Portrait of Antonio Canova, 1812 (detail). The work of the brush François-Xavier Fabre

Antonio Canova – a famous Italian sculptor of the late 18th

Portrait of Antonio Canova, 1812 (detail). The work of the brush François-Xavier Fabre
Portrait of Antonio Canova, 1812 (detail). The work of the brush François-Xavier Fabre

Antonio Canova is a brilliant Italian who managed to revive and enhance the traditions of the ancient masters of antiquity and the Renaissance

Antonio Canova (born November 1, 1757 – died October 13, 1822) is a famous Italian sculptor of the late 18th – early 19th centuries, the brightest representative of neoclassicism in European fine arts. Canova was a worthy successor to the traditions of the greatest artists of antiquity and the Renaissance. Among the admirers of his work there were many representatives of the ruling dynasties of Europe, and the master’s biography is an example of selfless service to art.

Antonio Canova was a very prolific artist and created more than 50 statues with his own hand, and together with assistants – about 180 beautiful works. Most of his works today adorn the expositions of the best museums in the world, for example, the halls of the Louvre and the Hermitage.

Pauline Borghese as the Victorious Venus. 1805-1808
Pauline Borghese as the Victorious Venus. 1805-1808


Antonio Canova was born on November 1, 1757 in the small town of Possagno in northern Italy, 80 km from Venice. On the paternal side, his ancestors were hereditary stonecutters, and his mother came from an influential family of owners of local stone quarries. When Antonio was barely 4 years old, his father died and the boy was taken up by his grandfather Pasino Canova, and his mother remarried and left for another city.

His own grandfather did not particularly pamper his grandson, from an early age he began to attract the boy to hard work on stone processing in his own workshop. At the age of nine, Antonio already knew how to make clay models and carve figures from marble, which attracted the attention of the local wealthy landowner Giovanni Falier.

Kiss of Cupid and Psyche (Psyche revived by Cupid's kiss)
Kiss of Cupid and Psyche (Psyche revived by Cupid’s kiss)

Impressed by the talent of the young genius, Fallier persuaded Pasino Canova for several years to send the boy to study as a professional sculptor, until he achieved his goal. In 1768, Giuseppe Torretti became Antonio’s first teacher, and two years later he was taken under his wing by Giovanni Ferrari.

Then Antonio Canova was accepted to study at the Venice Academy of Arts

Where he received several prestigious awards and the first independent orders from local nobles. Already in 1779, the young sculptor opened his own art workshop and created the famous work “Daedalus and Icarus” for the procurator of Venice, Pietro Vettor Pisani.

The magnificent work brought the young man wide fame and a monetary reward in the amount of 100 gold guilds. Having received a substantial amount of money at his disposal, Canova resigned from the post of teacher of the department at the Academy of Arts and went to Rome.

Cupid and Psyche
Cupid and Psyche

The master lived in the capital of Italy for almost twelve years

Periodically making trips around the country at the invitation of various nobles. During this time, he visited Naples, Padua, Vicenza, Verona, Mantua, Parma, Modena and Bologna, and in every city he was expected to be a resounding success. Inspired by fame, Canova worked hard, creating ingenious masterpieces in the neoclassical style. He acquired influential patrons and soon became the most famous sculptor in Europe.

In 1792, Antonio Canova returned to Possagno, where his fellow countrymen greeted him with enthusiasm and lived in his hometown for the next 6 years, fulfilling numerous orders. And then, at the invitation of the Austrian emperor, he visited Vienna. Here he was persistently persuaded to stay and was offered the position of court painter, but the sculptor refused this high honor and went on a trip to the cities of central Europe.

Three Graces. Detail
Three Graces. Detail

On his return to Rome in 1800, Canova did not manage to stay here for long. Soon he received an invitation from Napoleon to become the official artist of the emperor and was forced to agree. At the height of his fame, Bonaparte commissioned his sculpture in the image of Mars, as well as a statue of his sister, Pauline Borghese, in the image of Diana. Antonio Canova brilliantly coped with these orders and hastened to return to Italy, despite Napoleon’s insistent request to stay in Paris forever.

Lorenzo Valles (1831-1910). Pauline Borghese in Antonio Canova's studio
Lorenzo Valles (1831-1910). Pauline Borghese in Antonio Canova’s studio
However, the sculptor had only to dream of a quiet life in Rome.

In subsequent years, he repeatedly had to visit Paris again and make trips to the cities of Italy, and in 1815 Canova even visited London. Meanwhile, his health was gradually deteriorating, old age was inexorably approaching, and in 1818 the master left for Possagno to spend the rest of his life away from the noise of the capital.

The last unfinished masterpiece of the sculptor was the construction of a church in his hometown, which later received the unofficial name “Canovian Temple”. This project embodied the features of the architecture of Ancient Greece, Rome and the Renaissance. For the construction of the temple, Antonio Canova spent almost all of his savings, but the construction was completed after the death of the genius.

Sculpture Hebe
Sculpture Hebe

Until his last days, the great sculptor continued to create, fulfilling numerous orders, but on October 13, 1822, he died in Venice, where he was visiting his friend. The body of Antonio Canova was buried in his native Possagno, and during a solemn ceremony his heart was placed in a vase of the funerary monument of the Venetian Basilica dei Frari.

The most famous works of Antonio Canova

The brilliant Italian sculptor left to posterity many magnificent works worthy of special mention. And yet, some of the most famous works by Antonio Canova include:

  1. Daedalus and Icarus (1779) is a sculptural composition that announced the appearance of a talented young master to the Italian public. It is this work that is considered to be the starting point of Canova’s long career.
  2. Cupid and Psyche (1793) is a sculpture depicting two lovers from Greek myths. The master made two versions of this composition commissioned by the Scottish collector John Campbell, and copies of both works are now in the Hermitage.
  3. “Napoleon in the guise of Mars the Peacemaker” (1806) – a massive statue of the ruler, 3.5 meters high. The omnipotent Bonaparte did not like it, but at the request of Italian customers, the sculptor made 5 plaster copies of the original for art academies located in different Italian cities.
  4. Venus the Victorious (1808) is a sculptural image of Napoleon’s sister reclining half-naked on a sofa. Initially, the master wanted to portray the heroine dressed, but she did not agree and insisted on a frankly erotic version of the work.
Antonio Canova. Tombstone of Clement XIV, 1787
Antonio Canova. Tombstone of Clement XIV, 1787

Antonio Canova has forever etched his name in art history with beautiful masterpieces in the neoclassical style. His works, despite the derogatory criticism of avant-garde supporters, still attract the attention of millions of art connoisseurs around the world.