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The greatest Italian sculptor of modern times, b. at Possagno, in the province of Treviso, 1 November, 1757; d. at Venice 13 October, 1822. Educated by his grandfather, Pasino Canova, a stone-cutter of unusual ability, the boy could model in clay and carve little marble shrines before he was ten. The attention of Senator Giovanni Falieri was attracted to the child, whom he placed with the sculptor Torretto at Bassano, where he worked for two years. Canova then went back to his grandfather; but Falieri's sons interceded for their playmate, and the boy-artist was invited to the palace in Venice. After one year under Torretto's nephew, he spent the next four years in independent efforts. He owed his first workshop to the kindness of certain monks who gave him a vacant cell for a studio. In his sixteenth year he modelled his first statue, "Eurydice"; three years later he produced the "Orpheus", both now in the Villa Falieri at Asolo. Then came the "Daedalus and Icarus", a remarkable group, dramatic and full of movement (Venice Academy). In 1780 Canova went to Rome, where he came into contact with the antique from which his talent received fresh energy, and he applied himself earnestly to its study. "Theseus and the Minotaur" (1782) is one of his best works (Volksgarten, Vienna). In 1787 the young sculptor executed the monument to Clement XIV in the church of the Santi Apostoli at Rome. The noble figure of the pontiff is seated, the right hand stretched forth in benediction. His next work was the elaborate tomb of Clement XIII in St. Peter's, with the admirable "Lions of Canova" at the base. In 1793 he did the Cadenabbia "Psyche and Cupid", a graceful composition of exquisite lines; and in 1796 the life-size "Kneeling Magdalen" (Cadenabbia) and the "Hebe" (Berlin). The year following saw the "Psyche and Cupid" of the Louvre. In 1800 Canova made the "Perseus" which stands grouped with his two boxers, "Kreugas and Damoxenus", in the Gabinetto Canova of the Vatican Gallery.
In 1802, by special request of Napoleon I, he went to Paris and modelled a colossal figure of the emperor, holding a Victory in his hand (Apsley House, London). His "Bust of Napoleon" is in the Corcoran Gallery, Washington. Some years later Canova modelled a noble statue of Napoleon's mother in antique garb; one of Marie Louise as "Concord" (Parma) and the reclining portrait of Pauline Bonaparte, wife of Prince Borghese, as "Venus Victrix" (Villa Borghese, Rome). The colossal, boyish "Palamedes" for the Villa Carlotta, Cadenabbia (1804), was followed next year by the "Venus from the Bath" (Pitti Palace, Florence). At the same time Canova was engaged upon the monument for the Archduchess Maria Christina, a group of nine mourning figures entering a mausoleum (church of the Augustinians, Vienna), and travelled to Austria to superintend the setting up of the work. In 1807 he executed the "Bust of Pius VII", one of his most notable achievements in portraiture. The number of his productions is so large that it is impossible to mention minor ones. Some of his lighter subjects, "his leisures" he called them, are well known, e.g. the "Dancing Girls". In 1814 he produced the "Three Graces".
In 1815 Canova went to Paris, as the pope's envoy, to negotiate for the return of the art treasures carried away from Italy by Napoleon in his campaign, and conducted his mission so successfully that a large part of the spoils was recovered. In acknowledgment of his services he was created Marquis of Ischia, with an income attached to the title. The pope in person inscribed the sculptor's name in the Golden Book of Roman Nobles. Canova, about this time, blocked out his colossal statue of Religion holding a cross and unveiling a circular relief on which was the figure of the Lamb. Owing to its huge size the "Religion" found no place; it was repeated on a lesser scale for Lord Brownlow. In 1817 came the charming "Infant St. John" and the tomb for the Stuart princes in St. Peter's. In 1818 Canova was commissioned to make a heroic statue of Washington for the State House, Raleigh, N.C. He clothed him as a Roman warrior but the head was mild and full of dignity. The "Recumbent Magdalen", for the Earl of Liverpool, was one of the sculptor's latest works, as was also the "Pius VI" (in the Confessio at St. Peter's), whose uplifted face and joined hands are full of a religious exaltation. A colossal bust of his friend and biographer Count Cocognara, was the last work from his hand.
Canova was buried at his native Possagno, where he had spent large sums in erecting a memorial church, in imitation of the Parthenon and Pantheon. His bronze "Pietà" is there, also the "Descent from the Cross", one of his few paintings, coloured in the manner of the early Venetians. Leo XII gave him a monument in the Capitol (Rome); and a design which the master had made for Titian's tomb was used for his own in S. Maria dei Frari, Venice. Canova's main glory rests on his classic subjects; he did not wholly escape the affectation and artificiality of his day, but his best sculptures are noble in conception and form, full of grace, tranquil beauty, and elegance. He lifted the art of sculpture from the low condition to which it had fallen in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. His finish was peculiarly soft and velvet-like, the flesh having an appearance of bloom. His friends have denied that he used acids to produce this effect. It should be noted, however, that very different estimates have been formed of his work, especially of his religious subjects. In character Canova was gentle, modest, of a religious nature, and of the most unwearying generosity. He was an indefatigable worker, and employed in beneficence, especially for the advancement of young artists, the wealth which flowed in upon him. He received many honours: orders of chivalry, membership in the French Institute, and a perpetual presidentship of the Roman Academy of St. Luke. He was never married, and the name is said to be extinct, save as borne by the descendants of his stepbrothers called Satori-Canova.
M. L. Handley.