Antonio Canova (Possagno, 1757 – Venezia, 1822), Endimione dormiente 1819 – 1822, gesso, 99 x 196 x 92 cm Ravenna, Accademia di Belle Arti, attualmente in deposito presso MAR

Antonio Canova (Possagno, 1757 – Venice, 1822), Sleeping Endymion 1819 – 1822, plaster, 99 x 196 x 92 cm Ravenna, Academy of Fine Arts, currently in storage at MAR

The Sleeping Endymion (L’Endimione) is one of Canova’s most beautiful creations, for the ineffable delicacy of the shapes, and for its overwhelming emotional appeal to the senses. Silence and solitude that, for Italians, evoke the poetry of Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837).

In May 1819, William Cavendish, the sixth Duke of Devonshire, commissioned Canova to create a subject of his choice. The sculptor decided on The Sleeping Endymion. The model was completed by August of that year, and the marble was completed in September 1822, arriving in London one year later. Thus we see another example of Canova’s patrons giving him total licence to decide what to do.

Thus we see another example of Canova’s patrons giving him total licence to decide what to do. The Sleeping Endymion belongs to the group of Canova’s works where a figure is lying supine that includes the Reclining Naiad (Naiade giacente), the Sleeping Nymph (Ninfa dormiente), or the Recumbent Magdalene (Maddalena giacente). All reclining, captured as they fall asleep or as they dream. In Canova’s characters, religious piety and sensuality come together to create works that correspond to the incipient Romantic aesthetic, as perceived by Luigi Coletti, the art historian and conservator of the Treviso City museums and art gallery, under whose tenure the 1957 Canova exhibition was held in Treviso, breaking new ground in critical thinking and restoring the sculptor’s reputation for the ages. Canova’s interpretation of this idea pushed into a new dimension: where beauty leaves the sphere of reason, and is perceived by the soul.

The story of Endymion derives from the Dialogues of the Gods (Dialoghi degli dei) by Lucian of Samosata (Luciano), published in the 2nd century CE. The young Greek shepherd embodies a new ideal of male beauty. He is seen asleep just before the goddess Diana comes to him: his dog having intuited her imminent arrival. Once again Canova challenges the painterly arts, which often chose this goddess as their subject.