Bishop Giovanni Battista Sartori, stepbrother of Antonio Canova, decided to erect a building that could worthily host all the works of art that were found in the Roman workshop of Via delle Colonnette after the artist’s death. In 1829, all the sculptures left Rome and, departing on a boat from Civitavecchia, reached Marghera two weeks later. From the Venetian port, the artworks were taken to Possagno by cart.
The building was designed by the Venetian architect Francesco Lazzari who aimed at reproducing the setup of the artworks inside the artist’s atelier. The construction works began in 1834 under the direction of Giovanni Zardo and were completed in 1836. The setup was finalized in 1844, after Pasino Tonin, first curator of the Gypsotheca, had concluded his careful restoration of the sculptures.
In 1917, during the First World War, a shell broke through the roof of the Gypsotheca: some plaster casts were destroyed completely and dozens were ruined. The great restoration work undertaken by Stefano and Siro Serafin, father and son, made the Gypsotheca re-flourish and, in 1922, the Museum opened its doors again.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, in order to avoid further damages caused by possible bombings, the Gypsotheca was partially emptied: the statues were transferred and stored inside the Temple of Possagno, where they remained until 1946. The current setup aims at respecting the essence of the Museum that Giovanni Battista Sartori had imagined, the changes that were caused by the World Wars and the 1957 contribution of the Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa.
Nineteenth-Century Wing of the Gypsotheca, inside
Glimpse of the Monument in honor of Vittorio Alfieri | ph. credits Lino Zanesco
First World War bombings
After the defeat of Caporetto, the conflict continued violently on the Grappa Massif and along the Piave river. The Supreme Command gave Possagno, and several other municipalities, the order to displace civilians, who were then forced to emigrate to Marsala in Sicily.
The village of Possagno was handed over to Allied French troops for its defense.
On Christmas day of 1917, during the last phase of the Halting battle and probably by mistake, a medium-caliber shell broke through the roof of the Gypsotheca: the extremely fragile collection of Canovian plaster casts was gutted and wounded. Some plaster casts were pulverized and nearly one hundred were severely ruined.
As soon as the war was over and the roof had been repaired, the curator and committed attendant of the Gypsotheca, Stefano Serafin, invested in a thorough restoration of the site: most of the damaged plaster casts were salvaged and the Museum opened once again in 1922 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the artist’s death (1757-1822).
Inside the damaged Gypsotheca, after 1918, Historic archive – Museum Gypsotheca Antonio Canova
Who was Giovanni Battista Sartori Canova?
A step-brother to Antonio Canova, Giovanni Battista was born in Crespano in 1775. His father, Francesco, was the second husband of Antonio’s mother, Angela Zardo, who had lost his first husband, Pietro, in 1761. Thanks to his studies at the Episcopal Seminary of Padua, Giovanni Battista was a very cultured man. He became a talented translator from Aramaic, had a great knowledge of Greek and Latin, and was passionate about the art of oratory. All these qualities did not go unnoticed to Canova, who, in May of 1800, decided to invite him to Rome, giving life to a partnership that was crucial for both of them. Giovanni Battista followed his brother on his frequent trips to Paris, Vienna, and London.
When Antonio Canova passed away, his brother decided to leave Rome and moved to Possagno, even if he was offered many prestigious seats as a churchman.
It was probably this decision that made Possagno what it is today. Thanks to his efforts, the Temple of Possagno was completed, the best plaster casts were collected from the artist’s workshop in Rome and taken to Possagno, and a dedicated museum was built. The Museum, together with the Birthplace of Canova, were then donated to the Municipality of Possagno with the explicit request of maintaining and preserving the Canovian heritage.
Antonio Canova, Portrait of Giovanni Battista Sartori, 1821, plaster, Museo Gypsotheca Antonio Canova