BAS-RELIEFS: THE TRAGIC SUBLIME MEETS GRACE AND GOOD HUMOUR

Antonio Canova (Possagno, 1757 – Venezia, 1822), La morte di Priamo (Albrizzi) 1787 – 1790, gesso, 142 x 280 cm Trieste, Collezione d'Arte Gruppo Generali

Antonio Canova (Possagno, 1757 – Venice, 1822), The death of Priamo (Albrizzi) 1787 – 1790, plaster, 142 x 280 cm Trieste, Generali Group Art Collection

La danza dei figli di Alcinoo (Albrizzi) 1790 – 1792, gesso, 141 x 280 cm Trieste, Collezione d'Arte Gruppo Generali

The dance of the sons of Alcinoo (Albrizzi) 1790 – 1792, plaster, 141 x 280 cm Trieste, Generali Group Art Collection

A skilful approach to narrative is essential to the sculptor who wants to challenge the supremacy of painting.

Thus, right from the start of his sojourn in Rome, which was in 1779, Canova opted for sculpture executed in bas-relief. His were serial-produced, which showed another break from the past: he wanted to offer his buying public a less expensive option than three-dimensional marbles, which were not only massively expensive, but involved a long waiting list. The drawings for the first two bas-reliefs — The Death of Priam (La Morte di Priamo), and The Dance of the sons of Alcinous (La Danza dei figli di Alcinoo) — were executed two years after Canova’s arrival in Rome. Both of these were inspired by the Trojan War as depicted in Book II of the Aeneid (l’Eneide) and Book VIII of the Odyssey (l’Odissea), respectively. On the one hand, there’s tragic sublime in the fact that Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus, also known as Pyrrhus, slaughters the King of Troy to avenge his own father’s death at the hands of Paris. On the other, the balletic beauty of the two dancers aiming high.

In the first work, grief and anguish dominate the scene, with hints of hard-to-face truths to come. Truth is represented by Polites’ dead body, naked but for his shield, reminding us of the Borghese Gladiator (il Gladiatore Borghese). Pyrrhus, meanwhile, wears a helmet, both attributes of the Greek warrior. Over and above the audacity of the unclothed male figure, we are struck by Priam’s daughters, on the left, their arms spread skywards beseeching pity catch our eye, reminiscent of the Mary Magdalene figure at the foot of the Cross in some 14th or 15th religious painting. On the right, they are fleeing, one clutching her child to her, as in a scene from the Slaughter of the Innocents. Again, in the extreme left, Priam’s wife, Hecuba, is overcome and has to be held helped. Here, we think of the Virgin Mary at the foot of the Cross. Accompanying this harrowing work, we have The dance of the sons of Alcinous (Danza dei figli di Alcinoo), where the theme is joy, grace, and good humour. Odysseus stands to the side, totally entranced by the graceful figures of Halius and Laodamas.

Next to him is the royal family, with Alcinous and his daughter, Nausicaa, looking on. On the other side are a group of Phaeacians, who are accompanying the performance, arms outstretched, while Demodocus plays the lyre. A beautiful serene domestic touch is provided by the figure of the father, on the extreme left, with his naked son on his shoulders Canova had often addressed the theme of the dance, in his paintings. But, here, he is exploring weightlessness, the veil above the two dancers’ heads serving to accentuate the grace and elegance of their movements. Conveying dance via a sculpture: an act of true daring!