1111A lion carved in butter: thus, during a dinner, Antonio Canova's success began
Antonio Canova was little more than child when, during a refined dinner of noble Venetians in the villa of Asolo of Senator Giovanni Falier, he aroused enormous wonder among the guests for having engraved, with great skill, the figure of a lion in a piece of butter. The landlord, realising the talent of the boy, became interested in his future, and took a personal initiative to allow the boy to study.
It is a famous legend about the origin of the fortunes of the Possagno's sculptor, but there is certainly a seed of truth. Antonio Canova's tutor and mentor was later another Venetian nobleman, Girolamo Zulian, who in 1779 brought him to Rome during his mandate as ambassador, opening the doors of the Italian to the artistic and academic world. It was Zulian who had the first important commissions during his training in Venice in the early years of apprenticeship, and he ordered the statues of Psyche and Teseo on the Minotaur that dazzled the Serenissima's society for their beauty.
At the time, the greatest exponent of Neoclassicism, nicknamed "the new Fidia," had shortly passed the age of twenty. Canova was born in Possagno, Treviso, on 1st November 1757, in a wealthy family. He lost his father Peter when he was just four years old and from then on he lived with his grandfather Pasino "tajapiera" (stone-cutter) and sculptor, while his mother Angela re-married and returned to live in her native village Crespano. It was his grandfather who first became aware of the young man's artistic potential and he assisted the young Canova with his sculpting craftmanship well before the Venetian nobles realised his abilities and took him under their protective wing.
His life was a crescendo of successes, which perpetuated even after the fall of the Serenissima in 1797. It was undoubtedly the preferred sculptor by Napoleon Bonaparte, who named him his official portraitist. Among the most famous sculptures of the members of the imperial family there is the one representing Paolina Bonaparte, Napoleon's sister, half-naked, lying on a Roman triklin in the allegory of "Venus winner".
Afflicted by a chronic weakness of the stomach (made worse by the fact that the work with the hand drill, with which he molded the stone, constantly pressed on the rib cage and the mouth of the stomach) Canova died, extremely debilitated, on the morning of 13th October 1822 in Venice near St. Mark's, at the age of 65, in the house of his old friend Antonio Francesconi, owner of Caffè Florian (as well as granddaughter of founder Floriano Francesconi). The following day, his heart and right hand were taken and were dipped in alcohol. The body was buried at Possagno, in the temple he himself designed and donated to his native land. For the sake of truth, Antonio Canova had two funerals: the first was celebrated at Possagno on 25th October; the second was held in Rome on 31st January 1823, in the church of the Holiest Apostles. A strabulous crowd took part, amongst them the poet Giacomo Leopardi, who was pleased to have greeted "the great Canova".
Today Antonio Canova's heart is in the Frari church in Venice, inside the cenotaph that the sculptor had thought for Titian. His hand, after having been preserved for a long time at the Incurabili (at Zattere), the seat of the Academy of Fine Arts, has rejoined to the rest of the body.
Article by Alberto Toso Fei published on "Il Gazzettino" on 24/7/2017