When talking about 18th century Venetian marble sculptures, Antonio Canova would come in first in mind of many artists and art collectors. He was well-known for rendering delicate nude flesh in marble combined with his neoclassical style. His works shown classical refinement, grandeur and great display of high technical skill.
Canova wanted to revive Italian classicism through his sculptural works as a reaction against the extravagances of both Baroque and Rococo styles. He went back to the simplicity of the classical period but with a different philosophical approach to the way he interpreted his subject matter and theme. His devotion to the works of antiquity earned him accolades from his contemporaries such as “a unique and truly divine man” and “the supreme minister of beauty”.
Antonio Canova was also one of the few Venetian sculptors who had gained wide international reputation. Never did his notable foreign students like John Gibson and John Flaxman surpassed him. Some of his most important works include Theseus and the Minotaur (1781), Cupid and Psyche (1793), Apollo Crowning Himself (1781), Perseus with the Head of Medusa (1806), and Venus Victorious (1808).
At some point, Canova’s works were comparable to the greatest Italian sculptor, Bernini. This holds true when he designed the tomb for Pope Clement XIV, which he might have taken Bernini’s papal tomb design as an inspiration. The difference lies in the use of materials like Canova used a flawless Carrara marble instead of using polychromy.
Antonio Canova made a lot of adjustments to Bernini’s sculptural concepts when it comes to papal tombs. Renaissance sculptors would apply curvy lines to form a strong diagonal to the sculpture but Canova changed it to something rigid and minimalist verticals and horizontals. This clearly made him one of the most unique sculptors at the time.
Antonio Canova was born on November 1, 1757 in Possagno, Republic of Venice. The small town was adjacent to the Asolo hills where one can have a good vantage point of the Alps. Canova was technically an orphan at the age of three when his father died and his mother immediately got married to another man.
The young Canova was then left under custody of his paternal grandparents. His father’s family was a reputable stone-cutter in Possagno. No wonder as soon as he was capable of learning the fundamentals of arts, he was initially trained by his grandfather, who was knowledgeable of architecture, drawing and decorating.
Antonio Canova didn’t disappoint, though, as he developed consistent passion for his craft. His grandparents have then come to believe that he will bring great honor to the family. And right after reaching the right age, he studied sculpture at the studio of Pasino, his grandfather.
His earliest work was a couple of small-scale altars of Carrara marble. This work earned him a permanent position in Pasino’s workshop, working as his assistant. Luckily for Antonio, his grandfather was an artist to the ruling family of Venice named Falier, with whom he had worked for several years later.
Canova became good friends with the family’s younger son, Giuseppe Falier. The attachment of the two plus Canova’s employment prompted the family patriarch to put the artist under his protection. Canova was under the direction of Bernardi, also known as Giuseppe Torretto, by the time he began working for the patrician family.
At the age of 13, he was brought to the family’s mansion in Pagnano near Asolo to live there. Bernardi dedicated a lot of his time training the young artist and the assessment was he was making a lot of progress. When Bernardi died, he made sure to leave a letter recommending Canova to be sent to Venice to study.
The recommendation was granted by Failier and Canova was designated under the supervision of Torretto’s nephew. He continued studying the arts for one more year before pursuing an independent career in the city.
After years of receiving formal education, he received his first commission by Failier, for whom he had to execute an Orpheus and Eurydice sculpture. He began with sculpting Eurydice in fumes and flames as she was in the act of bidding goodbye to hades. The work was completed by the time he was 16 years old, which was a very impressive milestone at such a young age.
After his career stint with the Falier, a group of monks supported the establishment of his first workshop. They had given him a cell in a monastery which he could use as his own studio. He stayed in the monastery for the next four years of his life and also made time to attend meetings with the academy.
As with any other sculptor, studying anatomy is essential. Canova took his anatomy lessons seriously, which he thought was the key to his art. He also watched public performances in order to study the facial expressions of the actors, studied archeology to revisit the age of antiquity and made an effort to be knowledgeable of some foreign languages.
It cannot be denied that Canova was a passionate learner and it brought him to different heights of success. However, it actually took him three years before he was able to produce yet another major work. When his Orpheus sculpture was completed, it received international recognition for its vitality, fluidity and great display of skill. The Orpheus commission was then followed by another series of mythological works like Daedelus and Icarus.
Antonio Canova was a pensioned artist before he left Venice for Rome. He was received 300 ducats per year, which lasted for three years. Ambassador Cavaliere Zulian had also given him letters of introduction that he could give to a potential patron while out in Rome seeking employment.
By December 1780, Canova got to Rome and immediately studied the relics of classical Roman architecture and sculpture. He had joined several competitions where he’d battle against the considered masters of the century. He executed a small-scale statue of Apollo Crowning Himself in 1781 and it won all awards possible, including the accolade of being one of the best male nudes in the history of art.
His works in Rome laid the foundation for the neoclassical art. He became famous for surpassing some of the best sculptors in Rome. The particular work that cemented his fame and reputation in the city was Theseus Vanquishing the Minotaur. Theseus was represented in a grand size and in a heroic stance, sitting over the defeated body of the Minotaur.
Canova made a realistic interpretation of Theseus worn-out body from the battle he had just endured. One can see exhaustion in his face and body language but the details remained simple and natural.
His next major art patron was Pope Clement XIV, who hired him in 1782. He was commissioned to execute a monument for the incumbent pope and Clement XIII. Because he’s working on a public commission, he had to build his own workshop in Via del Babuino where he could execute his sculptural pieces.
He worked for the pope for two years, designing and creating models for the papal tombs. He spent another couple of years finishing the monument asked of him, which he completed by 1787. One of his last few works for Clement XIV was a cenotaph to commemorate the preceding pope.
His Psyche and Cupid sculpture soon followed suit. It was another milestone that raised his reputation higher that the international community took interest of him. The Russian court had summoned the artist to go to St. Petersburg but the offer was declined because he didn’t to leave Italy.
From 1795 to 1797, Antonio Canova had been producing numerous copy works of his previous creations. Some of these were sent to other provinces in Italy such as Naples. However, he had to stop with production at some point due to the effects of the French Revolution.
Although Canova declined the relocation offer of Russia to him, he never made a big deal in visiting overseas destinations such as England and France. He journeyed to Paris, Vienna, Florence and other parts of the Italian peninsula but he never crossed out Rome permanently.
He visited London around 1815, for it was his wish to see the historical paintings there. He was assisted by Benjamin Haydon, from his transportation to touring the city. He then returned to Rome one year later, bringing with him a deep well of knowledge about Western art.
In 1816, he entered the Accademia di San Luca as the newly appointed President. San Luca Academy was the only formal art school in Rome at the time so the position was another high distinction given to him. The Pope had subsequently awarded him the Marquis of Ischia title, to which he would receive 3000 crowns worth of pension.
During his advanced years, Canova concentrated on religious-themed works. He executed the so-called Religion, a colossal statue made with marble that was greatly admired by his contemporaries. He also designed a temple in his birth town that was meant to feature the Religion statue and some of his later works.
In 1822, he visited Naples to design and build the foundation for an equestrian statue of Ferdinand VII. Because of his old age the lengthy journey affected his health that he got weak but he was still able to make it back to Rome. Every once in a while he’d visit Possagno and while on his way to Rome he suffered from a relapse and died in Venice unfortunately.
Antonio Canova died in October 13, 1822 to a disease that he had developed since his boyhood due to working painstakingly night and day. He received a distinguished funeral ceremony in return to his devotion and contribution to the arts. His remains were deposited in Possagno’s temple while his heart was entombed in a mausoleum at the Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice.