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ART. IV. Della Vita di Antonio Canova, Libri quattro, compi lati da MELCHIOR MISSIRINI. Milano: 1825.
The middle of the last century, so fruitful of those master spirits who gained lasting celebrity on the busy theatre of Europe, in war, politics, and general science, is also distinguished for having produced a genius in the fine arts, whose works and life form the most striking era in the history of modern sculpture.
Antonio Canova was born at Possagno, a little village in Treviso, about six leagues from Venice, on the first day of November, 1757. His life, as given by his excellent biographer and friend, Missirini, derived from all the most authentic sources, exhibits, at once, one of the most interesting and useful of the
To observe the progress of the spontaneous force of intellect and feeling, as they give forms to ideal beauty,-to follow Canova from his domicile, a poor and almost friendless orphan, obtaining his bread with his mallet and chisel, in an obscure hamlet, to his magnificent studio in Rome, to contemplate the numerous works with which he has adorned the chief palaces in Europe and the galleries of Italy, would be a sufficiently pleasant and profitable reward for the perusal of his life. But there is an additional and higher gratification derived from the reflection, that with a transcendant genius, unknown before to Europe since the proudest days of Greece, he combined such moral merits, such true dignity of soul, as kept him entirely out of the little world of envy, jealousy, and strife; where some of his cotemporaries found contempt and disgrace, which too often await mediocrity when emulously pursuing the professions and the arts.
Although the fine arts had flourished for so long a period in Venice, yet, at the time he commenced his labours, Sculpture had fallen very low. There were only some tolerable restorers, with a depraved or false taste, who had produced no works that had won the approbation of enlightened connoisseurs, but they were merely critics and disputants, armed to defend a received and privileged style.
The father of Canova was a respectable stone-cutter and architect, who died at the early age of twenty-seven, leaving his son, but four years old, to the care of his mother and paternal grandparents. His mother soon married again, when his grandfather insisted on keeping Antonio, and doing what he could towards educating him. Becoming, however, reduced in circumstances, he was unable to do any thing for Canova, and treated him with great austerity and unkindness, so much so that the child, who possessed a most delicate temper and
extraordinary sensibility, was, one day in a passion, about to jump from a balcony and destroy himself, but was prevented. His grandmother was exceedingly tender and affectionate to him. He used to say it remained to be decided, perhaps, which was more useful to him, the rigour of the one or the kindness of the other. His affection never was estranged from his grandfather, and as he grew in fortune and fame he fulfilled all his filial duties towards them with pious regard.
From his childhood, his first act was to use the mallet and chisel, and he acquired singular facility in forming whatever he wished. At the age of fourteen, his grandfather conducted him to Giovanni Falier, a Venetian nobleman, who lived at his country place, in the vicinity of Possagno. This nobleman was a Venetian senator, accomplished, magnanimous, and ardently devoted to the fine arts. He was pleased with young Canova, foresaw the excellence at which he would arrive at some future period, and took him to Toretti, a very respectable sculptor for the times, who had come from Venice to the village of Pagnano. He continued here two years, working on bas reliefs, modeled by his master, who then returned to Venice and took Canova with him.
Toretti died soon after, and the pupil went to the studio of Ferrari. Here his time was too much occupied to admit of attention to the Academy and modeling, and his grandfather allowed him one hundred ducats, to be paid in monthly sums, for one year. This was all he ever received from his paternal fortune.
His first work was two baskets of fruit and flowers, for his patron Falier. They are beautiful, and still to be seen in the palace of Farsetti, at Venice.
He then thought of opening a studio of his own, and his friend, Falier, bespoke the statue of Eurydice, and afterwards that of Orpheus. The elevation of his genius and the purity of his taste would not permit him to follow a corrupt style, which was neither the natural nor the antique, and having had but little opportunity as yet of studying the ancients, he resolved to confine himself in these statues, to a simple imitation of nature. He therefore retired to the quiet of rural shades, where he formed the models from nature, and often, at this period, would walk to Venice that he might study the ancient statues in the Academy. When completed, these works excited great admiration, and Querini, a noble Venetian, bespoke of him the bust of the Doge Renier. Soon after senator Grimani ordered an Orpheus to be done of Carrara marble. This, when finished, so pleased Morosini, the procurator of St. Mark's, that, for the honour of the arts, he ordered a public
exposition of it at the fair of the Ascension, where it formed a most conspicuous ornament of the hall of exhibition.
After Apollo and Daphne, and some other works, he made the group of Dedalus and Icarus, by which his reputation was still advanced. In all these works he had no assistance, but confided entirely in his own judgment. Facility, nature, simplicity, had been the characteristics of the classical masters of the Venetian school of painting; and these were all strikingly seen in the first works of Canova. The hand of patronage began to be every where extended to him, and confidence was obtained and secured by his modesty, temperance, piety, unshaken resolution, and patience of fatigue, both of body and
The reception of the beautiful group of Dedalus and Icarus made many desirous of possessing some of his work; but he felt a strong inclination to go to Rome, the true seat and school of the arts, and finding he had between two and three hundred dollars, proceeds of the above mentioned group, he seriously deliberated on traveling to the great emporium of antiquities. Falier, seeing his resolution fixed, recommended him to Zulian, then ambassador from the republic of Venice to the Pope. The minister received him kindly, and wished him to employ four years in copying the finest works of the ancients, to be sent to Venice; and it was only on these conditions he could render him any assistance. We learn from a note, in the hand writing of the sculptor, that he rejected this proposition with disdain, and told Zulian that he had some ambition to exercise his own judgment in the execution of original works; and that by copying so long, all originality would be banished from the mind.
The minister, incapable of discerning the important truth contained in this sensible reply, took it at first, especially as the artist was so young a man, for presumption; and treated him with coldness and silence; but afterwards became his firm friend and warm protector.
Canova left Venice for Rome in October, 1779, and on the evening of his arrival he flew to the French Academy to see them employed in designing. Zulian conceived a regard for him, and invited him to take lodgings in his house. Penetrated with such generosity, the artist told him he would endeavour to show his gratitude by his zeal and application to his studies. At first he roved impatiently, and was almost distracted in contemplating the stupendous works of the ancients; the Apollo, the Laocoon, the Torso, &c.; but still greater admiration was excited in him by the colossal equestrians at the Quirinal; at the sight of which he said he felt himself to be so insignificant.
When he went to Rome there was nothing in statuary but a licentious mannerism, or an attempt to imitate the ancients; and most of the sculpture then done, was after the standard of Bernini. There was therefore still a field, but it could only be discovered by true genius and taste. Sculpture had not, it must be confessed, kept pace with painting and the other arts, at Rome. It is not surprising if artists despond where they find constantly before them works which they know they never can equal. It was committed by destiny to him to effect, ultimately, a glorious reform, although he had to encounter many difficulties, and when his Dedalus and Icarus were first brought to Rome they were very coldly received.
Fortunately, there lived at that time, in Rome, a Scotish gentleman, Gavin Hamilton, of great judgment and taste in painting, especially versed in the true antique style, and eminently learned in the arts. Immediately on his arrival at Rome, Canova became acquainted with Hamilton, and the fullest confidence and friendship between them ensued. Canova avowed to him that nature had been, hitherto, his model, and that the monuments of the ancients had astonished him to the point of despair. The group of Dedalus and Icarus was examined at the house of the ambassador, by Volpato, Foschi, Hamilton, and several other distinguished artists and connoisseurs, but none of them expressed any opinion. After long hesitation Hamilton declared, with deference, that to him it appeared to be a work of great simplicity and purity, and all that the artist wanted was the style and maxims of the ancient masters. He added, that the artist had taken the right plan, in, at first, following nature, and afterwards perfecting his taste, and forming, by the study of the ancients, a broad and free style. The effect of these words on Zulian was indescribable. What then, said he, can I do for this young man? Nothing, said Hamilton, but give him a block of marble.
The ambassador forthwith provided him with a studio and marble. His judgment was also confirmed by the decision of La Grève, the director of the French Academy.
He next finished Theseus and the Minotaur, and was pensioned by the Venetian senate with three hundred ducats annually, for three years. This work was exhibited to the admiration of Rome in the year 1785. The hero is seated not in the posture of lassitude, but of triumph, and holds in his hand the club which he is to use in beating down the monster. This idea was suggested to some other distinguished artists, but they chose the moment of combat. Canova selected the composed position, by the advice of Hamilton, who told him to avoid an action too animate, and that a quiet style was in this case the more appropriate.
The Theseus, when exhibited at Rome, excited great sensation and surprise. Envious rivals, of the old school, were busy with criticisms, but their heterogeneous and false style was completely prostrated. He gave the group to his patron, Zulian, who refused to receive it, and told him he must sell it for his own profit. It was purchased by Count Fries of Vienna, and an engraving made of it by the celebrated Raphael Morghen.
He became now endeared as a son to Hamilton and Volpato, and they spent much time together in conversations on topics relative to the arts. Canova passed most of his evenings at Volpato's, and an occurrence took place very natural to an ardent, delicate, and sensitive soul. He fell in love. He seems to have been deeply susceptible where there was extraordinary beauty with corresponding endowments of the heart. So early as the age of sixteen he was enamoured of a little girl in Possagno and wished to espouse her; but they were not permitted to marry on account of their youth, and were afterwards separated.
In the numerous family of Volpato there was a young lady of surpassing beauty of face, of great elegance of person, and a strong mind that radiated from her eyes. The gentle heart of the artist was fascinated; the young lady consented; and he consulted her father who was well pleased with the prospect of their union, and the matrimonial arrangements were almost closed.
Canova became seriously engaged in the magnificent mausoleum to Ganganelli (Pope Clement XIV); and La Domenica Volpato, (the young lady to whom he was betrothed,) not willing to contradict the maxim of Petrarch, that love continues but a short time in the heart of woman, repented of her choice, and wished to be again free. Canova having ascertained the fact, begged her to tell her parents, which she did; but her father was at first inflexible, and insisted on her marrying him, suspecting a secret affection of his daughter for some one less worthy; but finding that Canova wished to conform to the caprice of his daughter, he consented to dissolve the contract. She soon afterwards became the wife of Morghen, the celebrated engraver.
Canova, deeply wounded at losing the object of his affection, resolved never to marry. He kept himself constantly occupied, in order to relieve his mind, and went to Carrara and Genoa, to avoid brooding over his disappointment.
So closely did he apply himself to work on his return, that, in 1787, the monument of Ganganelli was completed and uncovered. It filled Rome with admiration, and every body was induced to visit the splendid work. Criticisms and pasquinades