The Canova Monument Appeal
Jonathan Keates, Chairman of the Venice in Peril Fund explains why:
Rising damp is the enemy
Main Images Copyright Sarah Quill
The marble memorial to sculptor Antonio Canova in the church of the Frari is Venice’s most striking monument from the age of neo-classicism. A notable casualty of the damage wrought by the city’s rising water table, this magnificent work is now seriously at risk. With your help, the Venice in Peril Fund is funding a major rescue operation by Superintendency for Architecture to conserve the pyramid, the sculptures and their brick foundations. Like all of Venice in Peril’s restoration projects, this is administered through UNESCO’s programme with the Association of Private Committees for the protection of Venice.
Venice in Peril has adopted the Canova Monument because we are convinced of its significance both to Venice’s key role in the history of Italian sculpture and, more specifically, within the setting of the Frari itself, as part of the astounding collection of carvings, statuary and paintings gathered inside its walls. With this project, Venice in Peril pays tribute to the genius of Antonio Canova, nurtured and inspired as he was by the city at a crucial moment in his groundbreaking career.
David Watkin - Emeritus Professor of the History of Architecture at the University of Cambridge gives his appraisal of the significance of Canova's Monument:
This beautiful, moving, and alarming, celebration of death, commemorating the greatest classical artist of his day, can be seen appropriately as the realisation of the visionary neo-classical architects of the eighteenth century. These range from unexecuted projects such as the megalomaniac pyramidal cenotaphs of Boullée in the 1780s and Brongniart’s design for the cemetery of Père Lachaise in Paris of c.1812, dominated by a hill-top pyramid, to what for me is the closest parallel to Canova’s monument, the scene which Schinkel provided in 1816 for the production in Berlin of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, where a pyramid rises from the light of the sun behind a giant shadowy statue of Osiris.
Schinkel’s theatrical vision becomes real and permanent with Canova’s white marble pyramid, placed in dramatic contrast against the pink diapered brickwork of the greatest Gothic church in Venice. Animation is provided by the lively grace of the varied mourning figures whom we are tempted to join as they approach the half inviting, half terrifying, open door, for, unlike the pyramids of Egypt, which we feel belong to another world from ours, this one is not sealed but provokes thoughts of our own future. Its preservation is a cultural imperative.
What needs to be done
Scientific surveys by the Superintendency, the official body for protection of the achitectural heritage, have revealed the urgent need for a rescue operation. The creeping damp, with its dire impact on both the brick foundations and the stonework of the monument itself, can be kept at bay, but only if the whole structure is dismantled, damp-proofed and a thoroughgoing process of conservation applied to all its parts.
Rescuing this exceptional monument, one of the Frari’s most arresting art works, involves intensive supervision by conservation experts, scientists and art historians. A team of technicians and engineers will take charge of the singularly delicate business of detaching the marble slabs and sculptures and damp-proofing the substructure on which all of them rest. Part of the task will entail stripping away the various coatings of oil and wax applied by earlier restorers in well-intentioned if misguided efforts to control the humidity.
All the marble will then require immersion in special desalination tanks to remove invasive mineral deposits. Following this process, and after subsequent repairs to the monument’s different surfaces, a fresh protective coating will be brushed onto the stonework, before the reassembled monument is returned to its dominant and dramatic position at the western end of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari.
A short history of the monument
It was Count Leopoldo Cicognara (1767-1834), a distinguished president of Venice’s Accademia delle Belle Arti, who first proposed the idea of a monument to Antonio Canova, to be raised in the great Franciscan basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. It would take the form of a pyramidal cenotaph modelled on Canova’s own design for a memorial to the painter Titian and funding for the project would come from an international subscription.
In 1827 the scheme went ahead as planned, its sculptural components carved in Carrara marble by five of Canova’s own pupils. Domenico Fadiga created the strikingly austere central pyramid and Luigi Zandomeneghi designed the two weeping figures of Painting and Architecture ( reflecting aspects of the artist’s talent). Bartolomeo Ferrari was given the talk of producing the image of Sculpture herself, swathed in a mourning cloak and veil, in whose hands is an urn containing the sculptor’s heart. Her attendant, the ‘Genietto’ —‘little genius’ —a boy carrying a torch, is the work of Rinaldo Rinaldi, who also conceived the Venetian lion of St Mark, an essential feature of the ensemble for reasons both personal and patriotic. Antonio Bosa incised the relief medallion of Canova, framed by airborne spirits representing the flight of fame. The languorous nude figure of Genius in repose, forming a crucial balancing element in the composition, is the work of Bosa’s fellow pupil in Canova’s studio, Giuseppe Fabris.
Almost from the outset, following its installation in the north aisle of the Frari’s nave, the Canova monument began to suffer from the ravages of damp, whether from the humid Venetian atmosphere, from the rising water table beneath its foundations or from the moisture given off by the crowds of worshippers and tourists within the church. Not only have the pyramid’s marble surface and those of its individual sculptures suffered serious decay over nearly two centuries, but the very basis on which they rest, a tall stepped platform of brick, is being attacked by the heavy mineral content of the moist subsoil below. The whole of this extraordinary ensemble has essentially become a massive sponge, soaking up the water beneath and around it.
Antonio Canova (1757–1822), hero of neo-classicism
Antonio Canova is one of the most thrillingly original and influential figures in the history of sculpture. Combining a unique imagination with flawless technical skill, he changed our way of looking at the human form. The harmony and linear perfection distinguishing his work, with its homage to the sculptural genius of ancient Greece and Rome, place him at the centre of the neo-classical movement inspiring European artists at the end of the 18th century. On the other hand, the passion, grandeur and energy vitalizing many of Canova’s most memorable images in stone mirror the eternal restlessness of the Romantic era, in whose cultural panorama he retained such an authoritative presence.
Born in 1757, Canova was the son of a stone-carver living in the little village of Possagno, in the foothills of the Dolomites. He took his first lessons in drawing, architecture and sculpture from his grandfather, before becoming apprenticed to a respected local sculptor who arranged for him to study in Venice. In 1780, aided by a scholarship from the Venetian senate, he moved to Rome, where a series of epic works such as ‘Theseus and the Dead Minotaur’ and the starkly dignified monument to Pope Clement XIV in St Peter’s basilica, revealed him as the creator of a new sculptural style, defined by a modern art historian as ‘ revolutionary in its severity and uncompromising in its idealistic purity’.
Canova’s fame among foreign visitors to Rome quickly gained him an international reputation. Empress Catherine the Great of Russia invited him to St Petersburg, but he was reluctant at first to leave what he called ‘the native land of the arts’. Napoleon Bonaparte was more successful in this respect, and Canova created his image as First Consul as a giant heroic nude. The statue was later presented by King Louis XVIII of France to the Duke of Wellington, who placed it in the entrance hall of his London residence, Apsley House, where it still stands. Most memorable of all the sculptor’s works for the Bonaparte clan, however, is the statue of Napoleon’s sister Pauline Borghese as Venus Victrix, the calculated eroticism of her naked body deftly, and perhaps ironically, contrasted with her remote, almost visionary facial expression.
Prestigious commissions like these, ultimately according him a role as doyen of the European art world during the Napoleonic era, never succeeded in turning Canova’s head. His vast talent had created works as different from one another as the entrancingly buoyant ‘Three Graces’ and the stupendous Maria Christina monument in Vienna, a contemplation, in stone, on the impact and significance of death. Yet he remained a modest, great-hearted and idealistic individual, devoted to his calling and notably uncorrupted by worldwide celebrity. The church he built in his home village of Possagno, a lofty neo-classical temple dedicated to the Holy Trinity, was intended as a gift to the local community rather than a grandiose mausoleum for himself. When at length Antonio Canova was buried there in 1822, many of the mourners at his funeral were farmers and shepherds from the neighbourhood, who had benefited, along with their families, from his generosity towards them over the years.
Questa Scabrosa Missione
- Canova in Paris and London in 1815. An essay by Katharine Eustace. Click here.
Patrons of the Canova Monument Appeal
The Duke of Devonshire KCVO, CBE, DL
The Duke of Wellington OBE DL
Hugh Honour FRSL
Dr David Landau
Donors to the Canova Monument Appeal