11 Novembre 2016

Canova’s Perseus as Emblem of Italy


Iconocrazia 10/2016 - "Arts & Politics. Rhetorical Quests in Cultural Imaging", Saggi

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

One of the most coveted works from Greek antiquity, even if known only through a Roman copy, and which embodied the Neoclassical ideal of noble simplicity and calm grandeur, was captured in a famous ekphrasis by Johann Wincklemann. Writing of the Apollo Belvedere (Fig. 1) in the Roman papal gardens, Wincklemann says that

The highest conception of ideal male beauty is especially expressed in the Apollo, in whom the strength of adult years is found united with the soft forms of the most beautiful springtime of youth…Hence Apollo was the most beautiful among the gods. Health blooms in this youth, and strength manifests itself, like the ruddiness of morning on a beautiful day. I do not, however, mean to say that all statues of Apollo possess this lofty beauty…it might be said, that nature, with God’s approval, had fashioned it after the beauty of the angels.[1]

This passage, from a treatise on Greek art, helped to solidify the Apollo Belvedere as a work epitomizing good taste and ideal beauty. It was in part due to the statue’s fame and role in shaping taste that it became embroiled in a famous battle of cultural patrimony, which erupted when General Napoleon Bonaparte negotiated the Treaty of Tolentino with Pope Pius VI in 1798. The treaty (certainly not the first of its kind) included a transfer of art from Rome to Paris, at the selection of Napoleon and his advisors–the Apollo Belvedere was among them.

Figure 1. Apollo del Belvedere

Figure 1: Leochares, Apollo Belvedere, c. 120–40, Roman marble copy of Greek bronze original dating to c. 350–325 BCE. Museo Pio Clementino, Vatican Museums, Vatican State. Image courtesy of Scala, Art Resource, NY.

Nearly a century later in 1867, writing of the Italian Neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova (b. 1757) as one of the few artists of the eighteenth century who seemed to rival the ancients, C.L. Fernow explained,

 Connoisseurs, who piqued themselves on their skill in all the refinements and mysteries of the art, preferred his Perseus even to the Apollo Belvedere. According to them the beauty of this ancient masterpiece had been equaled, while its faults had been skillfully avoided; and when, to the shame of the despoiler, the Apollo was carried away to Paris, they ventured to assert that the loss was by no means irreparable. So little did the artist himself shun a comparison with the antique, that when occasion offered, he placed the noblest works of Greece beside his own, and seemed to challenge a comparison. When, for example, his Perseus was exhibited for public criticism, or rather for public admiration, a plaster cast of Apollo was placed on a lower pedestal beside it, and certainly to unpracticed eyes played but an humble part, when compared with the marble statue of the Gorgon-slayer, aided by all the charms of exquisite finish as well as spotless material, and placed in the most favorable light.[2]

Fernow’s account highlights this essay’s effort to examine of how the sculptor’s modern Perseus came to emblematize the role of art in modern warfare, and the artist’s views on the state of Italy’s lost artistic treasures. In so doing, Perseus will be newly considered as a political emblem of an entrapped Italy, while considering the artistic achievement in Canova’s interpretation of the sculpture’s narrative source: Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Figure 2: Antonio Canova, Perseus with the Head of Medusa

Figure 2: Antonio Canova, Perseus with the Head of Medusa, 1798-1801, marble, Musei Vaticani, Vatican State. Image courtesy of Vanni Archive, Art Resource, NY.

Underscoring the importance of Perseus to Canova’s success, and the role of his modern pieces in rivaling those of antiquity, it is notable that when Pope Pius VII (1800–23) purchased Perseus with the Head of Medusa (1801) for the Vatican Museum collection, it was the first modern work to be afforded the honor of being displayed in the papal gardens, which was normally exclusively for ancient collections.[3] Yet, the creation of Canova’s Perseus begins much earlier than when the artist initially put a chisel to the block of marble that it first inhabited. Indeed, Pius VII evidently purchased the piece to replace the Apollo, as the new work stood on the old statue’s pedestal.[4] This was not the first time that the artist was challenged by an ancient/modern comparison. Canova, who was also asked to direct art and antiquities in Rome, had by 1801 become an expert in rivaling the antique. He had already completed the Theseus and the Minotaur (1781), and Cupid and Psyche (1794), using ancient precedents.[5]

The fame of Canova’s Perseus lay not only in its conquest over an antique Apollo, but also in the history of Perseus’s story in Italian art. The most famous sculptural example to which Canova’s work would have been compared would have been Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa.

Figure 3: Benvenuto Cellini, Perseus and Medusa, 1545-54

Figure 3: Benvenuto Cellini, Perseus and Medusa, 1545-54, bronze, Loggia dei Lanzi in the Piazza della Signoria, Florence. Image courtesy of Sarah Lippert.

Cellini’s example shows Perseus in a more typical fashion; he does not gaze upon Medusa, and therefore does not become petrified. As scholar Michael Cole notes, the medium in Cellini’s version dictated that Perseus remain alive–being bronze, so this one was imbued with the concept of flowing blood through darkening of flesh.[6] Cole also looks to Cellini’s accounts of the making of Perseus, noting that the latter conceived of the statue, and of surmounting the technical challenges that it presented, as having revived the art of bronze sculpture. The process of liquefying bronze was, for Cellini and according to Cole, the revivification of the ancient medium. Bronze, by running through the channels of its mold, is like blood in flesh, in that when it flows it brings life to sculpture. Cole further argues that for Cellini it was bronze casting rather than marble sculpture that put sculptors in like company with God, because fashioning the clay model is more akin to God sculpting Adam from clay, and when it is cloaked in bronze it becomes alive, as Adam was enlivened with spirit.[7] Bronze was superior, because its flowing, fire-borne process mimics the penetration of matter with spirit. This parallels as well the notion of spiritual animation through the Holy Spirit, which also took the form of fire, such as in the Pentecost and the burning bush.

Cellini was an expert in bronze work, but had also worked in marble. The choice of bronze for his Perseus may have been due to the limitations of marble to cantilever weight suspended in air, such as from depicting an extended arm. While we may not know if Canova was trying to better Cellini by creating in marble what the latter chose to do in bronze, Canova’s Perseus was possibly meant to rival the Renaissance master, and the marble served an iconographic function, in the same way that Cole believes the bronze was significant for Cellini. To be sure, Canova was able to suspend an outstretched arm with a heavy stone head without succumbing to gravity. But by using marble, Canova chose the bloodless and fireless medium of stone. Is this an admission of defeat to Cellini, or it is rather a metaphor for the birth of marble sculpture, which was more in keeping with Ovid’s account of Medusa and Perseus, which some believed allegorized the birth of sculpture as an art form? As a sculptor of marble, Canova would surely have been aware of the myths about the origin of his art that had been narrated by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, from which Perseus’s story had been taken.

Forcing Medusa into an emblem of death, Ovid established a connection between the visual and death in his account of the Gorgon’s demise. According to Ovid, Perseus, son of Jupiter and compelled by a king’s request, sets out to kill one of the Gorgon sisters, whose former beauty had been transformed into iconic ugliness when she was cursed with having snakes for hair. Perseus receives gifts to complete his tasks, including a mirror, so that when he looked at Medusa he would not be killed, as had others. After beheading Medusa, he then takes her head as a weapon, but one that kills inadvertently. Ovid references statues along Perseus’s travels; these were the people who saw Perseus fly above while holding Medusa’s head, and who were subsequently immobilized in stone, like statues lining the roadways. The story allegorizes the birth of marble sculpture, but even if Ovid was not trying to mythologize the birth of sculpture, his story implied that sculptures were being made by the effects of Medusa’s fearful ugliness, such that innocent onlookers were permanently petrified. Given Ovid’s story, and its popularity in Canova’s time, in attempting the subject the artist may have been attempting to outdo his predecessors, seen here with the perfectly suspended arm and head, the young hero’s ideal beauty, and the realization of figures in marble that are so true to nature that they seem incredulously encapsulated in the stone. Yet it was not just an artistic and narrative triumph that Canova’s work demonstrated. To understand its role as an emblem of Italy, the state of the arts between France and Italy at this time must be considered.

An element of Canova’s Perseus that has yet to be fully considered is its connection not only to restoring the papal collection and native Italian art, but also its modern emblematic meaning as a symbol of art museums and collecting in the early nineteenth century. The landscape of collecting and displaying art was altered drastically in the prior century by the compulsions of collectors who shared delightful finds with guests, through cabinets of curiosities. Few museums of art existed, and those that did had begun not as museums often as much as repositories for study by contemporary artists, such as that at the Accademia di San Luca in Florence, and the Musée du Louvre in Paris. According to Anthony Clark, the primary collections of art in eighteenth-century Rome, as the context out of which the Belvedere and other spoils of war were taken, included the Museo Vettori, Museo Boriani, Museo Borgia, Museo Kircheriana, and the Museo Rolandi.[8] The great variety and age of the Roman monuments and collections even gave rise to the first public collection: the Capitoline Museum (founded 1734). A century followed of new successful amateurs and collectors. Although the papal collection was not yet officially public in Canova’s time, it was nevertheless often viewed by the public. However, while the eighteenth century saw great collecting for Rome, the tradition came to an abrupt end with the Treaty of Tolentino, when over 100 of the most famous pieces from throughout collections in Rome became part of the Musée Napoléon. According to Clark, about 150 of 500 art objects were returned after the museum’s close in 1814, but because some had come to France by sale, and others by treaty, full restoration would never be possible.[9] Although the collections had served a place in Roman culture, their removal sparked a heated debate that had its origins in the controversy over the Elgin Marbles (removed by Lord Elgin from the Parthenon in Athens while under Turkish rule), as well as the displacement of French art during the Revolution of 1789. These forces gave rise to a new appreciation for the in situ art experience, whereby a work’s value could only be apprehended if it remained in its original context. A main supporter of the preservation of context in art viewing was the French academician and theorist Quatremère de Quincy, who was a close friend of both of the leading Neoclassicists of his day: Jacques-Louis David and Canova. Calling the museum to the monuments of France a veritable cemetery of art with no instructional value, Quatremère laid out his opinions sternly. For the French, their adulation of Roman art, which had escalated in the sixteenth century with Francis I, and progressed to establishment of the French Academy in Rome in the seventeenth century, was a catch 22. The French coveted access to Rome’s great artistic patrimony, and to claim it as their own, but by removing such patrimony its meaning and import died.[10]

Quatremère explains this problem:

I have seen superb Rome…how one’s spirit soars! …Monuments inseparable from history, what would become of you, if you were torn from the place which is the witness of your antique splendour? Like all those monuments promiscuously juxtaposed in the Petits Augustins [Musée des monuments français], you would be, like them, without character, without physiognomy, without country: like them you would be strangers to the history of the past, the present, and the future.[11]

Contemporaries of Quatremère, including Canova, bemoaned the state of the arts in Italy in the wake of Tolentino. We are told in 1825 by the commentator to Canova’s memoirs that “Rome still mourned her naked galleries and plundered museums, from which the states of antiquity, with other treasures of art, had been borne away, leaving to the Italians ‘the grief of privation, and the shame of not having defended them.'” Of Canova’s Perseus one historian stated that it was a work that “convinced the world that though the Italians might be despoiled of life and substance, though these monuments which adorned it might be torn from the soil, the taste for the fine arts inherent there, and the only resource of the unhappy country, could not be destroyed.”[12] So great was Perseus’s role in mending the hearts of Roman viewers, the statue, we are told, became known as ‘the consoler.’[13]

Canova was central to such debates, because like Francis I before him, Napoleon was set on wooing prestigious artists to France. Canova was offered important titles, commissions, and other perks of official patronage, in order to set up his workshop in Paris. He declined all of these, remaining an Italian leader of arts and culture. In some of the comments ascribed to him during his lifetime, Canova even stated that French art was dead, or could not be quickened, even by amassing great artistic glories of war:

They [the French] are not inspired…with genuine love of art: it is merely a love of display. In the composition of his piece, the artist is more solicitous to exhibit his own talents than to represent simple truth;—in purchasing it, the patron is equally desirous of displaying himself. Even their national gallery is display, where the noblest works are prized, not as triumphs of genius, but as trophies of conquest.[14]

Canova may have generalized, but he may also have been speaking from familiarity with France, or more specifically, Napoleon’s artistic goals. As his biographer Memes notes, Canova shared many conversations with Napoleon, often on the subject of the arts, which he had occasion to do while Napoleon sat for portrait busts. The consultation between the two even led to Napoleon asking for Canova’s feedback on how the antiquities of Italy had been displayed in the new wing of the Musée Napoleon. Apparently, Canova, upon inspecting the works with the First Consul, replied that their presentation was superior in Italy.[15] Canova’s comments reflected that the fate of Italian collections was still in flux–the precedent for plundering art from Italy had not ceased in 1798. For example, in 1803, Canova, as chief preservationist of Italian antiquities, assembled a collection of roughly 100 pieces, mostly acquired from the Giustianis, in order to present them to the pope and spare exportation to France.[16] A year prior in 1802, despite removal from the Uffizi by its then Director Tommaso Puccini, to be housed for safe-keeping in Palermo, Napoleon negotiated the acquisition of the Medici Venus, which he conceived as the bride of the Apollo Belvedere, according to Hugh Honour, who also notes that a group of intercessors from Florence even approached Canova to see what could be done to mitigate the loss of the piece from Italy. Canova, Honour claims, was actually just returning from Paris where he had completed a portrait of Napoleon when he was entreated to make a copy of the Medici Venus.[17] This presented a problem for Canova, because like Quatremère, despite the fact that many European countries had feverishly copied antique works for centuries, the sculptor was part of a growing faction of authorities on antiquities who denounced the practice of copying. It was perhaps for this reason that despite Canova’s agreement to replicate the Medici Venus, he in fact opted not to complete the work, and instead took a commission to complete his own Venus, later named Venus Italica.[18]

It is important to note that in making the Perseus with the Head of Medusa, Canova was in charge of the subject. Pope Pius VII purchased the statue, but only after it was deemed a challenge to the lost Apollo Belvedere; it was originally intended for a patron in Milan, and perhaps conceived as a statue of Mars, the god of war. Although Canova did complete a Napoleon as Mars, the Belvedere successor was changed at some point to portray the story of Perseus and Medusa, by the artist’s choice, according to sketches found dating to 1799.[19] Perhaps, a year after Tolentino, Canova decided to take a new direction for specific reasons?

The portrayal of Perseus and Medusa by Canova was different than other representations, as has been shown. Unlike Cellini, who showed the hero looking away from the deadly icon of visual power, Canova may have chosen to make Perseus one of Medusa’s victims. Canova’s Perseus is in the whitest marble, petrified. In Ovid’s account, by virtue of gazing upon her visage, the viewer must turn to stone. Here we find that indeed the brave hero has been captured, permanently, in his exquisite marble, with his own gaze dangerously turned towards Medusa. Might this be post-gaze–still clutching Medusa’s head, Perseus succumbs to immobilisation. As an artistic statement, Canova’s version of the story is cleverer than Cellini’s–the former justifies Perseus’s white marble, bloodless, and static form–he has been gorgonized and petrified. But Canova’s testimony to art’s power does not end with this portrayal of Ovid’s tale. Considering Medusa’s iconic role as a symbol for the power of the visual and its deadly potential, the lifeless nature of Perseus and Medusa might also speak to the state of art at this time. The Italian works, severed from their original context, could only further corrupt rather than enliven their French viewers. Intended to bring glory and power to France, the works seized by the French were in fact immobilizing their own artistic tradition, by cementing their dependence on Italy, while also ensuring a moral vapidity that rivaled the most callous of conquerors. Like Medusa, the French collection of Italian antiquities had begun as an icon of great beauty, only to be corrupted. And like Medusa’s head and body, a French collection made of works without context was like a graveyard of unknown body parts. For Canova, as we have heard, the French were lifeless viewers, whose penchant for amassing museums of lifeless collections reinforced the desperate state of arts and culture in his time. In this way, might Canova’s Perseus have become an emblem for the displacement and demise of art in the face of France’s overwhelming appetite for art and power?

Of the works associated with French plundering of Italian treasures, the Apollo and Perseus were most well known. Their relationship paralleled the history between the two nations, and bespoke contested debates in the collection and display of art in the nineteenth century. By removing works from their original locations, and copying what one could not have, concerns arose. The discipline of art history grew; it turned its attention to the authenticity of museums in France, where copying and collecting to achieve universal collections was at its height, and in Italy where conservation had become dire. Yet, Canova served both countries, and creating modern artistic icons for both cultural traditions. He also participated in the restitution of Italian pieces, perhaps restoring his faith in justice. In 1815, during the second restoration, Canova was entreated by his longtime supporters, such as Pius VII, to accompany diplomats to France, arguing for the return of Italian works, by demonstrating that the Treaty of Tolentino had been negated by subsequent acts of war. Canova stated the following to address the Treaty’s validity:

The regicide of troops of the French Republic, having immersed Italy in horrors, invaded without provocation the peaceful States of the Church and constrained His Holiness Pius VI to repurchase peace and political existence with the grievous sacrifice of the most celebrated monuments of the arts of            painting and sculpture. The same French troops returned without provocation and again invaded the states of the Holy See, dethroning and imprisoning that same pontiff, whom they had just forced to cede all that they had wanted. And in this second invasion they completed the spoliation of the chief works of art.[20]

As Christopher Johns notes, during Canova’s stay in Paris in 1815, he resided with his old friend Quatremère, which no doubt aided in showing how both French and Italian could defend restitution and the preservation of cultural patrimony; but irrespective of restitution, Canova’s Perseus would remain an emblem of Italy.




[1] Johann Winckelmann, The History of Ancient Art among the Greeks, trans. Giles Henry Lodge, George Woodfall and Son, London, 1850, pp. 82–4.

[2] “Canova and His Works: From the German of C.L. Fernow”, American Art Journal (1866–1867), vol. 7, no. 1 (Apr. 27, 1867), p. 3.

[3] “Canova and His Works”, p. 3.

[4] Bruce Boucher, “Head of Medusa”, Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, vol. 29, no. 2 (2003), p. 62.

[5] John Goldsmith Phillips, “Canova’s Reclining Naiad”, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, vol. 29, no. 1 (summer, 1970), p. 2.

[6] Michael Cole, “Cellini’s Blood”, The Art Bulletin, vol. 81, no. 2 (Jun., 1999), p. 221–2.

[7] Cole, “Cellini’s Blood”, pp. 221–2.

[8] Anthony M. Clark, “The Development of the Collections and Museums of 18th-Century Rome”, Art Journal, vol. 26, no. 2 (Winter, 1966–7), p. 141.

[9] Clark, “Development of the Collections”, p. 142.

[10] Paul Duro, “Un Livre ouvert à l’instruction: Study Museums in Paris in the Nineteenth Century”, Oxford Art Journal, vol. 10, no. 1 (1987), p. 47.

[11] Cited in Duro, “Un Livre ouvert”, p. 48.

[12] J.S. Memes, Memoirs of Antonio Canova…, Hurst, Robinson, and Co., Edinburgh and London, 1825, p. 381.

[13] Memes, Memoirs, p. 383.

[14] Memes, Memoirs, p. 394.

[15] Memes, Memoirs, p. 398.

[16] Christopher M.S. Johns, Antonio Canova and the Politics of Patronage in Revolutionary and Napoleonic Europe, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1998, p. 40.

[17] Hugh Honour, “Canova’s Statues of Venus”, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 114, no. 835 (Oct., 1972), p. 658.

[18] Honour, “Canova’s Statues”, p. 662.

[19] Anonymous, “The Tarnowska Perseus by Canova”, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, new series, vol. 26, no. 4 (Dec., 1967), p. 191.

[20] Cited in Johns, Canova, p. 173.


List of Illustrations and credits

Figure 1: Leochares, Apollo Belvedere, c. 120–40, Roman marble copy of Greek bronze original dating to c. 350–325 BCE. Museo Pio Clementino, Vatican Museums, Vatican State. Image courtesy of Scala, Art Resource, NY.

Figure 2: Antonio Canova, Perseus with the Head of Medusa, 1798-1801, marble, Musei Vaticani, Vatican State. Image courtesy of Vanni Archive, Art Resource, NY.

Figure 3: Benvenuto Cellini, Perseus and Medusa, 1545-54, bronze, Loggia dei Lanzi in the Piazza della Signoria, Florence. Image courtesy of Sarah Lippert.

Sarah J. Lippert

Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Michigan-Flint

More Posts

Tags: ,

Category: Iconocrazia 10/2016 - "Arts & Politics. Rhetorical Quests in Cultural Imaging", Saggi | RSS 2.0 Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.

No Comments

Comments are closed.