Antonio Canova was a fascinating mass of contradictions: a working-class child from the Venetian hinterland who became an arbiter of taste for the courts of Europe and a marquess in his own right; a shy man who hobnobbed with popes, kings, and learned women (and dared to give Napoleon a piece of his mind); the creator of impeccably polished marble statues and rough, vivacious models and sketches; and a master of classical style who has also been called, for good reason, the first modern sculptor. In his own day Canova was the object of a veritable cult that embraced both the man and his sublime creations. The patrons clamoring for his services included Pope Pius VII, Emperor Francis II of Austria, King George IV of England, Catherine the Great of Russia (whom he refused), and Napoleon, yet amid their demands and their clouds of flattery, he maintained a resolute independence that only drove his prestige higher.

In a Europe racked by war and social upheaval, Canova produced a dazzling succession of sculptures whose apparent classical perfection was almost always charged with a shiver of thoroughly modern eros. His fig leaves do not so much cover their heroes’ modesty as cling to it with preternatural impudence. The draperies in which he shrouds his men and women are so thin and sinuous that they reveal everything beneath—and then underline it all with a flourish.

Though he acquired his culture relatively late, he wielded mythology with wicked precision, especially when it came to the Bonaparte clan, which was guilty of reducing the Republic of Venice, Canova’s homeland, to a French puppet state. The exact contemporary of Francisco Goya, he responded to the same calamities that prompted Goya’s visceral Disasters of War and Caprichos by withdrawing into his own carefully calibrated version of the classical world. Convinced like Goya that “the sleep of reason begets monsters,” he clung to reason and his republican ideals. No wonder North Carolina appealed to him to carve a statue of George Washington for its statehouse. (Both the statue and the statehouse were unfortunately incinerated by a catastrophic fire in 1831.)

Canova insisted on portraying Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker in the guise known as “heroic nudity,” well aware, as the art historian Christopher Johns has gleefully noted, that viewers would compare the statue’s rugged features and toned physique with the flaccid lines of its moon-faced, middle-aged model and ponder the paradox—Canova’s own invention—of the Roman war god proffering a gilded orb on which a tiny winged figure of Peace trips like a blithe fairy. Napoleon’s agent, Dominique Vivant Denon, reported to Canova in 1811 that

His Majesty has seen with interest the beautiful execution of the work and its imposing aspect, but he thinks that the forms of it are too athletic and that you may be a bit mistaken about the character that eminently distinguishes him, that is to say the calmness of his movements.1

Today that muscular Bonaparte lords it over the stairwell of Apsley House, the London home of Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, a trophy of war from the Battle of Waterloo.

Napoleon’s mother, “Madame Mère,” whom Canova liked better than her son, was treated to an elegant seated portrait as a Roman matron, her pose clearly based on a famous ancient statue in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. That anonymous work depicts either Agrippina the Elder, mother of Caligula, or her daughter Agrippina the Younger, mother of Nero; either way, as both Madame Mère and the artist understood, the lady had given birth to a tyrant.

The key to Canova’s survival was his incomparable ability to carve marble. By comparison, the works of his great predecessor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, though equally virtuosic, are angular and agitated, with stark contrasts in texture. Canova’s lines and bodies, even at moments of high tension, form graceful, intricately intertwined curves. Whereas Michelangelo and Bernini captured the struggle of hewing stone, Canova polished away all traces of effort. One admirer, the Duke of Bedford, praised, with a fashionable Italian flourish, “the morbidezza—that look of living softness given to the surface of the marble, which appears as if it would yield to the touch.” Lord Byron declared, “What Nature could but would not do/…Beauty and Canova can.” The supernal calm of his figures, however, is only apparent. Canova’s bust of Helen of Troy inspired Byron not simply by her downcast eyes and Grecian nose: beneath those flawless features her smile is every bit as suggestive as that of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa.

Canova’s creative struggle left a persistent record, however, in his drawings and above all in the clay models that stand behind every one of his sculptural works. Three lines or a scrap of clay were all this instinctive artist needed to create an illusion of space or a tiny living presence, human or animal, as full of pathos as any colossus. A fervent Catholic, he believed that God had formed Adam in the same way, as a figurine awaiting the breath of life. Modeling was probably the first form of sculpture Canova ever undertook.


He was born in 1757 in the town of Possagno, some fifty miles northwest of Venice, in the foothills of the Alps. Officially he was a citizen of the Republic of Venice, a fading version of that glittering empire but still a free republic in a Europe otherwise dominated by hereditary monarchs. After the death of his father in 1761 and his mother’s remarriage the following year, he moved in with his paternal grandparents. Pasino Canova owned a quarry in Possagno and worked as a stonemason and sculptor; in his grandfather’s studio Antonio began modeling and carving as a child, though the story that the boy carved a magnificent lion out of butter for a table decoration is only a legend. At the age of nine he had already put his hand to the translucent, fine-grained marble of Carrara, which became his favorite stone for carving.

Rumors of the youth’s prodigious talent spread quickly, and in 1768 a local senator, Giovanni Falier, secured his apprenticeship with a local sculptor, Giuseppe Bernardi, nicknamed Torretti. When Torretti moved to Venice, Canova went with him and entered the Venetian Academy of Fine Arts. Here he took classes in life drawing—or life modeling—studied the casts of ancient statues in the Palazzo Farsetti, and learned to speak a standardized vernacular rather than Venetian dialect. He opened his first studio in Venice in 1775, at the unusually young age of eighteen. In 1781 he moved permanently to Rome, where he continued his habit of life drawing and life modeling at the Roman Academy of Fine Arts while simultaneously fulfilling commissions from increasingly distinguished patrons. To improve his workingman’s education, he began to have classical literature read aloud to him as he worked. His engagement in 1781 to the daughter of the engraver Giovanni Volpato lasted only briefly; an obsessive worker, Canova was all too evidently wedded to his profession.

The proud Republic of Venice granted the sculptor an annuity in recognition of his success at promoting the fading state’s reputation abroad, as he did with the strikingly distinctive tomb of the Venetian Pope Clement XIII in St. Peter’s Basilica. Unveiled in 1792, the imposing cenotaph cemented Canova’s already soaring reputation and gave rise to another wonderful, if fictional, anecdote: fearful of how the public would react to the monument’s pioneering, austere Neoclassical style, he attended the unveiling incognito, dressed as an unassuming priest, which meant that when its weeping lions and commanding figure of Religion decked out in a spiky radiate crown (a headgear once seen on the Colossus of Rhodes and later adopted by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi for the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor) proved a triumph, no one could possibly take the shabby little figure for the great man himself.

By this time the huge number, colossal scale, and international range of Canova’s commissions required the help of a well-regulated studio, with assistants delegated to transform his clay models into larger, more finished plaster models, and eventually to reproduce full-size plaster models in stone by a process of pointing—embedding metal pins in the plaster at strategic points that could be plotted on a grid and transferred to the block of marble designated for carving by a set of plumb bobs suspended from a frame. Canova always gave these collaborative efforts the final master’s touch, but between the initial clay model and the exquisitely finished definitive artwork many hands contributed to the process of creation.

Napoleon’s conquest of Venice and then Rome in 1798 put a temporary halt to this bustling workshop. The invader’s large-scale looting of Italian libraries, archives, and artworks for transfer to Paris (not to mention the imprisonment of Pope Pius VII) threw the artist into a deep depression. He left occupied Rome for remote Possagno, traveling on to Vienna after the Austrians succeeded in wresting Venice from Bonaparte; he regarded Austrian hegemony as less odious than that of the larcenous Corsican. Canova returned to the Eternal City in 1800, his illustrious career and his loyalty honored by election to the prestigious artistic Academy of St. Luke. He became its president in 1810, and its president in perpetuity in 1814.

Like Peter Paul Rubens before him, Canova proved an accomplished diplomat, especially in his pioneering efforts to establish the concept of cultural property and defend its place in the forging of local and national identity. He argued passionately and effectively for the return of Napoleonic plunder to Italy and was brave enough to do so when Napoleon was still in power. In 1815, with Napoleon deposed and exiled to St. Helena, Pius VII acknowledged those efforts by making Canova his chief delegate to the congress that drafted the Treaty of Paris in the aftermath of Bonaparte’s fall. In 1816 the pope named the artist Marchese of Ischia, the island in the Bay of Naples that once housed Michelangelo’s dear friend the poetess Vittoria Colonna and her cultured circle. From Paris, Canova traveled on to London in 1815 to advise the British government about the Elgin Marbles, removed from the Parthenon between 1806 and 1812 by a firman (permission) granted him in 1801 by the Ottoman sultan Selim III, terrified that Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign might threaten the rest of the sultanate. Byron in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage was not the only person to decry Lord Elgin’s actions as larceny:


Tell not the deed to blushing Europe’s ears;
The ocean queen, the free Britannia, bears
The last poor plunder from a bleeding land:
Yes, she, whose gen’rous aid her name endears,
Tore down those remnants with a harpy’s hand.

Canova, called upon to restore “those remnants,” protested that “it would be sacrilege for any man to touch them with a chisel” and exclaimed “Oh! That I were a young man, and had to begin again, I should work on totally different principles from what I had done, and form, I hope, an entirely new school.” His enthusiasm was crucial to the British government’s decision to purchase the Parthenon sculptures from the cash-strapped Elgin. On this occasion, evidently, the outspoken paladin of cultural property felt called upon to defend the intrinsic integrity of the works themselves before entering into the still-raging dispute over their provenance. At last, the “modern Phidias” returned to his workshop in Rome, where he began to suffer from an excruciating stomach ailment (caused, according to one theory, by a lifelong habit of leaning on a drill), working through the agony with his characteristic persistence. He died in Venice in 1822, the supreme sculptor of his era.

Adam and Eve Mourning the Dead Abel; terra-cotta sculpture by Antonio Canova

Luigi Spina/Museo Gypsotheca Antonio Canova, Possagno, Italy

Antonio Canova: Adam and Eve Mourning the Dead Abel, terra-cotta, circa 1818–1822

And yet—another contradiction among so many—this giant of a man cut a surprisingly diminutive figure. The art historian Elena Berti Toesca has drawn an evocative portrait of the artist and his Roman workshop:

Canova’s studio was in the narrow old Via delle Colonnette, and how many famous men and women made their way there! Madame Récamier went, introduced by Chateaubriand, not a little surprised to discover a skinny little man dressed in workmen’s clothing, who used to cover his bald forehead, radiant with genius, with a hat made of folded paper…. The master had a house nearby…. We know that he maintained a coach and horses, and that at home he dressed elegantly, in silk stockings and breeches and waistcoat of velvet, his shirts trimmed in Burano lace. His clock chimed the hours, his snuffbox was of gold with a miniature of Napoleon. His face was thin, clean-shaven, oval, with a wide mouth, large eyes, and a long nose, thick black eyebrows, a profound gaze, a vast, bald forehead. He disguised his baldness with a finely made toupée.2

Last summer a revelatory exhibition of the artist’s clay models, “Canova: Sketching in Clay,” originated at the National Gallery of Art and then traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago, bringing us up close to that skinny little man in the paper hat whose inspirations almost always took their primal form in molded earth. We can see how the unique pliability of clay lies behind the liquid suppleness of the elaborately interlaced limbs of two famously virtuosic marble sculpture groups, The Three Graces (see illustration on page 14) and Cupid Reviving Psyche with a Kiss. In its final stone version, Cupid’s lifegiving lips (like his wandering hand) hover in suspension, eternally poised on the brink of sizzling contact, but the embrace of divine Love and the human soul (psyche in Greek) is grippingly direct in the clay that Canova’s hands and imagination have rolled, pinched, poked, and slapped into lifelike form. Three pokes of a stylus, and an egg-sized lump of clay has been turned into the face of stricken Adam holding the hand of his dead son Abel—Adam whose name comes from the Hebrew word for “earth” and whose pose is an echo of Michelangelo’s Pietà. Three more stabs to a clay snake suffice to fashion Adam’s hand, enclosed around the lifeless hand of his boy. Nothing could be more essential, more moving, more modern. It is not surprising that Canova held on to his little clay models, rarely giving them away. With their insistent, intensely personal reality, they claim their rightful space in the world.

The carefully composed Grecian features of Canova’s statues were born in the clay models as stark, raw emotions: gaping mouths; brows furrowed in anguish by the actions of finger, rasp, or stylus; heads drooping by the natural force of gravity that somehow convey infinite depths of sorrow. Humility seems to rise as naturally from the ground as a rock formation; the word “humility” comes from humus, the Latin word for ground. Two versions of the Greek warrior Pyrrhus sacrificing the Trojan princess Polyxena show him aggressively pressing his body against his wilting victim, harrowing evocations of her murder as a version of sexual assault.

Canova is one kind of artist in these direct, forceful expressions of experience and quite another in the tireless self-editing through which he developed his eventual commissions. Multiple sketches of the same subject, such as the models in the exhibition for seated portraits of Madame Mère and Leopoldina von Esterházy, show how Canova adjusts posture, clothing, or the turn of a head with maniacal persistence, and how definitely those details do, indeed, matter in the end. In these portrait models the faces are schematic because the artist’s attention is fixed on pose and drapery. So, too, from the very beginning, his figure of Religion for the tomb of Clement XIII has an odd bouffant hairstyle that makes sense only when we realize that in the final marble figure that obtrusive puff of hair will be covered by that crown of gilded bronze. From the moment he puts his hand to clay, Canova is already thinking ahead to the ultimate effect.

After refining his design in clay, Canova would go on to build a larger, more finished model in plaster, a harder material and, of course, a substance much closer to the color of marble. These could be shown to the patron as a guide to the project’s final appearance. He also further refined some of his sketches in fired clay (terra cotta, Italian for “cooked earth”). A foot-high, highly finished terra-cotta model of Piety expresses her slender body through a delicate cascade of gossamer-thin drapery. The exhibition also displayed two large, highly finished fired clay portraits, one of the Doge Paolo Renier, clad in ermine and damask brocade, their textures and that of the old man’s jovial wrinkled face minutely detailed by the artist, and the other a haunting image of an anonymous curly-haired youth, which cracked in firing so that it looks today like a deliberately distressed classic by Igor Mitoraj.

As for Madame Mère, we see her at every stage of her portrait, from clay model to finished statue, a mature woman with skin that is soft rather than sagging, a lively expression, and a jaunty pose that evokes the ancient portrait of Agrippina in a much more casual vein. Her sandaled, outstretched foot breaks with classical decorum, while also testing the limits of the artist’s skill at carving projecting bits of marble without snapping them off. Her drapery traces a subtle circle around her midsection; hers is, after all, the womb that produced l’Empereur, just as the womb of Agrippina, whichever Agrippina she was, produced a monster.

Unlike Canova’s flawless marbles, which seem to have sprung into being without labor (Byron was right to claim that his Helen put him on a par with Nature), the clay figures provide eloquent evidence of how they were manufactured. A catalog essay by Anthony Sigel puts these clues into a detailed, helpful sequence, and three videos that form part of the exhibition showed contemporary artist Fred X Brownstein—in a paper hat—recreating Canova’s studio techniques with astonishing accuracy: forming a small clay model, a plaster bust of Venus, and then transferring the plaster model to marble and carving it by using Canova’s pointing technique.

In the early modern era, sculpture was normally regarded as the most humble of the arts because its practitioners got their hands so dirty, and those hands in turn spread and thickened to look like the hands of laborers. Tidy painting reigned as queen. Like Bernini before him, Canova countered that age-old prejudice by receiving visitors to his studio in working clothes, trusting his creations to speak for themselves, for his dignity, and for the self-evident nobility of his art.