Canova, Antonio

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Canova, Antonio (1757—1822): Italian sculptor and architect.

Antonio Canova was the most lauded Neo-classical sculptor of the late-18th and early 19th century. Technically proficient, he moved away from the late Baroque and Rococo desire for profuse decorativeness and instead created a sculptural style of classical simplicity and severity that seemed to his contemporaries to compete with the greatness of classical statuary in effect. While Canova consistently represented classical mythological subjects throughout his career, he was also much in demand in the first decades of the 19th century as a portraitist to the nobility of Europe and to revolutionary political leaders such as Bonaparte, Napoleon and George Washington.

Raised in the town of Passagno by his father, the sculptor Pietro Canova, and his grandfather, the sculptor Pasino Canova, Antonio Canova settled in Venice by 1775. Here, he began winning competitions, prizes and commissions from the Venetian patriciate. After producing works for the most prestigious patrons in Venice, including Lodovico Rezzonico and Pietro Vettor Pisani, Canova moved on to study classical statuary in Rome in 1779 and to visit archeological sites such as Pompeii, Herculaneum and Paestum. Inspired by the classical age, Michelangelo and by contemporary artists such as Gavin Hamilton, Canova sculpted what is considered to be his first purely Neo-classical sculpture in 1781, Theseus and the Minotaur. Canova chose the calm narrative moment after Theseus vanquishes the Minotaur and also idealized Theseus, decisions that align him with Winkelmann, Johann Joachim’s description of the Greeks as embodying noble simplicity and calm grandeur. In Rome, the scale and importance of Canova’s commissions increased, with sculptural projects for the funerary monuments of Clement XIV and Clement XIII (1783-1792). Canova’s most Neo-classical funerary monument, one in which the sculptures are freed from their subservience to the traditional sarcophagus, is the pyramidal sculpture he executed for Duke Herzog Albrecht van Sachsen in honor of his deceased wife, Maria Christina of Austria, daughter of Empress Maria Theresa (1798). Among Canova’s favorite subjects of the 1790s was Cupid and Psyche. Cupid Awakening Psyche (1783-93), a rapturous celebration of awakening sensuality and spiritual transcendence, is the most successful of the type, demonstrating both fervent emotion and classical restraint. Canova balances the extremely awkward body positions to such an extent that they seem to gracefully and naturally create a stable pyramidal form.

Portraits of the early 1800s include those of Pius VII (1803), Ferdinand IV (1800-20) Napoleon (1803-06) and George Washington (1817-21; destroyed in 1831). Canova developed a strategy to synthesize the naturalistic elements required by portraiture with the classical idealism of Neo-classical principles, by presenting contemporary figures in mythological or historical guise, as he did by presenting Washington as an ancient legislator or Napoleon as Mars. These portraits, as well as the ideal sculptures made in the first two decades of the 1800s, which include the Three Graces (1812-16) and Paris (1807-12), sculpted for Empress Josephine, established Canova as one of the tastemakers defining beauty in the Neo-classical age. He died in Venice in 1822.

Further Reading:

Finn, D., Canova, 1983.

Johns, C., Antonio Canova and the politics of patronage in revolutionary and Napoleonic Europe, 1998.

Randall K. Van Schepen

Roger Williams University