The Ground-breaking Innovations of Sculptor Antonio Canova

Antonio Canova, Reclining Naiad, 1819–1824.

Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Antonio Canova, Reclining Naiad, 1819–1824.
Underneath the veneer of classical beauty and harmony, Antonio Canova was a great innovator who modernized sculpture.

Underneath the veneer of classical beauty and harmony, Antonio Canova was a great innovator who modernized sculpture.

COURTESY THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART

Antonio Canova, Perseus with the Head of Medusa, 1804–1806.

“Rome was Europe’s open-air or immersive art school. People from all over the world, including America, visited Rome for study purposes.”

Fernando Mazzocca

Upon admiring Antonio Canova’s most famous statues, which include Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss (1787), Perseus with the Head of Medusa (1804-6), and Dancer with Her Hands on her Hips (1805-12), we are primarily struck by the pristine beauty and harmony they convey. Neoclassicism, the artistic and cultural movement he played a key role in, is known for reinstating the purity and harmony of classical antiquity after the overly decorated works with contorted lines of actions in the baroque and the Rococo era. It was the time of the rediscovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and, overall, Neoclassicism was a revival of the styles of classical antiquity. Yet, underneath the veneer of classical beauty and harmony, Canova was a great innovator who was learning from history while modernizing sculpture.

It all started in Rome in the late 18th century. Despite the burgeoning presence of other art cities worldwide, such as London and Paris, Rome still detained great importance for an artist’s education. “At the peak of the Neoclassical period, having an artist understand and interpret the masterpieces of antiquity was paramount,” said Fernando Mazzocca, co-curator of the recent exhibition Canova and Thorvaldsen: The Birth of Modern Sculpture at the Gallerie d’Italia, Piazza Scala, Milan. As luck would have it, throughout the 18th century, archaeological treasures kept surfacing in the area, museums were being established, “Rome was Europe’s open-air or immersive art school,” said Mazzocca. “People from all over the world, including America, visited Rome for study purposes.” And while they still paid some attention to Renaissance and Baroque-era sculptures, it was not comparable to the attention devoted to antiquity.

In this milieu, Antonio Canova (1757-1822) is credited with reviving sculpture as an artistic genre. “After the great sculpture production of the baroque era, it came to a point, in Rome, where interest in excavations and found archaeological artifacts was detrimental to actual artistic production,” said Mazzocca.

© The State Hermitage Museum, 2019

Antonio Canova, Cupid and Psyche Standing, 1800-1803.


 

Because of this, when Canova arrived in Rome in 1780, there was no superstar sculptor comparable to celebrated figures like Michelangelo or Bernini. His competitors were those who restored antique statues. “He never got into restoration, but he became an inventor of modern sculpture, albeit looking to antiquity as an inspiration.” It didn’t hurt that he showed great interest in Giambologna and Bernini: “we found, in Canova, a display of virtuosity and sensuality that is not too far off what we found in mannerist and baroque masters.”

In the first place, Canova brought about a technical and spatial revolution: he no longer subordinated his work to a pre-existing architecture. His statues were not meant to stand in niches. They were to be placed at the center of a room so that the sculptures were the focal point of a space. “His sculptures are rooted both in movement and in the concept that an artwork has to be appraised from a 360-degree-point of view,” said Mazzocca. This could be achieved in several ways: one could either walk around a statue or have the statue itself rotate, thanks to a mechanical contraption placed at its base and powered by a wind-up mechanism. Alternatively, the statues were placed in front of mirrors to encourage two simultaneous perspectives. A good example is Dancer with Her Hands on her Hips, caught mid-step as she lifts her skirt up to facilitate her footwork. She was intended to be displayed on a rotating pedestal, and the recent exhibition Canova: Eternal Beauty at the Museum of Rome has recreated the original setting.

Canova was also unique in rendering movement, both in the sheer physicality of the human body and in the way fabric itself draped over it or swayed. His Hebe, for example, caught mid-flight “is extraordinary, it’s something unheard of since Giambologna ’s Mercury,” said Mazzocca, alluding to the bronze statue depicting the God about to take off in flight. “He manages to make Hebe’s garb adhere to her body, which partially reveals her curves.”

Antonio Canova, Cupid and Psyche standing, 1800 - 1803.
The State Hermitage Museum

Antonio Canova, Cupid and Psyche Standing, 1800-1803.

Antonio Canova, The Three Graces, 1812 - 1816.
The State Hermitage Museum

Antonio Canova, The Three Graces, 1812-1816.

Antonio Canova, Model of the Vittorio Alfieri Monument, c. 1806.
Carrara, Accademia di Belle Arti

Antonio Canova, Model of the Vittorio Alfieri Monument, c. 1806.

Giovanni Ceccarini, Antonio Canova Seated with His Arm Around the Phidian Herm of Jupiter, c. 1820.
Frascati, Palazzo Comunale

Giovanni Ceccarini, Antonio Canova Seated with His Arm Around the Phidian Herm of Jupiter, c. 1820.

Antonio Canova, Hercules and Lichas, 1795–1815.​​​​​​​
Wikimedia commons, Sailko

Antonio Canova, Hercules and Lichas, 1795-1815.

Antonio Canova, Cupid and Psyche, 1794.
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Antonio Canova, Cupid and Psyche, 1794.

Mazzocca hypothesizes that he was inspired on a journey to Naples, where he visited the Sansevero chapel and admired the famed Veiled Christ by Giuseppe Sanmartino (1753), which portrays the corpse of Jesus fully covered by a veil adhering to his body. While the majority of the grunt work of carving was performed by Canova’s assistants in the atelier, “his ability to render the sheerness and textures of fabrics is one of his own distinctive and original touches,” said Mazzocca.

In keeping his subjects veiled, Canova builds erotic tension in his works. “While we know very little about his own personal life, he liked to make his female nudes sensual.” In Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss (1787), the breasts mold into Cupid’s embrace in a way that evokes the chemistry that the two have.

The State Hermitage Museum

Antonio Canova, Hebe, 1800-1805.

Canova “owes his greatness and originality to his ability to seamlessly move across genres in sculpture.”

Fernando Mazzocca

Canova also invented the genre of “dancing statues,” statues depicting female dancers in the act of dancing. In addition to the dancer with her hands on her hips, he portrayed one coyly holding a finger up to her chin and another with cymbals, in a more frenzied state compared to the other two. “Canova’s own dancers inspired the birth of modern ballet,” said Mazzocca.

Canova “owes his greatness and originality to his ability to seamlessly move across genres in sculpture,” said Mazzocca, “Even complicated ones like the tombstone monuments, mythology-related subjects, where he mastered the female nude, as well as the male one.” For more masculine works, Canova had to confront the legacy of the famed heroic nude.

At the beginning of his career, he veered towards a type of male nudity that eschewed the display of overly muscular and hyper-masculine subjects. Yet, by 1801, he wanted to showcase how universal his source of inspiration was by depicting a heroic subject, namely Perseus. Using the Belvedere Apollo as a model, he created a statue whose physique embodies the balance between grace and athleticism.

“Starting from his Perseus, of which two versions exist, he embraced the heroic nude: and while his Perseus was criticized—being called an Apollo in disguise—Canova was very skilled in this realm as well.” In fact, his male nudes were very modern for their age: His monumental Hercules and Lichas (1795), which portrays Hercules as he is confronting his treacherous servant Lichas for presenting him with poisoned garments, for instance, presents an extraordinary line of action: “There’s an incredible showcase of musculature in his rendering the whirlwind-like motion of Hercules in the process of flinging Lichas and subsequently kill him.”

This differentiates him from the traditional repertoire associated with the heroic nude, as he depicts a feeling of terror and barely contained kinetic energy. In the heroic nude, we have both the graceful Canova and the terrible one, modeled after Michelangelo. “Hercules and Lichas represents a lesser-known fact of mythology, and it has something visionary in it: it is reminiscent of Swiss painter Henry Fuseli, whom Canova knew,” he continued. “In Hercules and Lichas, by representing Lichas about to be flung into the sea, he renders the impending burst of force and energy and the dynamism in a way that anticipates what both Rodin and the futurists would do.”

Though we might assume that his pristine neoclassical works are simply throwbacks, Canova was very much of his time. Two exhibitions recently on view in Italy, Canova: Eternal Beauty in Rome, and Canova and Thorvaldsen: The Birth of Modern Sculpture in Milan, demonstrate the countless ways Canova was more than a fervent admirer of Classical antiquity, and was, in fact, ushering sculpture into the future.

About the Author

Angelica Frey

Angelica Frey is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. She writes about art, culture, and food.

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