CANOVA, Antonio
(b. 1757, Possagno, d. 1822, Venezia)


Italian sculptor. Called "the supreme minister of beauty" and "a unique and truly divine man" by contemporaries, Antonio Canova was considered the greatest sculptor of his time. He was brought up as a mason and already had his own studio, in Venice, by 1774. He became the most famous Neoclassical sculptor whose international reputation surpassed even those of Flaxman, Thorvaldsen and Gibson.

His early work is still very much in the 18th- century tradition, and reminiscent of French portrait sculpture (e.g. Houdon) in its liveliness, but by 1779 he had been converted to Neoclassical theory and this was confirmed by his visit to Rome and Naples in 1780 and his residence in Rome from 1781. Despite his lasting reputation as a champion of Neoclassicism, Canova's earliest works displayed a late Baroque or Rococo sensibility that was appealing to his first patrons, nobility from his native Venice. During his first and second visits to Rome in 1779 and 1781, Canova reached a turning point. He studied antiquities, visited the grand studios of the Roman restorers Bartolomeo Cavaceppi and Francesco Antonio Franzoni, and came under the influence of the English Neoclassicist Gavin Hamilton.

In a competition organized by the Venetian aristocrat Don Abbondio Rezzonico, Canova produced his statuette of Apollo Crowning Himself, a work inspired by ancient art of a physically idealized and emotionally detached figure. This work came to define the Neoclassical style. The success of the Apollo enabled the young sculptor to obtain a block of marble for his next work on a large scale, Theseus and the Minotaur, which established his reputation. In 1782 he received his first major commission, the Monument to Pope Clement XIV (1782-7, Rome, SS. Apostoli), followed by that to Clement XIII (1787-92, St Peter's).

The French invasion caused him to go to Vienna in 1797, and there he got the commission for the Monument to Maria Christina in the Augustinerkirche. Is 1802, pressed by the Vatican, he accepted Napoleon's invitation to Paris; although he did not approve of the French looting of works of art from Italy he became an admirer of Napoleon and made a bust of him from life. This was followed by many others and in the years 1806-08 he began several, including an equestrian bronze for Naples and two gigantic standing figures of the Emperor, stark naked. One of these, in bronze, is in Milan (Brera); the other, in marble, is now in the Wellington Museum, London - the restored Bourbons, having no use for it, sold it off cheaply to the British Government, which presented it to Wellington. In 1807 he also began (but abandoned) a Nelson Monument.

Canova's best-known work is the portrait of Napoleon's sister, Paolina Bonaparte Borghese as Venus (1808, Rome, Borghese), one of several statues of members of Napoleon's family based on classical prototypes. Paolina's portrait can be considered a marble equivalent to David's Madame Récamier.

In 1815, after the fall of Napoleon, Canova was sent by the Pope to Paris to try to secure the return of the works looted by the French. With English help, he succeeded in large measure and he visited London on his way home. There he studied the Elgin Marbles, bought after much controversy for the British Museum in 1816, but they had little effect, at that stage in his career, upon the fundamentally Roman (rather than Greek) basis of his art. For his part in securing the return of the Italian treasures the Pope created him Marchese d'Ischia. In 1817 he transformed his equestrian Napoleon, destined for Naples, into Charles III Bourbon, and in the same year he adapted his colossal Religion into a smaller figure for a Brownlow Monument in Belton Lincolnshire, where it is said to represent Protestant Faith. Two years later, at the expense of George III, he made the Monument to the Stuarts, now in St Peter's, Rome. In 1820 he made a Washington for North Carolina (now destroyed).

He seems to have been an extremely kind and generous man, spending his large fortune freely in helping young students and sending patrons to struggling sculptors. He seems to have made innovations in pointing, but his reliance on such mechanical methods makes his handling somewhat insensitive: to counteract this he often spent much time on finishing himself. There is a large collection of casts of his works in his native village, Possagno, near Treviso.

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