Antonio Canova

"Canova" redirects here. For other uses, see Canova (disambiguation).
Antonio Canova

Self-portrait, 1792
Born Antonio Canova
1 November 1757
Possagno, Republic of Venice
Died 13 October 1822(1822-10-13) (aged 64)
Venice, Lombardy–Venetia
Nationality Italian
Known for Sculpture
Notable work Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss,
The Three Graces,
Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker,
Venus Victrix
Movement Neo-Classical

Antonio Canova (Italian pronunciation: [anˈtɔːnjo kaˈnɔːva]; 1 November 1757 – 13 October 1822) was an Italian neoclassical sculptor,[1][2] famous for his marble sculptures. Often regarded as the greatest of the neoclassical artists,[3] his artwork was inspired by the Baroque and the classical revival, but avoided the melodramatics of the former, and the cold artificiality of the latter.[4]



In 1757, Antonio Canova was born in Possagno to Pietro Canova, a stonecutter.[5] In 1761, his father died. A year later, his mother remarried. As such, in 1762, he was put into the care of his paternal grandfather Pasino Canova, who was a stonemason, owner of a quarry,[4] and was a "sculptor who specialized in altars with statues and low reliefs in late Baroque style".[5] He led Antonio into the art of sculpting.

Before the age of ten, Canova began making models in clay, and carving marble.[6] Indeed, at the age of nine, he executed two small shrines of Carrara marble, which are still extant.[7] After these works, he appears to have been constantly employed under his grandfather.[7]


Orpheus, (1777)

In 1770,[5] he was an apprentice for two years[6] to Giuseppe Bernardi, who was also known as 'Torretto'. Afterwards, he was under the tutelage of Giovanni Ferrari until he began his studies at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia.[5] At the Academy, he won several prizes.[7] During this time, he was given his first workshop within a monastery by some local monks.[6]

The Senator Giovanni Falier commissioned Canova to produce statues of Orpheus and Eurydice for his garden – the Villa Falier at Asolo.[8] The statues were begun in 1775, and both were completed by 1777. The pieces explify the late Rococo style.[8][9] On the year of its completion, both works were exhibited for the Feast of the Ascension in Piazza S. Marco.[4] Widely praised, the works won Canova his first renown among the Venetian elite.[5]

In 1779, he opened his own studio at Calle Del Traghetto at S. Maurizio,.[4] At this time, Procurator Pietro Vettor Pisani commissioned Canova's first marble statue: a depiction of Daedalus and Icarus.[4] The statue inspired great admiration for his work at the annual art fair;[10] Canova was paid for 100 gold zecchini for the completed work.[4] At the base of the statue, Daedalus' tools are scattered about; these tools are also an allusion to Sculpture, of which the statue is a personification.[11] With such an intention, there is suggestion that Daedalus is a portrait of Canova's grandfather Pasino.[10]


Canova arrived in Rome, on 28 December 1780.[7] Prior to his departure, his friends had applied to the Venetian senate for a pension.[7] Successful in the application, the stipend allotted amounted to three hundred ducats, limited to three years.[7]

While in Rome, Canova spent time studying and sketching the works of Michelangelo.[5]

Theseus and the Minotaur, V&A, London

In 1781, Girolamo Zulian – the Venetian ambassador to Rome – hired Canova to sculpt Theseus and the Minotaur.[12] The statue depicts the victorious Theseus seated on the lifeless body of a Minotaur. The initial spectators were certain that the work was a copy of a Greek original, and were shocked to learn it was a contemporary work.[13] The highly regarded work is now in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, in London.[12]

Between 1783 – 1785, Canova arranged, composed, and designed a funerary monument dedicated to Clement XIV for the Church of Santi Apostoli.[6] After another two years, the work met completion in 1787.[7] The monument secured Canova'reputation as the pre-eminent living artist.[7]

In 1792, he completed another cenotaph, this time commemorating Clement XIII for St. Peter's Basilica. Canova harmonized its design with the older Baroque funerary monuments in the basilica.[14]

In 1790, he began to work on a funerary monument for Titian, which was eventually abandoned by 1795.[5] During the same year, he increased his activity as a painter.[4]

The following decade was extremely productive,[7] beginning works such as Hercules and Lichas, Cupid and Psyche, Hebe, Tomb of Duchess Maria Christina of Saxony-Teschen, and The Penitent Magdalene.[15]

In 1797, he went to Vienna,[16] but only a year later, in 1798, he returned to Possagno for a year.[7][notes 1]

France & England

By 1800, Canova was the most celebrated artist in Europe.[5] He systematically promoted his reputation by publishing engravings of his works and having marble versions of plaster casts made in his workshop.[17] He became so successful that he had acquired patrons from across Europe including France, England, Russia, Poland, Austria and Holland, as well as several members from different royal lineages, and prominent individuals.[4] Among his patrons, Napoleon and his family was provided by Canova with much work, producing several depictions between 1803 and 1809.[3] The most notable representations were that of Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker, and Venus Victrix which was portrayal of Pauline Bonaparte.

Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker had its inception after Canova was hired to make a bust of Napoleon in 1802. The statue was begun in 1803, with Napoleon requesting to be shown in a French General's uniform, Canova rejected this, insisting on an allusion to Mars, the Roman god of War.[18] It was completed in 1806.[19] In 1811, the statue arrived in Paris, but not installed; neither was its bronze copy in the Foro Napoleonico in Milan.[18] In 1815, the original went to the Duke of Wellington, after his victory at Waterloo against Napoleon.[19]

If one could make statues by caressing marble, I would say that this statue was formed by wearing out the marble that surrounded it with caresses and kiss
 Joséphine de Beauharnais on the Venus Victrix[5]

Venus Victrix' was originally conceived as a robed and recumbent sculpture of Pauline Borghese in the guise of Diana. Instead, Pauline ordered Canova to make the statue a nude Venus.[20] The work was not intended for public viewing.[20]

Other works for the Napoleon family include, a bust of Napoleon, a statue of Napoleon's mother, and Marie Louise as Concordia.[6]

In 1802, Canova was assigned the post of 'Inspector-General of Antiquities and Fine Art of the Papal State', a position formerly held by Raphael.[4] One of his activities in this capacity was to pioneer the restoration of the Appian Way by restoring the tomb of Servilius Quartus.[21] In 1808 Canova became an associated member of the Royal Institute of the Netherlands.[22]

In 1814, he began his The Three Graces.[6]

In 1815, he was named 'Minister Plenipotentiary of the Pope,'[4] and was tasked with recovering various works of art that were taken to Paris by Napoleon.[7]

The works of Phidias are truly flesh and blood, like beautiful nature itself
 Antonio Canova[4]

Also in 1815, he visited London, and met with Benjamin Haydon. It was after the advice of Canova that the Elgin marbles were acquired by the British Museum, with plaster copies sent to Florence, according to Canova's request.[7]

Returning to Italy

In 1816, Canova returned to Rome with some of the art Napoleon had taken. He was rewarded with several marks of distinction: he was appointed President of the Accademia di San Luca, inscribed into the "Golden Book of Roman Nobles" by the Pope's own hands,[6] and given the title of Marquis of Ischia, alongside an annual pension of 3000 crowns.[7]

In 1819, he commenced and completed his commissioned work Venus Italica as a replacement for the Venus de' Medici.[23]

After his 1814 proposal to build a personified statue of Religion for St. Peter's Basilica was rejected, Canova sought to build his own temple to house it.[5] This project came to be the Tempio Canoviano. Canova designed, financed, and partly built the structure himself.[4] The structure was to be a testament to Canova's piety.[17] The building's design was inspired by combining the Parthenon and the Pantheon together.[4][6] On 11 July 1819, Canova laid the foundation stone dressed in red Papal uniform and decorated with all his medals.[17] It first opened in 1830, and was finally completed in 1836.[17] After the foundation-stone of this edifice had been laid, Canova returned to Rome; but every succeeding autumn he continued to visit Possagno to direct the workmen and encourage them with rewards.[7]

During the period that intervened between commencing operations at Possagno and his death, he executed or finished some of his most striking works. Among these were the group Mars and Venus, the colossal figure of Pius VI, the Pietà, the St John, and a colossal bust of his friend, the Count Cicognara.[7]

Washington on display at the North Carolina Museum of History

In 1820, he made a statue of George Washington for the state of North Carolina.[16]

In 1822, he journeyed to Naples, to superintend the construction of wax moulds for an equestrian statue of Ferdinand VII. The adventure was disastrous to his health, but soon became healthy enough to return to Rome. From there, he voyaged to Venice; however, on 13 October 1822, he died there at the age of 64.[7] As he never married, the name became extinct, except through his stepbrothers' lineage of Satori-Canova.[6]

On 12 October 1822, Canova instructed his brother to use his entire estate to complete the Tempio in Possagno.[17]

On 25 October 1822, his body was placed in the Tempio Canoviano.[7] His heart was interred at the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice, and his right hand preserved in a vase at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia.[5][7][17]

His memorial service was so grand that it rivaled the ceremony that the city of Florence held for Michelangelo in 1564.[17]

In 1826, Giovanni Battista Sartori sold Canova's Roman studio and took every plaster model and sculpture to Possagno, where they were installed in the Tempio Canoviano.[17]


Among Canova's most notable works are:

Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss (1787)

Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss was commissioned in 1787 by Colonel John Campbell.[24] It is regarded as a masterpiece of Neoclassical sculpture, but shows the mythological lovers at a moment of great emotion, characteristic of the emerging movement of Romanticism. It represents the god Cupid in the height of love and tenderness, immediately after awakening the lifeless Psyche with a kiss.

Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker (1802–1806)

Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker had its inception after Canova was hired to make a bust of Napoleon in 1802. The statue was begun in 1803, with Napoleon requesting to be shown in a French General's uniform, Canova rejected this, insisting on an allusion to Mars, the Roman god of War.[18] It was completed in 1806.[19] In 1811, the statue arrived in Paris, but not installed; neither was its bronze copy in the Foro Napoleonico in Milan.[18] In 1815, the original went to the Duke of Wellington, after his victory at Waterloo against Napoleon.[19]

Perseus Triumphant (1804–1806)

Detail of Perseus with the Head of Medusa

Perseus Triumphant, sometimes called Perseus with the Head of Medusa, was a statue commissioned by tribune Onorato Duveyriez.[25] It depicts the Greek hero Perseus after his victory over the Gorgon Medusa.

The statue was based freely to the Apollo Belvedere and the Medusa Rondanini.[26]

Napoleon, after his 1796 Italian Campaign, took the Apollo Belvedere to Paris. In the statue's absence, Pope Pius VII acquired Canova's Perseus Triumphant and placed the work upon the Apollo's pedestal.[27] The statue was so successful that when the Apollo was returned, Perseus remained as a companion piece.[28]

One replica of the statue was purchased from Canova by the Polish countess Valeria Tarnowska; it now resides in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.[26][29]

Karl Ludwig Fernow said of the statue that "every eye must rest with pleasure on the beautiful surface, even when the mind finds its hopes of high and pure enjoyment disappointed."[30]

Venus Victrix (1805–1808)

Venus Victrix ranks among the most famous of Canova's works. Originally, Canova wished the depictation to be of a robed Diana, but Pauline Borghese insisted to appear as a nude Venus.[20] The work was not intended for public viewing.[20]

The Three Graces (1814–1817)

John Russell, the 6th Duke of Bedford, commissioned a version of the now famous work.[31] He had previously visited Canova in his studio in Rome in 1814 and had been immensely impressed by a carving of the Graces the sculptor had made for the Empress Josephine. When the Empress died in May of the same year he immediately offered to purchase the completed piece, but was unsuccessful as Josephine’s son Eugène claimed it (his son Maximilian brought it to St. Petersburg, where it can now be found in the Hermitage Museum). Undeterred, the Duke commissioned another version for himself.

The sculpting process began in 1814 and was completed in 1817. Finally in 1819 it was installed at the Duke’s residence in Woburn Abbey. Canova even made the trip over to England to supervise its installation, choosing for it to be displayed on a pedestal adapted from a marble plinth with a rotating top. This version is now owned jointly by the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Galleries of Scotland, and is alternately displayed at each.

Artistic process

Canova's system of work concentrated on the initial idea, and on the final carving of the marble[5]

Canova's sculptures fall into three categories: Heroic compositions, compositions of grace, and sepulchral monuments.[7] In each of these, Canova's underlying artistic motivations were to challenge, if not compete, with classical statues.[4]

Canova refused to take in pupils and students,[5] but would hire workers to carve the initial figure from the marble. He had an elaborate system of comparative pointing so that the workers were able to reproduce the plaster form in the selected block of marble.[30] These workers would leave a thin veil over the entire statue so Canova's could focus on the surface of the statue.[30]

While he worked, he had people read to him select literary and historical texts.[5]

Last touch

The polish throws upon the parts which are lighted so great brilliancy as frequently to make invisible the most laborious diligence; it cannot be seen, because the strong reflected light dazzles the eyes
 Johann Joachim Winckelmann[30]

During the last quarter of the eighteenth century, it became fashionable to view art galleries at night by torchlight. Canova was an artist that leapt on the fad and displayed his works of art in his studio by candlelight.[17] As such, Canova would begin to finalize the statue with special tools by candlelight,[5] to soften the transitions between the various parts of the nude.[30] After a little recarving, he began to rub the statue down with pumice stone, sometimes for period longer that weeks or months.[30] If that was not enough, he would use tripoli (rottenstone) and lead.[30]

He then applied a now unknown chemical-composition of patina onto the flesh of the figure to lighten the skin tone.[5] Importantly, his friends also denied any usage of acids in his process.[6]


Conversations revolving around the justification of art as superfluous usually invoked the name of Canova.[17]

Karl Ludwig Fernow believed that Canova was not Kantian enough in his aesthetic, because emphasis seemed to have been placed on agreeableness rather than Beauty.[30]

Canova was also faulted for creating works that were artificial in complexity.[4]


The Museo Canoviano located in Possagno near Asolo
The importance and value of Canova's art is now recognized as holding in balance the last echo of the Ancients and the first symptom of the restless experimentation of the modern age[5]

Canova spent large parts of his fortune helping young students and sending patrons to struggling sculptors,[16] including Sir Richard Westmacott and John Gibson.

He was introduced into various orders of chivalry.[6]

The Romantic period artists buried Canova's name soon after he died, but he is slowly being rediscovered.[5]



Cite error: There are <ref group=notes> tags on this page, but the references will not show without a {{reflist|group=notes}} template (see the help page).


  1. The Glory of Venice: Art in the Eighteenth Century states (pg. 441) that Canova left Venice when it fell, tried to escape to America and then went to Possagno. The fall of Venice was in 1796. There appears to be some gap in knowledge that would correct or amend these accounts. The first reference to Vienna is an online source, the second is the Encylopaedia Britannica, 1911 which has already proven itself incorrect in some areas. The Glory of Venice has proven itself more accurate, but it is undated, leaving speculation of time frame.



  3. 1 2 Dictionary of Art (1996a).
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 Jean Martineau & Andrew Robinson, The Glory of Venice: Art in the Eighteenth Century. Yale University Press, 1994. Print.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 Dictionary of Art (1996b).
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Catholic Encyclopedia. "Antonio Canova". Catholic Encyclopedia. Retrieved 24 March 2013.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 EB (1878) & EB (1911).
  8. 1 2 "Eurydice by CANOVA, Antonio".
  9. "Orpheus by CANOVA, Antonio".
  10. 1 2 "Daedalus and Icarus by CANOVA, Antonio".
  11. "Daedalus and Icarus by CANOVA, Antonio".
  12. 1 2 "Theseus and the Minotaur by CANOVA, Antonio".
  13. "Antonio Canova: Neoclassical Sculptor, Biography".
  14. "Tomb of Pope Clement XIII by CANOVA, Antonio".
  15. "Sculptures until 1799".
  16. 1 2 3 "Biography of CANOVA, Antonio in the Web Gallery of Art".
  17. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Oskar Batschmann, The Artist in the Modern World: A Conflict Between Market and Self-Expression. DuMont Bunchverlag, 1997. Print.
  18. 1 2 3 4 "Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker by CANOVA, Antonio".
  19. 1 2 3 4 "Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker by CANOVA, Antonio".
  20. 1 2 3 4 "Paolina Borghese as Venus Victrix by CANOVA, Antonio".
  21. Paris, Rita, “Appia, una questione non risolta" in “La via Appia, il bianco e il nero di un patrimonio italiano.” Electa. 2011
  22. "A. Canova (1757 - 1822)". Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 5 October 2016.
  23. "Venus Italica by CANOVA, Antonio".
  24. Johns, C.M.S. (1998) Antonio Canova and the Politics of Patronage in Revolutionary and Napoleonic Europe. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, p. 149.
  25. "Perseus Triumphant".
  26. 1 2 "Antonio Canova: Perseus with the Head of Medusa (67.110.1) – Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History – The Metropolitan Museum of Art".
  27. Christopher M. S. Johns, Antonia Canova and the Politics of Patronage in Revolutionary and Napoleonic Europe. University of California Press, 1998. Web. – p. 25
  28. "Perseus with the Head of Medusa by CANOVA, Antonio".
  29. "Perseus with the Head of Medusa by CANOVA, Antonio".
  30. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Satish Padiyar, Chains: David, Canova, and the Fall of the Public Hero in Postrevolutionary France. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007.
  31. The Three Graces. Victoria & Albert Museum, 2013. Retrieved 2 May 2013.


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