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Antonio Canova (1757-1822)

Antonio Canova is considered to be one of the greatest neo-classical sculptors of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Renowned for his carving abilities, his departure from the excesses of Baroque and Rococo heralded a new age of sculpture in which inspiration was taken from the composition and style of classical antiquities. Despite spending much of his working life in Italy, for the last seven years of his life he was preoccupied with orders which resulted from his visit to England in 1815.

During this visit he was received at Windsor Castle by Queen Charlotte (1744–1818) and the royal princesses, as well as at Carlton House by the future George IV (1762–1830), who acquired three large marble sculptures for Carlton House: Fountain Nymph, Dirce, and Mars and Venus, The first of these commissions, Fountain nymph, was delivered to George IV in 1819. Installed in the Gothic Conservatory, Canova gave express instructions regarding its placement and lighting. He wanted the sculpture to be able to rotate so that it could be seen from all sides. Dirce and Mars and Venus both arrived at Carlton House in 1824, two years after Canova's death. Only the head of Dirce was finished at the time of Canova's death; the rest was completed by the studio assistant Cincinnato Baruzzi. Today these sculptures are in the Grand Entrance and Marble Hall at Buckingham Palace.

Canova was born in northern Italy in 1757 to a family of sculptors and stonecutters. Between 1779 and1780 he embarked on a tour of the centres of artistic production in Italy, after which he settled in Rome, establishing his own studio. Influenced by antiquarians and archaeologists he met there, Canova determined to reject the excesses of Baroque and to pursue a more restrained and ordered style.

His sculpture Theseus and the Minotaur (1782, Victoria and Albert Museum) is considered to be his first major work in this new style, thereafter known as Neo-classicism. Each of these sculptures conveys a softness of flesh and a purity of spirit. Facial expressions are demure as the characters speak through the positioning of their limbs rather than the contortion of their faces. The art historian Hugh Honour called Fountain Nymph 'a poetic expression of languorous voluptuousness'.

By 1815 Canova had been praised not only as one of the greatest sculptors of the age, but for his official role in supervising the return from Paris to Rome of antiquities carried off by Napoleon. When he died in 1822, he was mourned across Europe and his body treated as if it was a saintly relic. His body was entombed in the Tempio in Possagno, his hand preserved at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Venice, and his heart placed in a tomb of his own design in Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, also in Venice.


Objects associated with Antonio Canova (1757-1822)