The Genius of Antonio Canova: A Neoclassic Marvel

Antonio Canova’s study of Baroque, Rococo, and idealized beauty enabled him to create a masterful, sculptural style of Classical simplicity and sharpness.

Apr 15, 2021By Idalis Love, BA Studio Arts & Art History
antonio canova
Portrait of Antonio Canova by François Xavier Fabre, 1812, via The New York Times; with Perseus with the Head of Medusa (Perseus Triumphant) by Antonio Canova, 1800-01, via The Vatican Museum, Rome; and with Theseus and the Minotaur by Antonio Canova, 1781-1783, via The Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Antonio Canova was a paragon of the Neoclassical movement as a first-rate Italian sculptor. His knowledge of the Baroque, Rococo, and Classical art movements allowed him to create a unique and intuitive style. Thanks to the inspiration of Johann Joachim Winckelmann and the later critiques from Gavin Hamilton, Canova developed a profound understanding of Greek and Roman Classical works. His own works exemplified Harmonia, Balance, Symmetry, and Proportion. These key points were characterized not just by the Greeks’ works but also by the Neoclassical movement as a whole. Canova’s Neoclassical sculptures integrated the past into the present. However, before getting to know the life and works of this great sculptor, it is important to be familiar with the history of Neoclassicism. 


Antonio Canova’s Beginnings: The Neoclassical Movement

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Parnassus by Anton Raphael Mengs, 1761, via The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg


The Neoclassical movement began in the 1760s with the rediscovery of Pompeii in 1748 by explorers on the hunt for ancient artifacts. The uncovering of the wall frescoes during and after the Pompeii excavations compelled artists to make lithographs of the pieces to spread the images across Europe. The Pompeian style inspired the artists of the time and certain aspects of everyday life: French fashion and home decor, for example, shifted to the more refined and elegant styles of the past. 


The rediscovery of Pompeii also inspired the rebirth of columns made after the Greek Classical Orders


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Illustration of The Ionic Order from the Erechtheum from The Antiquities of Athens (Vol. 2), 1762-1816, scanned by the author from Nineteenth-Century European Art: Third Edition by Petra ten-Doesschate Chu


The three orders are Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns. Doric columns are best known for their simplicity, girth, and affiliation with strength and the masculine. Ionic columns aligned themselves with femininity in their daintiness and volutes shaped like spirals, mimicking a maiden’s hair. The Corinthian order was a combination of the other two orders but with a more decorative style, including bell-shaped volutes, an extremely detailed cornice, and acanthus leaves adorning the top. 

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Furthermore, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, a German art historian who majorly influenced the Neoclassical movement, furthered the resurgence of the appreciation of Classical styles with his study of the evolution of Classical art via comparative research. In this way, Neoclassicism took much of its inspiration from the Classical and Hellenistic periods of Greek sculpture.


Who Was Johann Joachim Winckelmann?

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Portrait of Johann Joachim Winckelmann by Angelica Kauffman, 1764, via The British Museum, London


Winckelmann was a German Art historian, archaeologist, and early Hellenist. He believed that Classical art went through an evolution that included a beginning, middle, and end. The concept came from the fact that Pompeiian wall paintings did not live up to the aesthetic standards of Greek sculpture. There existed an assumption that the Pompeiian frescoes were painted during a decline in the timeline of Classical art.

history of ancient art johann joachim winckelmann
History of Ancient Art by Johann Joachim Winckelmann,  First Edition published in 1764, via Winckelmann-Museum, Stendal


Winckelmann wrote Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums, or The History of Art in Antiquity (1764), which impacted historians, scholars, and artists alike. In this work, he used the cycle of life as an analogy to outline the history of Classical art. It had an origin, a period of growth and maturity, and an eventual decline. 


This book inspired many works of art and literature thanks to Winckelmann’s descriptions of Classical sculptures. His writings influenced sculptors and painters such as Antonio Canova and Anton Raphael Mengs. He highlighted pieces’ “ideal” qualities, with their “noble simplicity and calm grandeur” as well as their sensuality.


To Winckelmann, the cradle of Classical art was not in Rome but in Greece, where it was born and where it peaked. Due to his passion for and close study of ancient Greek and Roman works, Winckelmann was able to contribute very closely to the progression of artists who coveted the works of old.


Greek And Roman Sculpture

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Artemision Bronze, Approximately 460 BCE, via The National Archaeological Museum of Athens


Surprisingly, many Greek and Roman bronzes have not been seen since before the reign of the Roman Empire and the Crusades. Why? Because many were melted down for their bronze, as bronze was in high demand for weapons and tools. However, despite the treachery of this action, the Romans had the foresight to make marble copies of quite a number of sculptures. Of course, there were original Greek marbles, like the Kritios Boy, the ancient marble Kouros statue, and the Nike of Samothrace. However, their bronzes best conveyed their skill and philosophy for the mind and body during the Classical to Hellenistic periods. Then there are the works of Greek bronze sculptors like Polykleitos and Lysippos, whose most notable works can only now be seen as Roman marble copies.


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Roman copy of Farnese Herakles (Hercules at rest) by Glykon (Original Greek bronze by Lysippos), Late 2nd to early 3rd century CE, via The National Archeological Museum of Naples


Every Roman copy of a Greek original bronze statue has a strut, or marble tree trunk, that balances the marble. (The strut has historically taken on many forms, but the trunk is one of its most notable shapes). Due to the lost techniques of Greek sculpture, the Romans were unable to balance their marble properly and instead had to use struts. Two examples of this can be seen in Farnese Herakles, which does not necessarily have a strut since the club is a part of the original piece, but it takes on the same role as a strut; and the Apollo Belvedere, which has a strut on its left side. For Greek bronze originals, there would typically be bronze under the feet of the sculpture holding it up— thereby gluing it in place. 


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Diagram of the Golden Ratio (Golden Rectangle and Spiral), via the Pratt Institute


The Romans emulated the style of the Greeks as it had long since been perfected. That perfection came from not just skill but also the knowledge of the Golden Ratio, or Golden Mean via the Golden Rectangle, and which is what brought about the ideal Harmonia, Balance, Symmetry, and Proportion. The Apollo Belvedere, Artemision Bronze, and Anton Mengs’ Parnassus are all prime examples of pieces that are structured around the Golden Ratio. Despite that knowledge, the Romans tended to change the proportions to suit their own sensibilities. On the other hand, the Greeks had an appreciation for the ideal body and refined beauty, modeling the bodies after what they perceived to be the likeness of the gods and goddesses. 


Antonio Canova used these ancient rules and techniques passed down from his predecessors to create works that take inspiration from the past as well as convey knowledge of the future. 


More About Antonio Canova

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Self Portrait of the Sculptor Antonio Canova, 1812, via The Art Institute of Chicago


Antonio Canova was an Italian Neoclassical sculptor known by contemporaries as “the Supreme Minister of Beauty.” Canova relished more in the Neoclassical art movement rather than the Rococo or the Baroque periods of art, as he studied the works of masters such as Michelangelo as well as the Pompeii frescoes during his travels in Italy. Many of Canova’s early works are based on a rejection of merely copying Classical Greek techniques. He attempted to unite past philosophies and understandings of the Greeks with his knowledge of Rococo and Baroque art. 


Antonio Canova was considered to be the greatest sculptor of his time. Before 1779, his early works displayed a late Baroque or Rococo sensibility that was attractive to his patrons, Venetian nobles. One such example would be his Daedalus and Icarus Neoclassical sculpture. 


Canova’s Run-In With Gavin Hamilton

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Daedalus and Icarus by Antonio Canova, 1777-1779, via Museo Gipsoteca Antonio Canova, Possagno


In 1779, Canova first visited Rome and met the Scottish painter, antique dealer, and Venetian ambassador Gavin Hamilton at a dinner party. In June of the following year, Hamilton saw Canova’s Daedalus and Icarus and said to him:


“The people’s imagination is also truth just as the purely individual image of beauty is truth… the bringing together of the natural and the unnatural is the ideal means of conveying our idea.”


Hamilton’s full advice to Canova was much more in-depth, but in essence, Hamilton wanted him to turn away from naturalism and seek a higher form of sculptural beauty. This input from Hamilton is why Canova’s work was forever changed, and why his work was able to ascend as it did.


Canova And The Apollo Belvedere: Neoclassical Sculpture

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Perseus with the Head of Medusa (Perseus Triumphant) by Antonio Canova, 1800-01, via The Vatican Museum, Rome


After his run-in with Gavin Hamilton, Antonio Canova’s later works began to depict a more idealized beauty, taking inspiration from the works of old. Canova’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa took inspiration from not just the descriptions of the Apollo Belvedere but also Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus and Medusa.


The primary traits that Canova’s Perseus inherited from the Apollo Belvedere include: a lack of intense musculature with the same idyllic body type; heavy use of waterfall drapery; almost identical poses except for their capes and the items they hold (they are mirrors of each other); and their triumphant and smug facial expressions. 


apollo belvedere roman
Apollo Belvedere Roman marble copy of Greek bronze, late 4th c. BCE (Marble Copy 18th c.), via The Vatican Museum, Rome


To better understand the importance of the Apollo Belvedere, below is an excerpt of Winkelmann’s description of the sculpture as written in Nineteenth-Century European Art (3rd edition) by Petra ten-Doesschate Chu:


“Among all of the works of antiquity, which have escaped destruction, the statue of Apollo is the highest ideal of art… His stature is loftier than that of man and his attitude speaks of greatness with which he is filled. An eternal spring… clothes with the charms of youth, the graceful manliness of ripened years and plays with softness and tenderness about the proud shape of his limbs…” (p. 50).


Winkelmann sought to highlight the dual emphasis on the sensual and ideal qualities of Greek sculpture, even though he was only able to see the Roman copies of many of the destroyed bronzes. At this time, going to Greece was not possible due to the reign of the Ottoman Turks


Antonio Canova’s Golden Years 

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Theseus and the Minotaur by Antonio Canova, 1781-1783, via The Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Antonio Canova’s golden years were indeed post-Hamilton, as he began working within the Neoclassical sculpture standards while applying the Greek ideals of celestial beauty and perfection. Canova’s first piece after his meeting with Hamilton was Theseus and the Minotaur. This work is seen as his first actual Neoclassical sculpture along with Perseus with the Head of Medusa, which he produced soon after. It is evident in looking at this piece that Canova took Hamilton’s advice to heart and attempted to evoke both natural and unnatural beauty. This piece still leans more towards the natural idea of beauty; however, it does not go as far as his work Daedalus and Icarus


Thus, Antonio Canova’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa can arguably be considered the start of his golden era. His Perseus and all of the works that came after are how he became known as the “Supreme Minister of Beauty.”


psyche revived cupids kiss
Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss (first version) by Antonio Canova, 1787-93, via Musée du Louvre, Paris


The sculpture Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss displays Canova’s true grasp of Hamilton’s words and how he was further developing a style for himself that was just beginning to peek through in Theseus and the Minotaur. His work on this Neoclassical sculpture truly conveys the combining of the natural with the unnatural. He allows the bodies to keep more of a natural proportion while their faces, hair, and motions emanate an otherworldly beauty and care. 


theseus and the centaur
Theseus and the Centaur by Antonio Canova, 1810-1819, via The Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna


During the Neoclassical movement, the taste for works exemplifying the Rococo style remained in full swing. One aspect that characterized Rococo art the most was its theatrical nature. Because Antonio Canova studied Rococo, that theatrical sensibility followed him into works such as Theseus and the Centaur


In comparison, his Theseus and the Minotaur is different from what many Rococo artists had done in the past in that it shows the aftermath of battle instead of showing the battle itself. Theseus and the Minotaur displays Theseus after slaying the Minotaur (as advised by Hamilton), perched upon his kill, during a moment of reflection. At that moment, Theseus realizes that he has now lost his innocence and has to think upon his own morality. Instead of depicting grandeur in battle, like Theseus and the Centaur, there is a somber pensiveness to the piece.  


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Theseus and the Centaur (close-up of centaur) by Antonio Canova, 1810-1819, via The Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna


This piece, in particular, caused speculation that it was a copy from a Greek original. Theseus and the Centaur was so well balanced, shaped like a triangle within the confines of the Golden Ratio, while simultaneously having a level of detail that one did not necessarily expect from an original Neoclassical sculpture. The detail on the horse and the flesh-like nature of the bodies made the piece seem like an impossibility for the time, especially with the lack of a strut and the sculpture’s overall harmony. Theseus and the Centaur is therefore considered to be Canova’s magnum opus and with good reason. 


When it comes down to it, Canova’s works were masterful during his early career, with highlights such as Daedalus and Icarus. However, without insight from those such as Winckelmann or advice from Gavin Hamilton, he would not be the marvel that he came to be. Antonio Canova was a true virtuoso of the craft, creating works that can arguably be immortalized in the same manner as the works that inspired him.


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By Idalis LoveBA Studio Arts & Art HistoryIdalis Love graduated with her BA in Studio Arts and Art History from Oglethorpe University in 2020. During her time as a Studio Arts major, she found passion in Far Eastern and European art histories, which enabled her to double major. When she isn’t gushing about other people’s art she is making it as well.