Antonio Canova (Possagno, 1757 – Venice, 1822), Perseus triumphant 1806, plaster, 230 x 130 x 90 cm Padua, Papafava palace, private collection (photograph by Fabio Zonta)
Formator of the field of Antonio Canova (Possagno, 1757 – Venice, 1822), Apollo del Belvedere 1806, plaster, 230 x 130 x 90 cm Padua, Papafava palace, private collection (photograph by Fabio Zonta)
Fiercely anti-Jacobin, Canova left Rome in 1798, when social tumult started to threaten public order.
Proclaimed on 15 February 1798, the establishment of the Roman Republic, a sister to the First French Republic, led to a vast number of artistic masterpieces being removed from the city and taken to Paris. This was traumatic for Canova: he felt like all the underpinnings of civilization had collapsed.
The election of pope Pius VII by the conclave in Venice, flanked by his able Secretary of State, Ercole Consalvi, helped restore some semblance of order, and prompted a strong reaction by the artist community to the invading forces.
Painters and sculptors alike realized that a strong signal had to be broadcast: that Rome was not admitting defeat as a result of the recent dramatic events that had led to a vast outflow of art works as an outcome of the Treaty of Tolentino of February 1797.
A huge number of artworks were ceded by that agreement, from the Laocoon (Laocoonte) to the Belvedere Apollo (Apollo del Belvedere). The need was felt to replace some of what had been lost, if only as a symbolic action. Resorting to ancient artefacts was not an option.
A great idea was spawned: to focus on Canova, a great sculptor, who had provided ample proof of his devotion to the Papal authorities by fleeing Rome as soon as it was occupied by the French, an artist who was universally admired and was referred to as the new Phidias (in Italian, Fidia).
Three marble statues were commissioned, to compensate for the pieces that were now in France: Perseus triumphant (Perseo trionfante), which was to be placed in the pedestal on which had stood the Belvedere Apollo (Apollo del Belvedere), one of the most revered of classical sculptures.
The other two were The Boxers Creugante and Damosseno (I pugilatori Creugante e Damosseno), which were also to be in the courtyard of the Belvedere (Cortile del Belvedere).
The political relevance of these works was even greater, if we consider that the Perseus triumphant was being considered for use erected in the planned — but never realized — forum celebrating Napoleon, in Milan.
Canova had been working on the sculpture, which depicts Perseus defeating the Medusa, between 1800 and 1801 when the request came for the work to be handed over to the Cisalpine Republic.
As soon as it was completed, Canova exhibited the Perseus Triumphant in his atelier alongside a cast of the Belvedere Apollo, of which it was meant to be a modern interpretation, conceived in the spirit of a noble emulation of the works of the Ancients.
This was the first time that a comparison between Ancient and Modern was being being made so overtly.
Here we see an example: the statues from the Palazzo Papafava in Padua, which Canova instructed should be placed in the main reception room. Cruegante is set up in comparison to the Borghese Gladiator (Gladiatore Borghese), while the Perseus Triumphant faces off against the Belvedere Apollo, but is the greater by far.
In preference to reverential homage or a strident departure to the canon, Canova chose a third option: a different reiteration. This difference lay in what was the same: the head (or, better, the hair), the clothing, and the legs.
Perseus wears Pluto’s Cap of Invisibility. Mercury’s wingèd sandals, and carries a diamond-bladed sword given to him by Vulcan; these were gifts to help him slaughter the Medusa.