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The sculptor Canova rose to fame and fortune despite the conflicts that arose during the Napoleonic Era. He succeeded in doing so not only because of his exceptional artistic talents, but also because of his astute diplomacy that enabled him to remain a free agent. Christopher Johns makes clear the complex strategy of “political ambivalence” that allowed the artist to partake of the patronage of Europe’s ruling elite, despite their bitter enmities.
This instructive study of Canova, his art, and its political context makes for an indispensable history of patronage. Using meticulous documentation, culled from archives, libraries, and collections across Europe, Johns analyzes the tensions surrounding the sculptor as he maintained control of his art while ensuring his professional reputation.
The artist’s patrons in the matrix of their national ties set the parameters of the negotiations, “in working for many [Canova] frustrated more than a few. . . .” Johns’s introduction frames the historical circumstances that shaped Canova’s world, a Europe fraught with political danger, in which the sculptor steered a deliberate course, one that has eluded his many chroniclers until now. Johns posits the foundation of Canova’s strategy relying on mythological themes, avoiding portraiture, and privileging funerary monuments. As a result, the works assume new dimensions and subtle shifts in their implications.
In chapter one, “Canova’s Background, Religious Views, and Cultural Formation,” Johns revises the common assumptions about sculptures, especially those held to embody radical politics. This interpretation stresses the artist’s obvious Catholic piety and his subsequent devotion to the pope.
Chapter two, “Canova’s Italianità and a Tale of Two Cities,” illuminates the shared cultural understanding of Italy, a concept dear to the sculptor throughout his life. Johns abrogates the popular interpretation of the Alfieri Tomb as a monument of the Risorgimento. The artist’s loosely defined notion of Italian cultural unity differs from his intense loyalty to the two political entities that were his native and his adopted homes, Venice and Rome. Johns elucidates the intertwined patronage that united the artist with both of these cities. Monuments to Admiral Emo and to the engraver Volpato evidence his lifelong ties to Venice. At the same time, his Venetian patrons were instrumental in launching his career in Rome. The nuance of his political strategy appears already in Theseus and the Dead Minotaur, which refers subtly to the desire to regain the lost Venetian territory of Crete. Johns adds that its purchase by the Count von Fries imbues the statue with an implicit note of gratitude to the Austrians who fought for Venice. Such early triumphs resulted in two spectacular papal commissions, the tombs of Clement XIV and of Clement XIII. This link to the papal court never diminished, although the courts themselves were periodically captive to the French.
Chapter three analyzes the ambience in which the sculptor’s Francophobia evolved. The antipathy of the 1780s toward the French (despite amicable relations with specific individuals) grew into a profound antagonism with the invasion of northern Italy in 1796-97. The subsequent occupation and the massive seizure of Italian works of art made an indelible impression on Canova. The wealth of information about events and the degree to which the sculptor was affected by them form the backdrop to all of his dealings with the Bonapartes.
In the next chapter, Johns offers a balanced perspective on the Bonaparte commissions. Nowhere is Canova’s strategy of mixed-genre portraiture, in which the specific likeness is mitigated by a mythological referent, more telling. For the (in)famous Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker, the author maintains that “the artist used nudity to defeat any (positive) political purpose the statue might serve.” Canova’s strategy of ambivalence, doing the image but compromising it through its classicizing trappings, deflects the grandeur of pedigree to which the family aspired toward grandiose pretensions gone awry. One wonders, in fact, how the sculptor escaped in portraying Madame Mère as Agrippina, mother of a demented emperor…
In light of the behavior of the French, and specifically the pressure put on Canova by Napoleon personally, the Austrian Habsburgs were more appealing patrons. In chapter five, Johns dwells on the political dimensions of five works with Habsburg connections. This is not to say that the Habsburgs were ideal patrons. The Duke of Saxe-Teschen interfered repeatedly in the creation of the tomb of the Archduchess Maria Christina. Other pieces, notably the Hercules and Lichas, likewise had a troubled history.
The most enlightened patrons from Canova’s point of view were the British, “that Illustrious and Generous Nation,” the topic of chapter six. Throughout his career, Canova found this patronage particularly gratifying because the British sought to possess his sculptures “for predominantly aesthetic reasons.” Gavin Hamilton was instrumental in Canova’s stylistic development, and through the Scottish painter, the young artist gained a number of friends and patrons. From Cupid and Psyche to the late Venus and Mars, Canova and the British sustained a mutual admiration. He avoided political portraits, refusing monuments to both Fox and Pitt, for example. But he labored over a model of the Nelson Monument without any real possibility of executing it. The contrast of his exchanges with the British stands in marked contrast to the French, with whom his final dealings were marred by acrimony. Canova himself coined the phrase “This Great Cavern of Stolen Goods,” chapter 7, referring to “the Repatriation of the Papal Collections from Paris in 1815.” The sculptor played a critical role in the return to Italy of many art works that the French had transported to Paris as war booty. His diplomatic finesse, practical knowledge, and powerful contacts were indispensable to the successful restoration of important works of art and the papal collections. The resulting hostility he felt toward the French was reciprocated. As attested in “Canova’s Political Afterlife,” the French refused to participate in any of the plans to honor the artist after his death. His memory became fraught with conflicting political agendas, ultimately making him a “cult figure of the Risorgimento.”
No one can study the period, much less the sculptor, without this text. Christopher Johns has produced an account of Canova’s patronage that is infinitely readable for all its erudition. He leads the reader through complicated histories, filled with names—familiar and not—and myriad facts while sustaining a vivid narrative. Our understanding of the artist and his art is ever the richer for this book.
University of Maryland, College Park