Da Possagno a Venezia
Antonio Canova was born in Possagno on the 1st of November 1757. When he was only four years old, his father Pietro died. His mother, Angela Zardo, married Francesco Sartori and moved to Crespano, a small village not far from Possagno, but Antonio continued living in his birthplace with Pasino Canova, his grandfather, who was a well-known stonecutter and sculptor.
These events left an indelible mark on the life of Antonio Canova. From a very young age, he showed a natural inclination toward sculpture, creating small works of art from the clay of Possagno. The story goes that, at the age of six or seven, while he was attending a dinner for the Venetian nobility at a Villa in Asolo, Canova sculpted a magnificent lion with some butter. All the guests were astonished and the host, the Senator Giovanni Falier, understanding the artistic skills of the young boy, decided to take care of his personal and professional education.
In 1768, Canova started working in the Torretti’s sculpting studio in Pagnano d’Asolo, less than ten kilometers from Possagno. For young Antonio, the studio was an actual full-fledged art school. Torretti opened for him the doors of Venice, a vibrant city, full of cultural activities and artistic events. In Venice, Canova went to the school of nude at the Accademia delle Belle Arti and learned the art of drawing by taking inspiration from the plaster casts in the Gallery of Filippo Farsetti. After leaving the Torretti’s studio, he opened his own workshop and produced the first statues that gave him a certain notoriety in Venice and in the Veneto region: Orpheus and Eurydice (1776), Daedalus and Icarus (1779).
Rome and Europe
In 1779, Canova traveled to Rome for the first time. In the Italian capital city, he produced most of his masterpieces: the Three Graces, Cupid and Psyche, the funeral monuments to Maria Christina of Austria, Pope Clement XIII and XIV, the numerous mythological subjects, such as Venus and Mars, Perseus with the Head of Medusa, Hector and Ajax. In Rome, he also worked for kings, princes, popes and emperors from all over the world. As a guest of the Venetian Ambassador Girolamo Zulian, great supporter of local artists, Canova received from him the first commissions, among which Theseus and the Minotaur (1781) and Psyche (1793).
In the meantime, he met the daughter of Giovanni, an engraver. Her name was Domenica Volpato and their friendship was bound to be a troubled relation. His fame continued growing in Italy and abroad: Canova kept receiving new and challenging commissions from every corner of Europe. His art was based on the antique technique used by the Greek, following a long process: from drawing to clay, from plaster to marble. Canova’s production was outstanding and its proximity to the themes of the classical mythology was evident.
When the French occupied Rome, in 1798, he left the city and went back to Possagno, where he concentrated mainly on painting. In a two-year period, he painted a great number of canvas and all the tempera paintings that are now kept in his Birthplace. In 1800, he returned to Rome, where the general conditions were improving. His stepbrother, Giovanni Battista Sartori, traveled with him and acted as his faithful personal assistant for his whole life.
Napoleon’s rise to power in 1804 led to a particularly fertile period on the European artistic scene: among the many artists of the time, Canova was one of the most famous. He produced a monument to Napoleon, now at the Apsley House, the Napoleonic busts, the marble sculpture of Letizia Ramolino and the notorious Pauline of Villa Borghese. Despite all these Napoleonic works of
art, Canova never accepted the proposal of becoming the official sculptor at the Imperial French Court. In 1815, straight after the Battle of Waterloo, Canova, who was in Paris with his stepbrother Giovanni Battista Sartori, with expert diplomacy managed to take back to Italy many valuable works of art previously stolen by Napoleon. Pope Pius VII, for his flawless act of diplomacy in defense of the Italian arts, made Canova the Marquis of Ischia with an annuity of 3,000 scudi that the artist decided to donate to a number of art academies.
On July 1819, Canova laid in Possagno the first stone of the Temple that he had designed as a new parish church and bequeathed to the community of his native town. The majestic building was concluded only ten years later and Canova never had the chance to admire it. The artist died on the 13th of October 1822 in Venice, guest of his friend Francesconi. As Canova’s stepbrother desired, the artist was buried in the old parish church and was moved to the Temple only in 1832.