Canova is for Lovers

by Danilo Brunetti

What better way to spend Valentine’s Day than by discovering the work of Antonio Canova, whose Neoclassical sculptures like Amore and Psyche or The Three Graces are some of the most romantic in the world. Federico Schiaffino takes you on a journey of idealized beauty in art. By Federico Schiaffino

Considered the last great ltalian sculptor and the ultimate exponent of Neoclas­sicism, Antonio Canova (1757-1822) has even been likened to the ancient Greek sculptor Phidias. He trained in Venice, whe­re he created his early works, clearly influenced by the genius of baroque master Gian Lorenzo Bernini. In 1779 he moved to Rome, where he would live and work for the rest of his life, despite frequent travel abroad. 

His first sculpture created in Rome was The­seus on the Minotaur (now at the Victoria and Al­bert Museum in London), which depicts Theseus sitting atop the slayed Minotaur, symbolizing the victory of reason over irrationality. The success of this work brought him many commissions from prestigious collectors, from the Habsburgs to the Bourbons, from the Papal Court to Napoleon.

Thanks to Canova’s long period of Roman residence, several of his most important works are still on display right here in the Eternal City. 

The funeral monument of Pope Clement XIV, lo­cated in Santi Apostoli church, raised Canova to a level of fame equal to that of Bernini or Michelangelo in their time. He placed a sculpture of the stern pontiff at the top of the monument with his right arm raised in an admoni­shing gesture. Underneath, Temperance stoops with a calm and resigned face, and even lower, Humility, with her head bent and arms folded on her lap, reflects on the destiny of humanity. 

The success of this project led to another important work, the tomb of Pope Clement XIII, this time destined for St. Peter’s Basilica. Ignoring fatigue and the criticisms of his detractors, Canova spent four long years completing the work, which was solemnly inaugurated on the night of Holy Thursday in 1792, in the presence of Pope Pius VI. Disguised as a mendicant friar to better overhear the comments of onlookers, Canova was able to easily find out the consensus of his work. 

Perseus Triumphant with the Head of Medusa

Another illustrious example of the master’s art that deserves special attention is Perseus Triumphant with the Head of Medusa, on display in the Vatican Museums. The eyes of the gorgon can petrify anyone who looks into them, which is what seems to have happened to Perseus here, as legend states that the work is so perfect that it is nothing less than the Greek hero’s body turned into marble. 

Also housed at the Vatican Museums are Two Boxers, a mo­del of perfection and harmony of the human body. The athletes depicted are the Greek fighters Damoxenos and Kreugas, real protagonists of a cruel fight during which the first eviscerated his rival. 

Another Canova masterpiece is temporarily on display at Rome’s National Museum of Modem Art. The sculpture group Hercules and Lichas depicts an enraged Hercules as he flings the young Lichas into the air, after the latter unknowingly gave him a tunic coated with the poisoned blood of a centaur. Here the muscular tension is paramount: Lichas appears suspended in the air a moment before being flung into the sea. 

Hercules and Lichas

But Canova’s most famous Roman work is without doubt the statue of Paolina Borghese, preserved at the Borghese Gallery. The sculpture was com­missioned in 1804 by Prince Camillo Borghese to celebrate his wedding with Paolina, a young and adventurous noblewoman and the little sister of Napoleon. The work was completed in 1808 for the record price of 6000 scudi. Paolina is depicted in the form of Triumphant Venus: in her left hand she holds an apple, a souvenir of her victory in the judgment of Paris, when the latter had to choose who among the goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite (Venus) to assign a golden apple engraved with the words”To the Most Beautiful”. It’s no surprise that he gave it to the goddess of love and beauty. 

Paolina Borghese

The semi-reclined Paolina’s torso is nude, while the lower part of her body is wrapped in a light garment that hides just enough to render her modest and sensual at the same time. Canova applied a special pink patina to the sculpture so as to imitate the color of skin and give the whole work a subtle semblance of life. Because the work was designed to be seen from several angles, the sculptor also decided to insert a gear into the wood base of the statue so that it can be slowly rotated. The statue quickly caused a sensation due to Paolina’s pronoun­ced sensuality. “How could you dare to pose nude for Canova?” people asked this well-regarded woman. “The room was well heated!” she is said to have replied. 

Where to find Canova in Rome

  • St. Peter’s Basilica -Funeral Monument to Clement Xl 11 – Piazza San Pietro. 
  • Santi Apostoli Church -Funeral Monument to Clement XIV – Piazza Santi Apostoli, 51. 
  • National Gallery of Modern Art  (GNAM) – Hercules and Lichas – Viale delle Belle Arti, 131. 
  • Canova’s Studio – Canova’s first work­shop is rich in archaeological finds, some of which are now walled into the exterior of the building. Today it’s an art gallery and the studio of artist Luigi Ontani.  Via delle Colonnette, 26a/27. 
  • Caffè Canova Tadolini -Dining on traditional Roman cuisine amid neoclassical statues in the great artist’s atelier is an unforgettable experience for any art lover. Via del Babuino, 150a. 
  • Bar Restaurant Canova – In this lovely outdoor lounge in the splendid setting of Piazza del Popolo, sip a fancy cocktail or enjoy a gourmet dish such as the famous Canova risotto with champagne and truf­fles. Piazza del Popolo, 16/17.