully manifested. However, this organization with assistants was only available to him when he had already consolidated his fame and had the resources at his disposal; a large part of his early works were executed entirely by him.

During Canova”s lifetime it was discovered that the Greeks used color in their statues, and he made some experiments in this direction, but the negative reaction of the public prevented him from progressing in this direction, as the whiteness of marble was strongly associated with the idealistic purity prized by the neoclassicals. Some of his clients gave him express recommendations not to put color on the material. He also used to bathe the statues with acqua di rota – the water in which the working tools were washed – after the final polishing, and finally he waxed them until he obtained the soft color of the skin.

The personal finishing of the sculptures in their fine polishing and in their smallest details, which was a practice quite unusual in his time, when most of the time sculptors made only the model and left the whole execution of the stone to their assistants, was the integral part of the effect that Canova sought to obtain and which was explained by the author more than once and recognized by all his admirers. For Cicognara such finishing was an important proof of the artist”s superiority in relation to his contemporaries, and his secretary Melchior Missirini wrote that his greatest quality was his ability to:

… to soften the material, to give it softness, sweetness and transparency, and finally, that clarity that deceives the cold marble and its seriousness without any loss of the real strength of the statue. Once, having finished a work he continued to caress it, I asked him why he did not leave it and he replied: “There is nothing more precious to me than time and everyone knows how I economize it, however, when I am finishing a work and when it is finished, I would always take it up again and also again later if possible, because fame is not in quantity, but in few and well done; I try to find in the matter a spiritual something-something that serves as its soul, the pure imitation of the form becomes for me death, I have to help it with the intellect and return noble these forms with inspiration, simply because I would like them to have a semblance of life”.

Thematic groups

Canova cultivated a wide range of themes and motifs, which together form an almost complete panorama of the main positive emotions and moral principles of the human being, through the freshness and innocence of youth, typified in the figures of the “Graces” and the “Dancers”, by the outbursts of passion tragic love, exemplified in the group of Orpheus and Eurydice, of ideal love, symbolized in the myth of Eros and Psyche depicted on several occasions, of the mystical and devotional love of the “Penitent Magdalens”, by the pathetic meditations on death in his tombs and epitaphs, by the representations of heroism, strength and violence of his Theseus and Hercules, treating them in an innovative way often as a challenge to the prevailing canons of his generation. He also made many portraits and allegorical scenes, but exempt from the representation of vices, poverty and ugliness, he was never a realistic sculptor or interested in portraying the social problems of his time, although in his personal activity he was not insensitive to the tribulations of the people, but in his artistic works he preferred themes where he could exercise his idealism and his constant connection with classical antiquity.

The theme of the female figure has been done dozens of times by Canova, both in isolated sculptures and in groups and bas-reliefs, but the group that brings together The Three Graces, created for the French Empress Josephine, summarizes his ideas about femininity and his virtuosity in the treatment of the female body in movement, is one of his most famous creations and refutes the widespread belief that he approached the feminine with distance and coldness. For Judith Carmel-Arthur this group has nothing impersonal, and shows her skill and originality to create a set that intertwines bodies with great ease and sensitivity, achieving a very successful result of harmony based on the counterpoint of forms, the exploration of the subtle effects of light and shadow, the contrast between full and empty and an expression of sublimated sensuality.

It is interesting to transcribe an account of the deep impression made on his friend, the poet Ugo Foscolo, by the Italian Venus he had created to replace the Venus de Medici confiscated by the French in 1802, which illustrates how in tune Canova was with the concept of the ideal woman in his time:

I have visited and reviewed and I have been passionate, and kissed – but let no one know – For once I was caressing this new Venus … adorned with all the graces that transpire a I don”t know what of the earth, but more easily move the heart, transformed into clay … When I saw this divinity of Canova, I sat beside her with a certain respect, but finding myself a moment alone with her, I sighed with a thousand desires, and with a thousand memories of the soul; in short, if the Venus of Medici is a most beautiful goddess, this one that I look at and look at again is a most beautiful woman; that one makes me hope for paradise outside this world, but this one brings me closer to paradise even in this valley of tears. (October 15, 1812).

The Italic Venus was an immediate success and continued to be appreciated even when the Medici Venus returned to Italy; in fact it became so popular that Canova sculpted two other versions and hundreds of smaller scale copies were made for tourists visiting Rome, making it one of the most reproduced statues of all time.

Also noteworthy is the Penitent Magdalene (1794-1796), which exists in two major versions and many other copies, was highly praised by Quatremere de Quincy as a depiction of Christian repentance, but was not without some controversy at the Paris Salon, where it was presented in 1808 along with other works by Canova. George Sand wrote ironically, years later, wondering:

…I spend hours looking at this woman who weeps; I wonder why she weeps, and if it is due to the remorse of having lived or to the regret of the life she no longer lives

. Erika Naginski in her analysis of the work, taking into account that she probably did not have the religious devotion of Quincy”s Quatremere, wanted it to appear as a decorative object of consumption, and suggested that it does not represent a form of Canovian idealism, rather it would be a sign of a progressive bourgeois and sentimental aesthetic of art at the turn of the nineteenth century, and compared it with other works of the same period, by other authors, which indicate this evolution. In any case, the position in which he is kneeling, was virtually nonexistent in sculpture, Canova was a pioneer in establishing this typology for the representation of melancholy, then often imitated and became an influence on Auguste Rodin”s research on that form.

The typology of the naked hero was established from classical antiquity, when athletic competitions in religious festivals celebrated the human body, especially the male, in a way unprecedented in other cultures. Athletes competed naked, and the Greeks considered them embodiments of all that was best in humanity, as a natural consequence of the idea of associating nudity with glory, triumph and also with moral excellence, principles that prevailed in the statuary of that time. The nude became, then, the privileged vehicle for the expression of fundamental ethical and social values of Greek society, appearing in the representation of the gods, in monuments commemorating victories, in votive offerings, and the cult of the body was an integral part of the complex Greek ethical and pedagogical system known as paideia. But they were ideal representations, not portraits. They enshrined a common prototype for all, a generic concept of beauty, sacredness, youth, strength, balance and harmony between mind and body, not individual variety. In other ancient cultures nudity was most of the time a sign of weakness, dishonor and defeat. The most typical example of this view, which contrasted dramatically with the Greek one, is the myth of Adam and Eve, whose nakedness was a sign of their shame.

When Christianity became the dominant cultural force in the West, the nude became a taboo, because Christians did not appreciate public games, did not have athletes, nor did they need images of naked deities, since their God forbade the creation of idols, and the new religious atmosphere was permeated by the idea of original sin. Thus, the body was devalued, and the emphasis on chastity and celibacy imposed even greater restrictions, so that in medieval art nude images are very rare, except for Adam and Eve, but once again their nudity was the sign of their fall into sin. The revaluation of classical culture in the Renaissance brought the human body and nudity back into the limelight, along with the repertoire of ancient myths, and since then the nude has again become a theme for artists. During the Baroque the interest did not diminish, nor in Neoclassicism, on the contrary, surrounded by a symbolism in many respects similar to that of antiquity, the nude again became omnipresent in Western art, but it was usually reserved only for mythological themes, being considered unsuitable for the representation of living characters.

Canova”s first major heroic work was the group of Theseus and the Minotaur (c. 1781), commissioned by Girolamo Zulian. He began his project with the traditional idea of depicting them in combat, but with the advice of Gavin Hamilton he changed the plan and began to draw a static image. The myth was well known and had served as inspiration for many artists, but the situation that Canova conceived had never been represented before, neither in sculpture nor in painting, with the hero already victorious, sitting on the body of the monster, contemplating the result of his feat, the composition was an immediate success, opening the doors of Roman patronage.

The group of Hercules and Licas (1795-1815) was created for Onorato Gaetani, a member of the Neapolitan nobility, but the fall of the Bourbons forced the forced exile of the client and the breaking of the contract, when the model was ready. For three years the author searched for a new client to purchase the marble version, until in 1799 he was approached by Count Tiberio Roberti, an Austrian government official in Verona, to sculpt a monument to celebrate the imperial victory over the French at Magnano. Overwhelmed by his numerous commissions, Canova tried to offer the sculpture of Hercules and Lycas, but the composition was rejected. Canova”s position was delicate, born in the Veneto, which was an Austrian possession, the sculptor was a subject of the Habsburg empire, from which he received his pension at that time and in addition he had already been commissioned to create a cenotaph. Also the figure of Hercules was traditionally associated with France, and although the work was recognized for its intrinsic quality, its thematic ambiguity made it unsuitable for an Austrian monument.Eventually the work was sold to the Roman banker Giovanni Torlonia and presented by the owner in his palace, with immediate success, but later critics judged the work negatively, identifying it with patterns of academic execution, with no real emotional involvement.

Possibly his most famous composition in the heroic genre and one of the main ones in his entire production was that of Perseus with the head of Medusa, designed around 1790, and sculpted with great speed between 1800 and 1801, on his return from his trip from Germany. It was inspired by the Apollo of the Belvedere, a work considered the pinnacle of classical Greek statuary and a perfect representative of the ideal of beauty. The hero is not depicted in combat, but in serene triumph, at the moment of relaxation of tension after the fight with Medusa. In this work two opposing psychological principles are expressed, that of “descending anger” and “rising satisfaction”, as suggested by Countess Isabella Teotochi Albrizzi, one of his first commentators, during the author”s lifetime. Immediately after its realization it was recognized as a masterpiece, but there were those who criticized its too “Apollonian” character, proper for a divinity, but not for a hero, and its too “elegant” attitude, unworthy of a warrior. Cicognara joked that the critics, unable to attack the execution, because it was impeccable for everyone, tried to discredit the concept. Years later, when Napoleon took the Apollo to France, Pope Pius VII acquired the work to replace it and had the sculptural group installed on the pedestal of the stolen image, hence the nickname “The Consoler” that Canova”s statue received. There is a second version that was made between 1804 and 1806 for Countess Valeria Tarnowska of Poland and is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which according to the museum”s description shows a greater refinement in the details and a more lyrical approach to the subject.

Canova”s last great composition with a heroic theme was the group of Theseus vanquishing the centaur (1805-1819), one of his most violent images. It had been commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte with the aim of installing it in Milan, but was acquired by the Emperor of Austria and taken to Vienna. An English traveler on a visit to his studio said on seeing this composition, still unfinished, that he had found the answer to all those who called Canova a master of the “elegant and soft”. The group is composed from a pyramidal form, dominated by the strong diagonal of the hero”s body about to strike down the centaur with a stick as he grabs him by the neck and presses his knee against his chest, giving a strong thrust with his right leg. The detailed anatomy of the centaur”s body is especially meticulous. Also notable are the statues he made depicting Palamedes, Paris, Hector and Ajax.

The figure of Psyche was approached several times by Canova, either alone or together with her mythological companion Eros. Among the most notable is the group of Psyche reanimated by the kiss of love (1793), which is in the Louvre Museum (and a second version in the Hermitage Museum), this sculptural group is quite a departure from classical models and also from current eighteenth-century representations. The work was commissioned by Colonel John Campbell in 1787, and the scene captures the moment when Eros revives Psyche with a kiss, after she has taken the magic potion that had cast him into an eternal sleep. For Honour and Fleming this group is particularly significant, as it offers an image at once idealized and human of love. And also because of the large surfaces and the surprisingly thin thickness of Eros” wings, the wisely chosen structural support points, but formally daring and elegant interweaving of the body forms, whose fluidity and sweetness appear so natural, all this conceals a remarkable feat in technical terms and a profound knowledge on the part of the artist of the expressive capacities of the human body. In addition to the copy in the Hermitage Museum there is the original terracotta model.

Part of his official commissions were for the creation of statues that synthesized the characteristics of portraits with allegorical image, a very common fact for the characterization of major public figures, associating them with the mythical aura of ancient iconography. Despite their frequent success, some of them were criticized. For example, there is the colossal three-meter-high portrait of Napoleon as the pacifying Mars (marble, 1802-1806 and another version in bronze of 1807), which, despite having made obvious use of classical typologies, such as Polyclitus” Doriphorus, was sufficiently innovative not to be well received by the commissioner and the critics of his time for depicting him nude, which was acceptable in mythological personifications, but not for living public figures. Canova must obviously have been aware of these rules, so it is surprising that he chose this particular form for this portrait. Napoleon had given him complete freedom to work, but this does not seem sufficient to justify the fact. Most likely Quatremere Quincy”s ideas, expressed in correspondence with the artist, must have induced him to make this controversial decision, where the French emphasized the need to represent him in the Greek manner, rejecting the Romanized form with a toga or an image in modern clothes. Even with the failure of the commission, the statue was exhibited in the Louvre Museum until 1816, when it was plundered by the English and offered as a gift to Arthur Wellesley first Duke of Wellington, in whose London mansion of Apsley House, open to the public as a museum is exhibited.a bronze copy (1811) is in the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.

The portrait of George Washington made for the government of North Carolina in the United States in 1816, unfortunately lost in a fire a few years later, was another example of the use of modified classical models, representing him as Caesar, dressed in a tunic and ancient armor, but seated writing and with his right foot stepping on his sword on the ground. The work was also received amidst controversy, as it was considered to be far removed from the republican reality of America, although even there classical culture was in great vogue.

Also notable is his portrait of Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victorious (1804 -1808). Canova initially suggested that she be depicted as Diana, the goddess of the hunt, but she insisted on being shown as Venus the goddess of love, and the reputation she acquired in Rome seems to justify this association. The sculpture presented her reclining on a divan and holding an apple in her left hand as an attribute of the goddess. It is not like other allegorical portraits by the author, a very idealistic work, but although it refers to ancient art, it shows a naturalism typical of the 19th century. Due to the notoriety of Paulina, her husband Prince Camillo Borghese, and author of the commission, kept the sculpture hidden from the eyes of the public, and in rare cases allowed its vision and always under the dim light of a torch. In any case, the work was very well received and is considered one of Canova”s masterpieces. The original work can be seen in the Borghese Gallery in Rome.

As for conventional portraits, Canova demonstrated a great ability to capture the facial expressions of the model, but moderating them within a formalist approach that harked back to the important portraiture of ancient Rome. He received numerous commissions for portraits, many more than he could handle, and there are a significant number of models that were finished but never made into marble.

Canova”s funerary monuments are considered highly innovative creations for their abandonment of the excessively dramatic funerary traditions of the Baroque, and for their alignment with the ideals of balance, moderation, elegance and repose advocated by the theorists of neoclassicism. Also present in them was an original design that placed sober and idealistic representations of the human figure in a context of daring architectural ideas. Among the most significant compositions of this genre are the papal cenotaphs and the one he had designed for Titian and that ended up being built post mortem by his assistants to be used for Canova, of all those mentioned above, the most outstanding in the opinion of modern critics is the Funeral Monument of Maria Christina of Austria (1798-1805), which caused great surprise when it was delivered to his clients, the Austrian Imperial House.

Its pyramidal shape and the presence of a procession of anonymous figures represented in different stages of life that are neither portraits nor allegorical personifications, differ radically from the funeral models that were applied at that time. The image of the deceased is not even among them, and only appears in a medallion above the entrance. For a member of the reigning house who had been recognized for his charitable work and great personal piety, the composition is extraordinarily reticent about his personality. Christopher Johns interprets it as a deliberately apolitical and anti-propagandistic statement by the author, at a time when the situation in Europe was in crisis over the French Revolution and public monuments were commissioned by political associations, expressed his desire to assert the superiority of the aesthetic schools on the subject. Apparently, the work was accepted only because of its location in a church traditionally linked to the Habsburgs and its appearance was reminiscent of the monuments of imperial Rome which guaranteed a sufficient reading free of ambiguity.

These monuments established several significant facts with those adopted by their successors. Similar figures appear in all of them, such as the genie with the inverted and extinguished torch symbolizing the fire of extinct life, the winged lion asleep awaiting resurrection, the mourning women directly indicating mourning, the figures of different ages signifying the universality of death and the transience of existence, and a door leading to a dark space indicating the mystery of the afterlife. The parade of various figures is present only on the large cenotaphs in Vienna and on his own, but some appear on papal tombs and on several smaller epitaphs in bas-relief that he produced for clients without many financial resources. Usually the portrait of the deceased is only secondary, sculpted as a bust on a column or in a medallion and separated from the main group, as in the memorial plaques of Ercole Aldobrandini, Paolo Tosio and Michal Paca, a practice that only broke down at the end of the century, when funeral art began to feature the person to whom it was dedicated. A smaller monument, but of great importance for the development of nationalism and Italian funerary art, was the one created in 1810 for the poet Vittorio Alfieri, which became a model for the exaltation of the deceased as an example of virtue, represented the first allegory of Italy as a unified political entity and was hailed at its premiere as a milestone of the unification of Italy. It is in the Basilica of the Holy Cross (Florence).Canova”s last funeral monument was the sculpture for Count Faustino Tadini, the Stele Tadini, preserved in the Accademia Tadini in Lovere.

Painting and architecture were very secondary activities for Canova, but he was able to carry out some experiments. In the last decades of the eighteenth century he began to practice painting as a private hobby, completing twenty-two works before 1800. These are works of little importance in his overall output, mostly recreations of paintings from ancient Rome, which he saw in Pompeii, along with some portraits and a few other works, including a Self-Portrait, The Three Dancing Graces and a Lamentation on the dead Christ placed in the Temple of Possagno. In fact, a head he painted was taken in his time as a work by the famed Giorgione.

He designed a chapel in Palladian style in the village of Crespano del Grappa, some of his funerary monuments present important architectural elements and his work in this field was crowned with great success in the so-called Temple of Canoviano in Possagno, which he designed with the help of professional architects. The first stone was laid on July 11, 1819 and its structure closely follows the Pantheon in Rome, but in a more compact, concise and smaller design version, with a portico with Doric colonnade supporting a classical pediment and with the main body of the building covered by a dome. It also includes an apse, absent in the Roman model. The complex is located on top of a hill, overlooking the town of Possagno and creates a landscape of striking effect. It is in this temple where the artist”s body is buried.

The first important source of documentation on his life and artistic career appeared while he was still alive, a complete catalog of his works up to 1795, published the following year by Tadini in Venice. At the time of his death there was an extensive 14-volume general catalog, Opere di sculture e di plastica di Antonio Canova (Albrizzi, 1824), several biographical essays, including Notizia intorno alla vita di Antonio Canova (Paravia, 1822), Memoria biográfica (Cicognara, 1823) and Memorias de Antonio Canova (Memes, 1825), as well as a profusion of eulogies collected and published by his friends, works that remain the main sources for the reconstruction of his career. He received some criticism against him during his lifetime, among them the articles that Carl Ludwig Fernow published in 1806, condemning his excessive attention to the surface of the works, which for him distorted the strict idealism defended by Winckelmann and degraded them to objects of sensual appeal, but indirectly recognized the hypnotic effect that the extraordinary mastery of technique in Canova”s works exerted on the public. At his death, the general opinion about him was very favorable, even enthusiastic. Despite being considered the neoclassical sculptor par excellence, and despite the fact that neoclassicism preached moderation and balance, his works often aroused the most ardent passions of his public, in a period when neoclassicism and romanticism were side by side. Poets such as Shelley, Keats or Heinrich Heine praised him in their works. The journey he made from his early works with features of rococo naturalism even later with the dramatism of baroque that is seen in the group Hercules and Lycas and in Psyche, in which his friend and theorist of neoclassicism Quatremere de Quincy had already warned him of “the danger of becoming an old Bernini”, got his versatility to make difficult the critical reading of his works, which according to Honour: “broke the long tradition of submissive praise of Antiquity and established the notion of ”modern” sculpture”; his interest in form and in finding in his sculptures multiple points of view forcing the viewer to surround his works in order to see all the details, has been one of the points that make him recognized as one of the most interesting and innovative sculptors of his time.

Canova was much imitated in Italy, attracted numerous admirers from different parts of Europe and North America, such as Joseph Chinard, Antoine-Denis Chaudet, John Flaxman, John Gibson, Bertel Thorvaldsen and Richard Westmacott, was avidly collected in England and his style bore fruit at school in France, where he was favored by the sympathy that Napoleon had for him, commissioning several works for himself and his relatives. He became a reference for all the academic artists of the 19th century. In his life Canova always tried to be distant from politics, but as we have seen on several occasions his talent was copied by the powerful. In any case, even in these cases, his works manifest a remarkable apolitism. That did not prevent him from being associated with the Italian nationalist movement after his death, and many of his creations excited feelings of national pride. Cicognara placed him as a central figure in the Italian Risorgimento, and throughout the 19th century, even through Romanticism, Canova was often remembered as one of the tutelary geniuses of the nation.

At the beginning of the 20th century, when modernity was already the dominant trend, he began to be singled out as a mere copyist of the ancients, and his work fell into general discredit, along with all other classical and academic expressions. His importance was once again appreciated in the second half of the 20th century, after the appearance of studies by Hugh Honour and Mario Praz, who presented him as a link between the ancient world and contemporary sensibility. Contemporary critics still see Canova as the greatest representative of the neoclassical current of sculpture, and recognize his important role in establishing a new canon that by referring to the tradition of antiquity was not slavishly tied to it, he adapted to the needs of his own time, with the creation of a great school of diffusion and influence. The merit of his exemplary personal life and his total dedication to art is also recognized.

Canovian Museum of Possagno

In Possagno was created an important museum entirely dedicated to his memory, called Canoviano, which houses a collection of sculptures and many of the models for his final works, as well as paintings, drawings, watercolors, sketches, projects, modeling tools, and other objects. This collection was initially formed from the works left at his death in his Roman studio, from where they were transferred to Possagno through his brother Sartori, joining with what remained in the workshop that Canova kept in his native house. Sartori in 1832 built a building to house the collection, next to the house where he was born, and in 1853 a foundation was created to manage the Canova legacy. In the mid-twentieth century the building was enlarged and equipped with a modern exhibition infrastructure.


  1. Antonio Canova
  2. Antonio Canova