I have finally got Antonio Canova. It just goes to show that almost anything negative you write about venerated artists – the ones who long ago earned their place in the world’s memory – is likely to be stupid. It seems to me that for years I have used Canova, the late 18th- and early 19th-century neoclassical sculptor whose nude statue of Napoleon stands in the Duke of Wellington’s house in London, as someone to knock around a bit. If I wanted to praise Donatello’s sculptures, it was convenient to contrast their energy with the calm of Canova. Every cliche you can apply to classical art – that it is “chilly”, “frozen”, “still” – has, I fear, been used by me about poor Canova.
Recently, in the Museo Correr in Venice, I had the tasty experience of eating my own words. Terracotta models for famous works by Canova, including Cupid and Psyche, are hauntingly displayed there in grand rooms near full-fledged marble statues. One of the prototypes is Canova’s design for a monument to Titian: an awe-inspiring relief of a pyramid with mourners entering its sepulchral door. Unbuilt in the sculptor’s lifetime, this structure from a dream or a nightmare now stands in the church of the Frari in Venice, erected by his own pupils as a memorial to Canova himself. To me it is also the cenotaph of neoclassicism – the resting place of this ambitious and intense vision of moral greatness.
It is true that Canova is stiller, more poised, than his predecessors in Italian sculpture. But that is the logical direction for artist in the wake of Donatello, Michelangelo and Bernini. He rivals that triumvirate of supreme sculptors, while his art is a modern reaction against them: his Theseus sits on the Minotaur’s chest in triumph, deliberately rejecting Michelangelo’s portrayal of David in the moment before action. Where Michelangelo and Bernini give us energy, Canova gives us climax – a choice that lends his art a very modern melancholy. In satisfaction there is always a little death.