Who is Antonio Canova?

Antonio Canova was an Italian sculptor who was one of the leading advocates for the 18th and early 19th century’s neoclassic style. He is regarded as one of the most significant sculptors in all of Europe.

Antonio Canova, along with Jacques Louis David, has been credited with ushering in a new form of sculpture that focuses on a clear, regularised structure and calm repose, inspired by classical antiquities. He was also renowned for his carving abilities and the refinement of his marble surfaces, which seemed as supple as real flesh.

Early Life of Antonio Canova

Canova was born in a small village Possagno, located in Veneto, in the year 1757. His father died when Canova was only 4 years old. His mother went on to remarry a year later and gave Canova to his grandfather Pasino Canova. Pasino was a stonecutter and sculptor and introduced the young boy into the life of art. In 1768, his talent was blossoming and gave him the opportunity to become the apprentice of Giuseppe Bernardi, more commonly named Torretti. Torretti took Canova to Venice, familiarizing him with the collection in the Palazzo Farsetti. Sadly, Bernardi died in 1774, which led Canova to enter the studio of Bernardi’s nephew, Giovanni Ferrari. Whilst in Venice, Canova was heavily influenced by casts of ancient works, particularly those in the collection of Filippo Farsetti, for whom he completed his first independent work. the Two Baskets of Fruit (1774). Larger, freestanding works followed, such as Eurydice and Orpheus, a natural life-size sculpture depicting the moment when Orpheus sees his mistress separated from him forever; a subject which is, perhaps, more suitable to the canvass than to marble. This work, however, was the first for which Canova’s skill and ambition were recognised publicly and by his contemporaries. This set-forth the rest of his career, setting up his own studio in 1775 in the heart of Venice to start commissioning works.

In 1779-80, Canova made the Grand Tour of Italy, where he saw the great collections of art in Bologna, Florence, Rome, and Naples, an experience he recorded in his travel diary. Seeing the thriving art culture in Rome, Canova proceeded to set up another studio in the capital. Although Canova’s early works revealed the influence of Baroque theatrics in their dramatic subjects, agonised expressions, and twisting forms, in Rome, he was influenced by antiquarians, archaeologists, and patrons who promoted a more restrained aesthetic. This style influenced his later works and led him to become known as one of the finest sculptors in Europe.

The Style of Antonio Canova

As we know from Canova’s early career, his work was noticed and sought after from the very beginning. It reflected a rococo-style which was trending at the time, especially in Venice. This movement illustrated illusions of motion and drama, with asymmetrical and curving forms. His figure sculptures were said to be so realistic that many people thought they were body casts, rather than carved out of marble. After Canova’s Grand Tour and introduction to Neoclassicism, his style of work differed from the original rococo movement he aspired to and instead focused on order, heroism and flawless human figures. He settled in Rome in 1780 where he received a sufficient annual allowance from the Venetian government of 300 Venetian ducats. This allowed him to live without worry and focus his energy on his studies of the popular Roman art forms.

Throughout the 1780s and 90s, Canova’s reputation grew and he was completing commissions in a variety of genres, from funerary monuments to religious portraits. His later works which focused on heroes from classical antiquity reaffirming his reputation as the leading sculptor of the age. Triumphant Perseus, for instance, which shows Perseus holding the severed head of Medusa, was clearly modelled on the Vatican’s Apollo Belvedere. Canova was inspired by the stature’s expressive character, weight and proportions, leading him to do his own take.

Antonio Canova’s most significant pieces

This Triumphant Perseus sculpture was so successful that Pope Pius VII purchased it in 1801, making it the first modern work of art to enter the Vatican Collections. The next year, in recognition of Canova’s statue, Pius VII designated the artist Inspector General of the Fine Arts of the Papal States, a post that gave him authority over the Vatican Museums and the export of works of art from Rome. He was held in great regard by the Pope and other authoritative figures (including Napoleon!) until his death in 1822. The degree of his fame can be measured by the treatment of his corpse which was treated like a saintly relic, with commemorations held across Europe.

Canova had numerous sculptures that are still seen today as great masterpieces. One noteworthy piece was his Cupid and Psyche sculpture. It depicts the Cupid, the God of love and the human Psyche embracing. It is now displayed in the famous Louvre museum in Paris. His first neoclassical piece was Theseus and the Minotaur, done in 1782. This reflected a victor’s repose after winning a battle. It became immediately popular, increasing Canova’s reputation substantially. Another exceptional piece was The Three Graces, a neoclassical sculpture of the three daughters of Zeus. The three figures represent beauty, charm and joy. As well as sculpture, Canova dabbled in painting. He painted numerous oil portraits, including self-portraits, but these pieces were never as popular. He mainly painted for his own interest and never showed the majority of his paintings to the public.

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