Enfilade

Exhibition | Canova and the Antique

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on April 6, 2019

Now on view in Naples at the MANN:

Canova and the Antique
Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Naples, 28 March — 30 June 2019

Curated by Giuseppe Pavanello 

The magnificent art of Antonio Canova (1757–1822) has rightly earned him praise as “the last of the ancients and the first of the moderns.” This exhibition focuses on Canova’s constant, intense, and fruitful relationship with classical antiquity, which made him known as “the new Phidias” among his contemporaries. Throughout the course of his artistic activity, Canova followed Winckelmann’s call “to imitate but not to copy the ancients” in order to “become inimitable.”

Antonio Canova, Dancer with Hands on Hips, 1811–12 (Saint Petersburg: State Hermitage Museum).

The exhibition is organised on two floors and displays over 110 works by Canova, including drawings, sketches, paintings, plaster casts, and marble sculptures. It showcases some of Canova’s greatest masterpieces, such as the famous group of The Graces on loan from the Hermitage State Museum in Saint Petersburg. The National Archaeological Museum of Naples is in a uniquely privileged position to present this complex and fascinating dialogue between Canova’s works and the great works of antiquity, with stunning pieces that can delight the modern spectator as thoroughly as they did Canova’s contemporaries.

The two installations dedicated to Canova in the entrance hall of the Museum are hosted in theatre-like round structures with a six-metre diameter. The visual journey takes the visitor through virtual imagery and scientific study, going from a single detail to a bird’s eye view, from the butterfly of Cupid and Psyche, to Hercules hurling Lichas, the great myths sculpted in marble and the polychrome paintings on a dark background, dedicated to dance. Adriano Giannini’s voice and the original soundtrack by the cello-player Giovanni Sollima contribute to a show that mixes deep emotion and accurate knowledge.

Canova visited Naples in 1780 to admire the beauties of the city and the antiquities of Herculaneum and Paestum. In his second Quaderno di Viaggio he writes about Naples: “everywhere is like Heaven.” He also reports of his visits to the Sansevero Chapel—where he appreciated the Dead Christ (Veiled Christ) by Giuseppe Sammartino—to the Gallery of Capodimonte, and to the Museum of Portici, where all the antiquities from the Vesuvian area had been gathered. Among the bronzes from the Villa of Papyri of Herculaneum he praises the Seated Mercury for “its wonderful beauty.” Canova obtained permission to draw the nude at the Academy (of Fine Arts), then in the area of San Carlo alle Mortelle. Today, in the Academy’s Gipsoteca, it is possible to admire some of Canova’s plaster models. The master returned to Naples in 1787 and carved for Francesco Maria Berio the marble group Venus and Adonis, to be placed in a little temple in the garden of the marquis’ palace, along via Toledo. The work, inscribed in the genre “delicate and gentle,” is today in Geneva. For the Neapolitan Onorato Caetani he sculpted the group Hercules and Lichas, classified in the genre “strong” or “fierce,” taking inspiration from the ideal model of the Farnese Hercules and from the composition of Hector and Troilus—both on display at the MANN. The Herm of a Vestal, commissioned by the count Paolo Marulli d’Ascoli, would leave Naples for Switzerland first and for the Getty Museum of Los Angeles later. After the short life of the Parthenopean Republic, the Bourbon king Ferdinand IV asked Canova to sculpt for him a portrait-statue. In 1821, as suggested by the master himself, it was placed in the niche of the monumental staircase of the Royal Bourbon Museum, today Museo Archeologico Nazionale. During the French decade Canova carved the marble busts, today lost, of Caroline and Joachim Murat, known through their plaster models. In the same period, the king Joseph Bonaparte and his successor Joachim Murat commission an Equestrian Monument to Napoleon, but, with the French domination coming to an end, the work was never completed. When the Bourbon king of Naples Ferdinand I regained the throne as king of the two Sicilies, he asked Canova to complete the piece with the statue of his father, Charles III. The monument can be admired today in Piazza Plebiscito.

Blasco Pisapia and Valentina Moscon, Canova e l’Antico (Milan: Electa, 2019), 360 pages, ISBN: 978-8891825063.

Antonio Canova, Theseus and Pirithous in the Temple of Diana Ortia See Diana Dancing, between Two Dancers, in Front of the Figure of Artemis of Ephesus (Abduction of Helen), 1799, tempera (Possagno: Gypsotheca e Museo Antonio Canova). The painting is one of 34 works inspired by Pompeiian wall paintings.

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