Bishop Giovanni Battista Sartori, Canova’s stepbrother, decided to build a building that could host all the works of art that were found in the the artist’s Roman workshop after his death. In 1829, all the sculptures departed from Civitavecchia, Rome, on a boat and reached Marghera two weeks later. From there the artworks were taken to Possagno by cart.
The building was designed by Venetian architect Francesco Lazzari who wanted to reproduce the atelier’s set up. The construction works began in 1834 under the supervision of Giovanni Zardo and were completed in 1836. The artworks arrangement was finalized in 1844, after Pasino Tonin, first curator of the Gypsotheca, had concluded his careful restoration of the sculptures.
In 1917, during World War I, a grenade hit the roof of the Gypsotheca, completely destroying some plaster models and ruining dozens. The great restoration work undertaken by Stefano and Siro Serafin, father and son, brought the Gypsotheca back to life, and, in 1922, the Museum re-opened its doors.
At the outbreak of the World War II, in order to avoid further damages caused by possible bombings, the Gypsotheca was partially emptied, and the statues were transferred and stored inside the Temple of Possagno, where they remained until 1946.
The current setup is the result of Giovanni Battista Sartori’s original vision, the variations due to the war damages and the contribution of architect Carlo Scarpa in 1957.
Nineteenth-Century Wing of the Gypsotheca, inside
Glimpse of the Monument in honor of Vittorio Alfieri | ph. credits Lino Zanesco
World War I bombings
After Caporetto’s defeat, the conflict violently continued on the Grappa Massif and along the Piave river. The Supreme Command gave Possagno, and several other municipalities in Veneto, 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 1917, during the last phase of the “Battaglia d’arresto”, a medium caliber grenade mistakenly hit the Gypsotheca and destroyed the roof and damaged the plaster collection. Some of these were reduced to ash and almost a hundred were ruined.
As soon as the war was over and the roof had been repaired, the curator and protector of the Gypsotheca, Stefano Serafin, invested in a thorough restoration project that was able to salvage most of the plasters. So, the Museum was able to reopen in 1922, just in time 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?
Stepbrother to Antonio Canova, Giovanni Battista was born in Crespano in 1775. His father Francesco was Angela Zardo ,Antonio’s mother, second husband, who she married after the loss of Canova’s father, Pietro, in 1761. Thanks to his studies at the Episcopal Seminary of Padua, Giovanni Battista had become a very cultured man.
He became a talented Aramaic translator, had a great knowledge of Greek and Latin, and was very 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 also supported his brother on his frequent trips to Paris, Vienna, and London.
When Antonio Canova passed away, his brother decided to leave Rome, despite the fact he was offered many honorary posts, and moved to Possagno.
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 models were moved from the artist’s workshop in Rome to Possagno, and a dedicated museum was built. The Museum, together with the Canova’s birth house, were then donated to the Municipality of Possagno with the explicit request of maintaining and preserving Canovian heritage.
Antonio Canova, Portrait of Giovanni Battista Sartori, 1821, plaster, Museo Gypsotheca Antonio Canova