"…I read that the ancients, after they produced a sound, used to modulate it, heightening and lowering its pitch without departing from the rules of harmony. So must the artist do in working on a nude……I read that the ancients, after they produced a sound, used to modulate it, heightening and lowering its pitch without departing from the rules of harmony. So must the artist do in working on a nude…"
Sculptor and painter born in Treviso in 1757 and considered the foremost exponent of Neoclassicism. He was dubbed “the modern Phidias” and was initiated into sculpture practice by his paternal grandfather, who devoted himself to classical-style works. Thanks to the interest expressed by senator Giovanni Falier, who recognized Canova’s talent, the artist studied in Venice, in the studio of Giuseppe Bernardi, known as "Torretti", and at the nude academy set up at Fontegheto de la Farina. Today his early works, commissioned by Falier, are housed at Museo Correr: with their immediate success, these works determined the integration of the young artist into the world of contemporary art.
In 1775, he opened a studio of his own and carved on commission the sculptural groups “Orpheus and Eurydice” in 1776 and “Dedalus and Icarus” in 1779: obviously, the classical Grecism represented a constant source of inspiration. In 1779, he decided to continue his studies in Roman schools like Accademia di Francia and the school of Musei Capitolini. The Roman milieu, lively and full of artists, allowed him to attain the growth and exchange of views he desired. Invited by the Venetian ambassador Girolamo Zulian, lover of the arts and patron of artists, Canova received his first commissions for Roman works, destined to become future milestones in art history. These pieces were “Theseus and the Minotaur”, 1781, and “Psyche”, 1793, works that embody the Neoclassical ideal of beauty, departing from Baroque art, for the simple elegance of lines and forms.
Among his other works dating from the same period are his great masterpieces “Cupid and Psyche”, whose first version of 1788-1793 in white marble is today housed at the Louvre, and the group of “The Three Graces”, championed by Joséphine de Beauharnais, wife of Napoleon I, and carved between 1813 and 1816. Several other well-known pieces were the result of his activity in that period, such as “The Penitent Magdalene”, sculpted in 1796. In all the works of classical inspiration, the anatomical forms are characterized by the search for perfection, essential lines and the fluidity of movements. The emotionality and psychology of characters are highlighted and accentuated. The classical ideal of rhythm and balance finds a new expression in Canova’s pieces.
Sculptural groups are always represented in the instant that bears the most important meaning in the characters’ history: therefore, Theseus is not represented while fighting the Minotaur but at the end of the fight, when he releases the tension and makes a gesture that borders on compassion toward his defeated enemy. Cupid and Psyche are represented in the moment of highest tension, just before kissing, in deep contemplation of each other, idealized according to a principle of absolute and spiritual beauty. Maestro Canova made use of marble from the Apuan quarries for his most important pieces, following the example of Michelangelo: it is said that he sent the models to the Versilia area to then be rough-hewed there and completed in Rome by the master himself.
The artist considerably devoted himself also to funerary monuments. Among these, he erected, for instance, the monuments to Clement XIII, in Basilica di San Pietro, Vatican, in 1787 – 1792; to Clement XIV, in the Basilica dei Santi Apostoli, in 1787; to Maria Christina of Austria, at Augustinerkirche, Vienna, in 1798-1805; to Vittorio Alfieri, in Santa Croce, Florence, in 1806-1810.The architectural scheme is on three levels and composed of: at the base, the allegorical statues, related to death and to the concept of salvation; at the second level there is usually the sarcophagus and, on top, the statue representing the celebrated personality. The monument to Maria Christina of Austria departs from this scheme with its pyramid shape, steeped with symbolism: the crouched lion stands for Strength, the girl walking an old blind man symbolizes Charity and the Winged Genius, representation of the groom, stands for Piety. In Neoclassicism, the funerary monuments are devoid of any sense of the macabre and the horrid that had characterized, by contrast, the Baroque, but the moment of death corresponds to the way that leads to the sublimation of the past life.
From 1803 to 1806, he sculpted Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker, commissioned but not accepted by the Emperor, since he was offended by such representation. The artist worked much for the Bonaparte family, making a portrait of Pauline, for which he took inspiration once again from the Greek models, and representing her as Venus Victrix, half-naked and lying on a triclinium (1805-1808). He died in Venice, in 1822, while returning to Rome from a trip, appointing as sole heir his half-brother, the bishop Giovanni Battista Sartori, who had often accompanied him in his artistic career. In 1819, he designed The Temple – monument destined to become his sepulchre – himself and had it built in Possagno, his native town. It is a majestic building, a true parish church, dedicated to the Holy Trinity. However, when he died it was still incomplete and only in 1832 could his remains be deposited there. His native home in Possagno has been turned into a museum and today is the Gallery that houses Canova’s paintings.