Linked to the fascinating figure of Antonio Canova, it’s hidden the story of one of the most admired female figures of the late eighteenth century: we are talking about Isabella Teotochi Albrizzi (Corfu,16th June 1760- Venice, 27th September 1836), a woman of good culture, affable conversationalist with good skills, who stood out in the Venetian salons of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Of Greek origin, Isabella was a great lover of the arts, an animator of some of the most fervent cultural circles of the time and, at the same time she was connected to many notable intellectuals and artists of the same age. In fact, throughout her life she fostered various friendships and love stories (for example with Vivant Denon, Ugo Foscolo and Ippolito Pindemonte), enstablishing in particular a solid friendship with Antonio Canova. Born in Corfu (Greece) on 16th June 1760 from the earl Antonio Albrizzi and Nicoletta Veja, Isabella got married with the Venetian patrician Carlo Antonio Marin, when she was only sixteen. In 1778 with her husband and their newborn son Giambattista, she moved to Venice and then returned in 1780, after two years spent in Salò (Lake Garda).
At the end of the eighteenth century, Venice had lost its political, financial and military power, but despite this, the city saw an extraordinary flowering of all the arts, especially the art of enjoying life. These were the years of the great reopening of the theaters, the years in which Carnival attracted thousands of foreign tourists to the city, the years in which great social life tended to move more and more from mansions to salons. The fact that ladies could own a salon was an indication of the independence and autonomy enjoyed by bourgeois women, a freedom that was expressed by the possibility of cultivating a passion for literature, poetry, friendship and the attendance of writers. In this respect, 1782 was a fundamental year for Isabella, as she opened one of her first salons at the Barattieri bridge, which became for about half a century a popular destination for writers, artists and men of the world. Isabella’s salonnière personality was very influential in the Venice of the time, so much so as to overshadow leading figures such as the Tron, Cecilia Zen e Caterina Dolfin. In 1793 she separated form her husband and in 1795 the wedding was canceled.
On 28th March 1796 she secretly married Senator Giuseppe Albrizzi, still climbing the social ladder and she had a son with him. The fame of the countess continued to attract to her salon numerous personalities, she herself continued her correspondence with intellectuals and writers of the time, also undertaking trips (including one in Paris in 1817), but in June 1835 a sad physical and moral decline began for her and she die in Venice on 27th September of the following year.
The friendship with Antonio Canova
Sophisticated, seductive and competent woman, Isabella Teotochi Albrizzi therefore embodies the conversational soul of the eighteenth century; she loved being portrayed in various ways, arousing the admiration of many of her contemporaries who aspired to capture her features and personality with paintings, engravings, sculptural busts and lyrics, but above all it was thanks to her skill in writing that Isabella gained fame over time, so much so that she undertakes in drafting some literary works, like Ritratti and Opere di scultura e di plastica di Antonio Canova.
The friendship between Isabella and Canova was born in 1796, when they met in Rome (in those years Isabella was on a grand tour) and he agreed to stay in her villa in Preganziol (Treviso), thus inspiring her to literary compositions, that blend history, criticism and biographies. In 1807 Isabella had Ritratti published, where she shares the memory of the most interesting guests and friends for her. But she decied to dedicate a more committed and celebratory work to her friend Canova, and so in 1809 she published Opere di scultura e di plastica di Antonio Canova, a catalog that pays tribute to the great sculptor, with rich descriptions of his works, accompanied by as many illustrations.
Canova thus decided to pay tribute to her with Testa di Elena, dated and signed in 1811 and donated to her in 1812 (now it is preserved in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg). It seems that the sculptor had drawn inspiration from Isabella’s face for effigy of the most beautiful of the women of ancient Greece. The sculpture was a great success, so much so that between 1816 and 1819 Canova came to sculpt five more copies and sixth just roughed out was found in his studio in 1822 when he died, even before seeing Opere complete. Elena represented by Canova is young and kind, she carries the half egg on her head in memory of the father, simultaneously Zeus and swan. It was believed that in Elena’s head, Canova had portrayed Isabella and facilitating the superimposition of her traits with the divine beauty of Elena, was naturally the Greek origin of the noblewoman. But the traits of Isabella’s face did not look like Elena’s. Furthermore, when it was known that the sculptor was preparing this homage to the writer, he was criticized because it seemed exaggerated in relation to the kindness he had received; in fact, many were also those who harbored antipathies for the woman, including Leopoldo Cicognara and Pietro Giordani. According to many, Isabella’s intrusive friendship did not seem necessary or useful to Canova’s glory, but after all what memories of him would remain if Isabella had not divulged his sculptural works, describing and commenting them in a verbose way and entrusting their reproduction to one hundred and forty eight engravers?
It was thanks to this work dedicated to Canova that Isabella Teotochi Albrizzi contributed to the development of a literature that celebrates the greatness and skills of the great sculptor. The artist’s chisel thus managed to indirectly fill library shelves as well, giving life to a specific literary production in prose and poetry entirely centered on him.