Antonio Canova

All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated


CANOVA, ANTONIO (17571822), Italian sculptor. The leading proponent of neoclassicism and Italy's last internationally famous artist, the sculptor Antonio Canova, born in the village of Possagno in 1757, rose to celebrity from humble origins. The son and grandson of provincial stonecarvers in the rural Veneto, he was brought up and trained by his paternal grandfather, Pasino Canova, after his father Pietro's death in 1761 and the almost immediate remarriage of his mother, Angela Zardo. He attracted the attention of members of the patrician Falier family and, with their help, moved to Venice, where he studied sculpture in the studio of Giuseppe Bernardi (c. 16961774). There he learned to work in a rococo naturalistic idiom that he quickly abandoned after his permanent move to Rome in 1780.

In Rome, the center of artistic innovation and birthplace of neoclassicism, Canova was supported by a pension from the Venetian senate and lodged with the Serene Republic's ambassador to the Holy See, Girolamo Zulian. It was a commission from Zulian, Theseus and the Dead Minotaur (17811783), that initially established Canova's reputation as a neoclassical sculptor of great promise. The success of the Zulian statue earned him the commission for the tomb of Pope Clement XIV Ganganelli (17831787) for the Roman basilica of the Holy Apostles and a second funerary monument to the Venetian Pope Clement XIII Rezzonico for Saint Peter's (17871792). Papal tombs, the most prestigious commissions possible for sculptors, were erected in public spaces and listed in guidebooks, facts that helped to promote Canova's reputation far beyond Rome.

The French invasion of the Papal States in 1796 and the collapse of the pontifical government of Pius VI in 1798 sent Canova home to the Austrianruled Veneto, where he lived in exile as an opponent of the French puppet Roman Republic (17981799). From Possagno, he journeyed to Vienna to help gain support for the deposed pope and received the commission for his most important tomb, the moving Monument to the Archduchess Maria Christina of Austria, erected in the church of the Augustinians in Vienna in 1805. His Austrian contacts led to additional commissions, including Theseus Struggling with the Centaur (18041819).

Despite wars and political upheaval, Canova was able to maintain a flourishing professional practice after 1800 because he refused to allow politics to determine his patrons. During the hegemony of Napoleon from 1800 to 1814, he often worked for members of the Bonaparte family, executing statues for Napoleon himself (Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker, 18031806), for Bonaparte's mother Letizia (Madame Mère as Agrippina, 18041807), and for the emperor's sister Pauline (Pauline Borghese as Venus Victrix, 18041808), among others. As a conservative Catholic and Venetian patriot (the French had destroyed the political independence of Venice), Canova was essentially francophobic. The question of cynicism in working for the Bonapartes is still a matter of scholarly debate.

The sculptor's admiration for Napoleon's first wife, Joséphine, and his delight in working for her, however, are beyond dispute. She was an Old Regime aristocrat who wished only to have the best specimens of Canova's chisel for her gallery at the château de Malmaison. Canova found her highly sympathetic and executed several works for her such as Hebe (18001805), Dancer (18051812), Paris (18071812), and The Three Graces (18121816). The Malmaison gallery briefly formed the finest private collection of Canova's sculpture in existence and featured the graceful, elegant mythological figures that were the artist's specialty. These statues passed into the Russian imperial collections after Joséphine's death in 1814 and are still exhibited in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

Elegant, graceful, coyly erotic, and smooth-surfaced marble statues of mythological and literary figures were also extremely popular among Canova's British patrons, who formed the majority of the sculptor's clients, especially after 1814. He executed Psyche (17891792) for Henry Blundell, a second version of The Three Graces (18151817) for John Russell, sixth duke of Bedford, and Mars and Venus (18161821) for the Prince Regent George, who also commissioned Monument to the Last Stuarts (18171819) for Saint Peter's. While in London in 1815, Canova testified before the parliamentary committee in favor of the acquisition of the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon in Athens. British assistance to Canova while he was in Paris in 1815 to oversee the repatriation from the former Musée Napoléon of stolen works of art was crucial to Italy's recovery of a highly significant part of its cultural patrimony.

Canova's last years were spent in executing commissions for various British patrons and in the construction and decoration of a parish church in Possagno, which still stands as a monument to his Catholic piety, fame, and neoclassical aesthetic. He died in Venice in 1822.

See also Neoclassicism ; Sculpture ; Venice, Art in .


Johns, Christopher M. S. Antonio Canova and the Politics of Patronage in Revolutionary and Napoleonic Europe. Berkeley, 1998.

Licht, Fred. Canova. New York, 1983.

Pavanello, Giuseppe, and Giandomenico Romanelli, eds. Canova. Venice, 1992.

Christopher M. S. Johns

views updated


CANOVA, ANTONIO (1757–1822), Italian sculptor, painter, draftsman, and architect.

Antonio Canova was the most accomplished and best-known sculptor associated with the revival of classicism at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century. Easily the most celebrated artist of his time, Canova developed an idealized, purified style of sculpture based on classical antiquity that many came to esteem more highly than even his classical models.

Canova was born to a stonecutter in Possagno, Italy. He apprenticed with Giuseppe Bernardi, a minor sculptor, with whom he moved to Venice. He achieved modest success producing sculptures of classical figures, whose naturalism and technical finesse impressed his contemporaries and gained him admission in 1779 to the Venetian Accademia.

In 1789 Canova moved to Rome, where he lived for a period as the guest of Girolamo Zulian, the ambassador of the Venetian Republic, and joined a circle of artists, connoisseurs, scholars, archaeologists, and theorists engaged in the exploration and revival of classical antiquity. He had received no formal education, but now immersed himself in the study of ancient Greece and Rome. The following year he began his Theseus and the Minotaur (1781–1783), which quickly became seen as the embodiment of the noble simplicity and calm grandeur that Johann Joachim Winkelmann had considered the hallmark of the greatest classical sculpture. Canova's reputation soared, and he began to receive some of the most important sculptural commissions in Europe: funerary monuments for Clement XIV (1783–1787) and Clement XIII (1783–1792) and the tomb of Maria Christina of Austria (1798–1805). All of these monuments distinguished themselves by moving away from the turbulence, pomp, and triumphalism of the baroque to far more simplified, somber forms.

Collectors vied for Canova's work as they did for that of no other artist. Monarchs and nobility from across Europe came to him with commissions; even the fledgling and financially strapped state of North Carolina turned to him for a statue of George Washington. His clientele was international, and the market for his work extended from the wealthiest patrons of his day to those who could only afford one of the many prints made after it. More biographies of Canova appeared in his lifetime than did for any other artist prior to him.

Canova fashioned an unusually autonomous artistic practice. He vigilantly preserved his independence,

declining positions at court, refusing numerous projects that did not interest him, and even turning down honors and awards. His fame allowed him to work outside the confines of any one of the established institutional frameworks for art, such as courts, academies, or local markets and exhibition systems. Unlike most sculptors of the time, Canova often suggested subjects to his patrons or guided their ideas to suit his. He was able to do an unusually large amount of work on speculation, creating small-scale models that he would transform into finished marble sculptures when a buyer came forth.

Canova's independence allowed him to indulge his predilection for free-standing sculptures of one or a few idealized figures drawn from classical mythology. Unlike most monumental sculpture of the period, which was built to suit a preexisting architectural surround, his sculptures were self-contained art objects, and collectors often built environments in which to display them. Works that came directly from the artist's hand, as opposed to copies made under his supervision, were especially valued because of the way he subtly modulated and textured their surface to achieve refined, sensual effects and exquisite details. The independence of his sculptures from the demands of specific patrons and contexts made them eminently collectible, as they could pass from collection to collection without losing any essential aspect of their appeal.

Canova's overall output was enormous. Many of the sculptor's mythological works, such as his Cupid and Psyche (1783–1793), were in a graceful, sensuous manner, but by the mid-1790s he wished to distinguish himself in a more heroic and virile mode. Thus he created works such as the Hercules and Lichas (1795–1815), in which the terrible rage of the Greek god flinging a boy into the sea is paradoxically contained within a single plane and sharply defining outline. In addition to his freestanding works on mythological themes, he did a great many reliefs, stele, idealized heads, and especially portraits, and was sought after in this last regard by all the ruling houses of Revolutionary and Napoleonic Europe.

Canova produced many paintings and drawings, but he used these media primarily to explore ideas for sculpture. His other activities included working as a tireless advocate for the arts and for archaeology. He was devastated by Napoleon's looting of Italy and worked to recover the nation's artistic riches after Napoleon's fall.

Though immensely influential and unrivaled in fame during his own lifetime, Canova's work fell out of favor with the Romantic generation and never recovered its widespread appeal. Within art history, however, he remains recognized as the presiding sculptural genius of the period and a precocious example of modern artists' obsessions with experimentation and autonomy.

See alsoDavid, Jacques-Louis; Napoleon; Painting.


Primary Sources

Canova, Antonio. I quaderni di viaggio: (1779–1780). Edited by Elena Bassi. Venice, 1959.

——. Antonio Canova: Scritti. Edited by Hugh Honour. Rome, 1994.

Secondary Sources

Johns, Christopher M. S. Antonio Canova and the Politics of Patronage in Revolutionary and Napoleonic Europe. Berkeley, Calif., 1998.

Licht, Fred, with photographs by David Finn. Canova. New York, 1983. The most comprehensive modern survey in English.

Pavanello, Giuseppe, and Giandomenico Romanelli, eds. Antonio Canova. Translated by David Bryant. New York, 1992. Thorough exhibition catalogue.

David O'Brien

views updated

Antonio Canova

The Italian sculptor Antonio Canova (1757-1822) was a leading exponent of the neoclassic style, which dominated the arts in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Internationally famous, he was regarded as the most brilliant sculptor in Europe.

Antonio Canova was born in Possagno near Venice on Nov. 1, 1757. He displayed a talent for sculpture while still very young and by 1774 had established his own studio in Venice, where he produced portrait busts and other sculptures for the Venetian nobility. In 1779 Canova left Venice to travel and to study in southern Italy; during the following 2 years he worked in Rome and visited Herculaneum and Pompeii, ancient Roman cities which had been excavated in the middle of the 18th century. By 1781, the year he took up permanent residence in Rome, Canova was thoroughly committed artistically to the neoclassic style, which was sweeping all the arts.

During the first half of the 18th century the arts had been dominated by the rococo, a light, playful, and aristocratic style. By the 1760s, however, the rococo was under attack by intellectuals and critics as being trivial and frivolous, and at the same time several important books were published concerning ancient Greek and Roman art and architecture. Fashionable and artistic taste began to shift slowly from the rococo to the art of antiquity, and when Canova reached maturity as a sculptor, neoclassicism had achieved a virtually complete triumph in painting, sculpture, architecture, and the decorative arts. Canova's passion for ancient art and his study of it, combined with his particular talents and the taste of the period, led him to the heights of success as a champion of neoclassicism in sculpture.

Between 1783 and his death nearly 40 years later, Canova received important and extensive commissions from the popes, Napoleon, the Hapsburgs, and members of the English aristocracy. He traveled widely and worked in Rome, Paris, and Vienna. His statues became so popular that he utilized many assistants and various mechanical techniques in order to meet the demands made upon him. In 1805, by which time his reputation as the most eminent sculptor in Europe was firmly established, he was appointed by Pope Pius VII as inspector general of fine arts and antiquities for the Papal States. Five years later he became director of the Academy of St. Luke in Rome, the official art academy of the Papal States.

Canova's mature style derived specifically and directly from ancient Greek and Roman sculpture, and his subject matter was most often taken from classical mythology. Perseus (1801) reflects his classical taste for idealization, expressed in carefully controlled harmonies of proportion, clear line, smooth modeling, and sleek surfaces. Two famous and typical works which he created for the Bonaparte family are the monumental marble statues of Napoleon (1802-1810) and of Napoleon's sister, Pauline Borghese (1808). In the statue of Napoleon, which is nearly 12 feet high, Canova presented the victorious Bonaparte as a nude Roman emperor, his facial features made to conform to the classical ideal. Princess Borghese, life-size and partly draped, is shown as Venus reclining on a couch. Both works are notable for dependence upon Hellenistic sources, idealized perfection of the forms, fluidity of line, graceful modeling, and exquisitely refined detail.

Canova died in Venice on Oct. 13, 1822. He created a classic ideal of human beauty which exerted a strong influence on academic sculpture during most of the 19th century. Late in the century, however, Canova's work was harshly criticized as cold, lifeless, uninspired, and a mere imitation of ancient art. This adverse critical judgment of Canova's sculpture prevailed well into the 20th century, but recent and more objective studies of the entire neoclassic movement have tended to restore to Canova's reputation some of the luster which it possessed during his lifetime.

Further Reading

The most important monograph on Canova is in Italian: Elena Bassi, Canova (1943). In English, an interesting and decidedly adverse evaluation of Canova's work may be found in Sir Kenneth Clark, The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form (1956). A different and more favorable view of Canova is expressed in Sir Osbert Sitwell, Winters of Content (1932). For examinations of Canova within the context of his era and for discussions of neoclassicism see Fritz Novotny, Painting and Sculpture in Europe: 1780-1880 (1960); Robert Rosenblum, Transformations in Late Eighteenth-Century Art (1967); and Hugh Honour, Neo-Classicism (1968). □

views updated

Canova, Antonio (1757–1822) Italian sculptor. His work expresses the grave elegance and allusions to antique art which characterize neo-classicism, but retains a high degree of individuality. Two important pieces of the 1780s, Theseus and the Minotaur and Pope Clement XIV's tomb, catapulted Canova into the limelight. He worked for many distinguished European patrons, notably the papal court.

More From