Important works include:
- Three Graces, 1815-17, National Gallery of Scotland
Antonio Canova was born in Possagno, a village of the Republic of Venice situated amid the recesses of the hills of Asolo, where these form the last undulations of the Venetian Alps, as they subside into the plains of Treviso. At three years of age Canova was deprived of both parents, his father dying and his mother remarrying. Their loss, however, was compensated by the tender solicitude and care of his paternal grandfather and grandmother, the latter of whom lived to experience in her turn the kindest personal attention from her grandson, who, when he had the means, gave her an asylum in his house at Rome.
The Museo Canoviano located in Possagno near Asolo
His father and grandfather followed the occupation of stone-cutters or minor statuaries; and it is said that their family had for several ages supplied Possagno with members of that calling. As soon as Canova's hand could hold a pencil, he was initiated into the principles of drawing by his grandfather Pasino. The latter possessed some knowledge both of drawing and of architecture, designed well, and showed considerable taste in the execution of ornamental works. He was greatly attached to his art; and upon his young charge he looked as one who was to perpetuate, not only the family name, but also the family profession.
The early years of Canova were passed in study. The bias of his mind was to sculpture, and the facilities afforded for the gratification of this predilection in the workshop of his grandfather were eagerly improved. In his ninth year he executed two small shrines of Carrara marble, which are still extant. Soon after this period he appears to have been constantly employed under his grandfather. Amongst those who patronized the old man was the patrician family Falier of Venice, and by this means young Canova was first introduced to the senator of that name, who afterwards became his most zealous patron.
Between the younger son, Giuseppe Falier, and the artist a friendship commenced which terminated only with life. The senator Falier was induced to receive him under his immediate protection. It has been related by an Italian writer and since repeated by several biographers, that Canova was indebted to a trivial circumstance – the moulding of a lion in butter – for the warm interest which Falier took in his welfare. The anecdote may or may not be true. By his patron Canova was placed under Bernardi, or, as he is generally called by filiation, Giuseppe Torretto, a sculptor of considerable eminence, who had taken up a temporary residence at Pagnano, one of Asolo's boroughs in the vicinity of the senator's mansion.
This took place whilst Canova was in his thirteenth year; and with Torretto he continued about two years, making in many respects considerable progress. This master returned to Venice, where he soon afterwards died; but by the high terms in which he spoke of his pupil to Falier, the latter was induced to bring the young artist to Venice, whither he accordingly went, and was placed under a nephew of Torretto. With this instructor he continued about a year, studying with the utmost assiduity.
After the termination of this engagement he began to work on his own account, and received from his patron an order for a group, Orpheus and Eurydice. The first figure, which represents Eurydice in flames and smoke, in the act of leaving Hades, was completed towards the close of his sixteenth year. It was highly esteemed by his patron and friends, and the artist was now considered qualified to appear before a public tribunal.
The kindness of some monks supplied him with his first workshop, which was the vacant cell of a monastery. Here for nearly four years he labored with the greatest perseverance and industry. He was also regular in his attendance at the academy, where he carried off several prizes. But he relied far more on the study and imitation of nature. A large portion of his time was also devoted to anatomy, which science was regarded by him as the secret of the art. He likewise frequented places of public amusement, where he carefully studied the expressions and attitudes of the performers. He formed a resolution, which was faithfully adhered to for several years, never to close his eyes at night without having produced some design. Whatever was likely to forward his advancement in sculpture he studied with ardour. On archaeological pursuits he bestowed considerable attention. With ancient and modern history he rendered himself well acquainted and he also began to acquire some of the continental languages.
Three years had now elapsed without any production coming from his chisel. He began, however, to complete the group for his patron, and the Orpheus which followed, evinced the great advance he had made. The work was universally applauded, and laid the foundation of his fame. Several groups succeeded this performance, among which was that of Daedalus and Icarus, the most celebrated work of his noviciate. The terseness of style and the faithful imitation of nature which characterized them called forth the warmest admiration. His merits and reputation being now generally recognized, his thoughts began to turn from the shores of the Adriatic to the banks of the Tiber, for which he set out at the commencement of his twenty-fourth year.
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