Birthplace: Possagno, Italy
Location of death: Venice, Italy
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Iglesia de Santa Marķa Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice, Italy
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Executive summary: Rejuvenated sculpture in Italy
Italian sculptor, born on the 1st of November 1757, at Possagno, an obscure village situated amid the recesses of the hills of Asolo, where these form the last undulations of the Venetian Alps, as they subside into the plains of Treviso. At three years of age Canova was deprived of both parents, his father dying and his mother remarrying. Their loss, however, was compensated by the tender solicitude and care of his paternal grandfather and grandmother, the latter of whom lived to experience in her turn the kindest personal attention from her grandson, who, when he had the means, gave her an asylum in his house at Rome. His father and grandfather followed the occupation of stone-cutters or minor statuaries; and it is said that their family had for several ages supplied Possagno with members of that calling. As soon as Canova's hand could hold a pencil, he was initiated into the principles of drawing by his grandfather Pasino. The latter possessed some knowledge both of drawing and of architecture, designed well, and showed considerable taste in the execution of ornamental warks. He was greatly attached to his art; and upon his young charge he looked as one who was to perpetuate, not only the family name, but also the family profession.
The early years of Canova were passed in study. The bias of his mind was to sculpture, and the facilities afforded for the gratification of this predilection in the workshop of his grandfather were eagerly improved. In his ninth year he executed two small shrines of Carrara marble, which are still extant. Soon after this period he appears to have been constantly employed under his grandfather. Amongst those who patronized the old man was the patrician family Falier of Venice, and by this means young Canova was first introduced to the senator of that name, who afterwards became his most zealous patron. Between the younger son, Giuseppe Falier, and the artist a friendship commenced which terminated only with life. The senator Falier was induced to receive him under his immediate protection. It has been related by an Italian writer and since repeated by several biographers, that Canova was indebted to a trivial circumstance -- the moulding of a lion in butter -- for the warm interest which Falier took in his welfare. The anecdote may or may not be true. By his patron Canova was placed under Bernardi, or, as he is generally called by filiation, Torretto, a sculptor of considerable eminence, who had taken up a temporary residence at Pagnano, a village in the vicinity of the senator's mansion. This took place while Canova was in his thirteenth year; and with Torretto he continued about two years, making in many respects considerable progress. This master returned to Venice, where he soon afterwards died; but by the high terms in which he spoke of his pupil to Falier, the latter was induced to bring the young artist to Venice, to where he accordingly went, and was placed under a nephew of Torretto. With this instructor he continued about a year, studying with the utmost assiduity. After the termination of this engagement he began to work on his own account, and received from his patron an order for a group, "Orpheus and Eurydice." The first figure, which represents Eurydice in flames and smoke, in the act of leaving Hades, was completed towards the close of his sixteenth year. It was highly esteemed by his patron and friends, and the artist was now considered qualified to appear before a public tribunal. The kindness of some monks supplied him with his first workshop, which was the vacant cell of a monastery. Here for nearly four years he labored with the greatest perseverance and industry. He was also regular in his attendance at the academy, where he carried off several prizes. But he relied far more on the study and imitation of nature. From his contemporaries he could learn nothing, for their style was vicious. From their works, therefore, he reverted to living models, as exhibited in every variety of situation. A large portion of his time was also devoted to anatomy, which science was regarded by him as "the secret of the art." He likewise frequented places of public amusement, where he carefully studied the expressions and attitudes of the performers. He formed a resolution, which was faithfully adhered to for several years, never to close his eyes at night without having produced some design. Whatever was likely to forward his advancement in sculpture he studied with ardor. On archaeological pursuits he bestowed considerable attention. With ancient and modern history he rendered himself well acquainted and he also began to acquire some of the continental languages.
Three years had now elapsed without any production coming from his chisel. He began, however, to complete the group for his patron, and the Orpheus which followed evinced the great advance he had made. The work was universally applauded, and laid the foundation of his fame. Several groups succeeded this performance, amongst which was that of "Daedalus and Icarus", the most celebrated work of his noviciate. The simplicity of style and the faithful imitation of nature which characterized them called forth the warmest admiration. His merits and reputation being now generally recognized, his thoughts began to turn from the shores of the Adriatic to the banks of the Tiber, for which he set out at the commencement of his twenty-fourth year.
Before his departure for Rome, his friends had applied to the Venetian senate for a pension, to enable him to pursue his studies without embarrassment. The application was ultimately successful. The stipend amounted to three hundred ducats, and was limited to three years. Canova had obtained letters of introduction to the Venetian ambassador, the Cavaliere Zulian, and enlightened and generous protector of the arts, and was received in the most hospitable manner. His arrival in Rome, on the 28th of December 1780, marks a new era in his life. It was here he was to perfect himself by a study of the most splendid relics of antiquity, and to put his talents to the severest test by a competition with the living masters of the art. The result was equal to the highest hopes cherished either by himself or by his friends. The work which first established his fame at Rome was "Theseus vanquishing the Minotaur." The figures are of the heroic size. The victorious Theseus is represented as seated on the lifeless body of the monster. The exhaustion which visibly pervades his whole frame proves the terrible nature of the conflict in which he has been engaged. Simplicity and natural expression had hitherto characterized Canova's style; with these were now united more exalted conceptions of grandeur and of truth. The Theseus was regarded with fervent admiration.
Canova's next undertaking was a monument in honor of Pope Clement XIV; but before he proceeded with it he deemed it necessary to request permission from the Venetian senate, whose servant he considered himself to be, in consideration of the pension. This he solicited in person, and it was granted. He returned immediately to Rome, and opened his celebrated studio close to the Via del Babuino. He spent about two years of unremitting toil in arranging the design and composing the models for the tomb of the pontiff. After these were completed, other two years were employed in finishing the monument, and it was finally opened to public inspection in 1787. The work, in the opinion of enthusiastic dilettanti, stamped the author as the first artist of modern times. After five years of incessant labor, he completed another cenotaph to the memory of Pope Clement XIII, which raised his fame still higher. Works now came rapidly from his chisel. Amongst these is Psyche, with a butterfly, which is placed on the left hand, and held by the wings with the right. This figure, which is intended as a personification of man's immaterial part, is considered as in almost every respect the most faultless and classical of Canova's works. In two different groups, and with opposite expression, the sculptor has represented Cupid with his bride; in the one they are standing, in the other recumbent. These and other works raised his reputation so high that the most flattering offers were sent him from the Russian court to induce him to remove to St. Petersburg, but these were declined. "Italy", says he, in writing of the occurrence to a friend, "Italy is my country -- is the country and native soil of the arts. I cannot leave her; my infancy was nurtured here. If my poor talents can be useful in any other land, they must be of some utility to Italy; and ought not her claim to be preferred to all others?"
Numerous works were produced in the years 1795-97, of which several were repetitions of previous productions. One was the celebrated group representing the "Parting of Venus and Adonis." This famous production was sent to Naples. The French Revolution was now extending its shocks over Italy; and Canova sought obscurity and repose in his native Possagno. To there he retired in 1798, and continued at that place for about a year, principally employed in painting, of which art also he had some knowledge. He executed upwards of twenty paintings about this time. One of his productions is a picture representing the dead body of the Saviour just removed from the cross, surrounded by the three Marys, St. John, Joseph of Arimathea, and, somewhat in the background, Nicodemus. Above appears the Father, with the mystic dove in the center of a glory, and surrounded by a circle of cherubs. This composition, which was greatly applauded, he presented to the parochial church of his native place. Events in the political world having come to a temporary lull, he returned to Rome; but his health being impaired from arduous application, he took a journey through a part of Germany, in company with his friend Prince Rezzonico. He returned from his travels much improved, and again commenced his labors with vigor and enthusiasm.
Canova's sculptures have been distributed under three heads: (1) Heroic compositions; (2) Compositions of grace and elegance; and (3) Sepulchral monuments and relievos. In noticing the works which fall under each of these divisions, it will be impossible to maintain a strict chronological order, but perhaps a better idea of his productions may thus be obtained. Their vast number, however, prevents their being all enumerated.
(1) His "Perseus with the Head of Medusa" appeared soon after his return. The moment of representation is when the hero, flushed with conquest, displays the head of the "snaky Gorgon", while the right hand grasps a sword of singular device. By a public decree, this fine work was placed in one of the stanze of the Vatican hitherto reserved for the most precious works of antiquity; but it would be a mistake to say that it wholly sustains this comparison, or that it rivals the earlier realization of the same subject in Italian art, that by Benvenuto Cellini. In 1802, at the personal request of Napoleon Bonaparte, Canova repaired to Paris to model a bust of the first consul. The artist was entertained with munificence, and various honors were conferred upon him. The statue, which is colossal, was not finished until six years after. On the fall of the great Napoleon, Louis XVIII presented this statue to the British government, by whom it was afterwards given to Wellington. "Palamedes", "Creugas and Damoxenus", the "Combat of Theseus and the Centaur", and "Hercules and Lichas" may close the class of heroic compositions, although the catalog might be swelled by the enumeration of various others, such as "Hector and Ajax" and the statues of Washington, King Ferdinand of Naples, and others. The group of "Hercules and Lichas" is considered as the most terrible conception of Canova's mind, and in its peculiar style as scarcely to be excelled.
(2) Under the head of compositions of grace and elegance, the statue of Hebe takes the first place in point of date. Four times has the artist embodied in stone the goddess of youth, and each time with some variation. The only material improvement, however, is the substitution of a support more suitable to the simplicity of the art. Each of the statues is, in all its details, in expression, attitude and delicacy of finish, strikingly elegant. The "Dancing Nymphs" maintain a character similar to that of the Hebe. The "Graces" and the "Venus" are more elevated. The "Awakened Nymph" is another work of uncommon beauty. The mother of Napoleon, his consort Marie Louise (as Concord), to model whom the author made a further journey to Paris in 1810, the princess Esterhazy and the muse Polymnia (Elisa Bonaparte) take their place in this class, as do the ideal heads, comprising Corinna, Sappho, Laura, Beatrice and Helen of Troy.
(3) Of the cenotaphs and funeral monuments the most splendid is the monument to the archduchess Maria Christina of Austria, consisting of nine figures. Besides the two for the Roman pontiffs already mentioned, there is one for Alfieri, another for Emo, a Venetian admiral, and a small model of a cenotaph for Nelson, besides a great variety of monumental relievos.
The events which marked the life of the artist during the first fifteen years of the period in which he was engaged on the above-mentioned works scarcely merit notice. His mind was entirely absorbed in the labors of his studio, and, with the exception of his journeys to Paris, one to Vienna, and a few short intervals of absence in Florence and other parts of Italy, he never quitted Rome. In his own words, "his statues were the sole proofs of his civil existence." There was, however, another proof, which modesty forbade him to mention, an ever-active benevolence, especially towards artists. In 1815 he was commissioned by the Pope to superintend the transmission from Paris of those works of art which had formerly been conveyed there under the direction of Napoleon. By his zeal and exertions, for there were many conflicting interests to reconcile, he adjusted the affair in a manner at once creditable to his judgment and fortunate for his country. In the autumn of this year he gratified a wish he had long entertained of visiting London, where he received the highest tokens of esteem. The artist for whom he showed particular sympathy and regard in London was Haydon, who might at the time be counted the sole representative of historical painting there, and whom he especially honored for his championship of the Elgin marbles, then recently transported to England, and ignorantly depreciated by polite connoisseurs. Canova returned to Rome in the beginning of 1816, with the ransomed spoils of his country's genius. Immediately after, he received several marks of distinction -- by the hand of the Pope himself his name was inscribed in "the Golden Volume of the Capitol", and he received the title of Marquis of Ischia, with an annual pension of 3000 crowns.
He now contemplated a great work, a colossal statue of Religion. The model filled Italy with admiration; the marble was procured, and the chisel of the sculptor ready to be applied to it, when the jealousy of churchmen as to the site, or some other cause, deprived the country of the projected work. The mind of Canova was inspired with the warmest sense of devotion, and though foiled in this instance he resolved to consecrate a shrine to the cause. In his native village he began to make preparations for erecting a temple which was to contain, not only the above statue, but other works of his own; within its precincts were to repose also the ashes of the founder. Accordingly he repaired to Possagno in 1819. At a sumptuous entertainment which he gave to his workmen, there occurred an incident which marks the kindliness of his character. When the festivities of the day had terminated, he requested the shepherdesses and peasant-girls of the adjacent hamlets to pass in review before him, and to each he made a present. We need not, therefore, be surprised that a few years afterwards, when the remains of the donor came to be deposited in their last asylum, the grief which the surrounding peasantry evinced was in natural expression so intense as to eclipse the studied solemnity of more pompous mourning.
After the foundation-stone of this edifice had been laid, Canova returned to Rome; but every succeeding autumn he continued to visit Possagno, in order to direct the workmen, and encourage them with pecuniary rewards and medals. In the meantime the vast expenditure exhausted his resources, and compelled him to labor with unceasing assiduity notwithstanding age and disease. During the period which intervened between commencing operations at Possagno and his decease, he executed or finished some of his most striking works. Amongst these were the group "Mars and Venus", the colossal figure of Pope Pius VI, the "Pietą", the "St. John", the "recumbent Magdalen." The last performance which issued from his hand was a colossal bust of his friend, the Count Cicognara. In. May 1822 he paid a visit to Naples, to superintend the construction of wax moulds for an equestrian statue of the perjured Bourbon king Ferdinand. This journey materially injured his health, but he rallied again on his return to Rome. Towards the latter end of the year he paid his annual visit to the place of his birth, when he experienced a relapse. He proceeded to Venice, and expired there on the 13th of October 1822, at the age of nearly sixty-five. His disease was one which had affected him from an early age, caused by the continual use of carving-tools, producing a depression of the ribs. The most distinguished funeral honors were paid to his remains, which were deposited in the temple at Possagno on the 25th of the same month.
Canova, in a certain sense, renovated the art of sculpture in Italy, and brought it back to that standard from which it had declined when the sense both of classical beauty and moderation, and of Titanic invention and human or superhuman energy as embodied by the unexampled genius of Michelangelo, had succumbed to the overloaded and flabby mannerisms of the 17th and 18th centuries. His finishing was refined, and he had a special method of giving a mellow and soft appearance to the marble. He formed his models of the same size as the work was intended to be. The prominent defect of Canova's attractive and highly trained art is that which may be summed up in the word artificiality -- that quality, so characteristic of the modern mind, which seizes upon certain properties of conception and execution in the art of the past, and upon certain types of beauty or emotion in life, and makes a compound of the two -- regulating both by the standard of taste prevalent in contemporary "high society", a standard which, referring to cultivation and refinement as its higher term, declines towards fashion as the lower. Of his moral character a generous and unwearied benevolence formed the most prominent feature. The greater part of the vast fortune realized by his works was distributed in acts of this description. He established prizes for artists and endowed all the academies of Rome. The aged and unfortunate were also the objects of his peculiar solicitude. His titles were numerous. He was enrolled amongst the nobility of several states, decorated with various orders of knighthood, and associated in the highest professional honors.
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