“To become a truly great artist you must do more than just borrow here and there from antique pieces… Better study Greek examples day and night, be steeped in their style, impress it in your mind; and then develop your own style, but always looking to beautiful nature, seeking in it those same principles.”
- Antonio Canova, Letter to Quatremère de Quincy, 26 November 1806 (1)
Antonio Canova was a master of Neoclassical sculpture. Leading the way out of the Baroque and Rococo styles, Canova brought sculpture in Italy back to its roots in ancient Rome. He was favoured by Pope Clement XIV and Pope Clement XIII, who commissioned him to create their tombs. As court sculptor for Napoleon, Canova would have a profound impact on French art and architecture.
The son of a stonemason, Canova was apprenticed at a young age to the sculptor Giuseppe Bernardi. In 1775, he started his own studio in Venice, but also travelled throughout Rome and Naples, visiting the archaeological sites at Herculaneum and Pompeii. In 1781, he settled in Rome permanently. Later, after the conquest of Rome and Italy by the French, although he opposed the new regime, Canova produced many portraits of Napoleon and his family, sometimes combining their likenesses with Roman mythology. Canova did not believe in merely copying ancient sculptures, but in creating original works in a similar style (Dancer
, c. 1821–22).
In 1802, Canova was named Inspector General of Fine Arts and Antiquities of the Papal State. Seven years later, he became president of the Accademia di San Luca, the main artistic institution in Rome. After the defeat of Napoleon, Canova helped rescue artworks and sculptures stolen from Italy during the French invasion and, in 1815, was made Marquis of Ischia by the Pope for this service.
(1) From Canova catalogue, Marsilio, Antonio Canova An exhibition held at the Correr Museum, Venice and the Gipsoteca, Possagno March 22 – September 30, 1992