Sunday, November 23, 2014

George Washington in the Nude - Sublime Canova - Revival of the Famed Sculptor in Venice

George Washington by Antonio Canova*
(Venice, Italy) I was astonished to learn that Antonio Canova, the renowned sculptor from the Veneto, had been commissioned to create a sculpture of George Washington by the North Carolina General Assembly back in 1816 for their State House when the Carolinians were feeling euphoric after the War of 1812. Thomas Jefferson himself urged that Canova, whom he considered the greatest sculptor in the world, create the neoclassical statue, which was brought to the United States on a war vessel, and arrived in Raleigh on December 24, 1821. Canova's depiction of Washington as an enlightened Roman general became "the pride and glory" of North Carolina, attracting visitors from near and far to their state capitol, including Washington's close friend, Lafayette.

Canova had never met George Washington, so he was sent a bust and a full-length portrait; the portrait never arrived, so Washington's body was left to Canova's imagination. Canova's instructions were that the style should be Roman, the size somewhat larger than life, and the attitude to be left to the artist. According to North Carolina Digital History, Countess Albrizzi described the statue in "The Works of Antonio Canova:"

If to this great man a worthy cause was not wanting, or the means of acquiring the truest and most lasting glory, neither has he been less fortunate after death, when, by the genius of so sublime an artist, he appears again among his admiring countrymen in this dear and venerated form; not as a soldier, though not inferior to the greatest generals, but in his loftier and more benevolent character of the virtuous citizen and enlightened lawgiver.

Unfortunately, the original statue was destroyed in a fire in the State House on June 21, 1831. North Carolina tried to replace it, to no avail. Then, in 1908, it was discovered that the original plaster model that Canova used to create the Cararra marble statue was in excellent condition in the Museum and Gipsoteca Antonio Canova in Canova's hometown of Possagno, a village in the former Republic of Venice, not far from Asolo in the foothills of the Venetian Alps. Diplomatic inquiries were made to see if a copy could be made from the original cast. On March 5, 1908, the Mayor of Possagno replied:

As a special favor, and making an exception to the rule 
that forbids the reproduction, the Administration of this
town has decided to permit the copy of the statue of
George Washington by Canova, of which a very fine
original model exists in this museum. Such concession has
been made with a view to paying a tribute of homage to
the great man who was the first President of the United
States, and to increase the admiration for the genius of
the celebrated artist who is a glory to our country. 

The Italian government itself then got involved, and decided that the King of Italy would present the replica to the North Carolina Historical Commission as a gift.  The replica of the original cast arrived in Raleigh in January, 1910, almost 100 years after the General Assembly decided to commission a statue of the Father of our Country. But it was not until 1970 that a marble replica by the Italian artist Romano Vio was completed, which is what stands in the rotunda of the capitol building in Raleigh, North Carolina today.

Replica of Canova's George Washington statue by Romano Vio
An interesting historical note: when the statue was first commissioned back in 1821, the Veneto was part of the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia, a separate part of the Austrian Empire. However, Canova was then based in Rome, which was part of the Kingdom of Italy. Napoleon had conquered the Veneto in 1805-1806 and made it part of the Kingdom of Italy. But the Veneto refused to live under French-Italian rule, and revolted. The Congress of Vienna in 1814-1815 gave the Veneto to the Austrian Empire. Venice then revolted against Austria in 1848, briefly establishing the Republic of San Marco until it surrendered to the Austrian Empire after 17 months. Finally, after the battle of Vittorio Veneto in 1918 during World War I, the Veneto became part of the Kingdom of Italy. So, there was a lot of diplomacy required to get the statue in the first place, and then again to acquire the plaster cast almost a century later.

I called the Museum and Gipsoteca Antonio Canova to see if the original model is still there. I spoke to Giancarlo Cunial of the Fondazione Canova, and he assured me that not only was the original model there, they also had three smaller plaster molds that Canova had created, one of which was George Washington in the nude! Since Canova had never received the full-length portrait, he needed to use his imagination to create Washington's body. Mr. Cunial informed me that although Canova had created the Washington statue while in Rome, the original models were now in Possagno, and since the marble statues were created from the original models, what they had in their museum was most precious of all.

Museo Correr
Which brings us to SUBLIME CANOVA, a work in progress. On November 18, 2014, there was a press conference at the Museo Correr to announce the collaboration between the Civic Museums of Venice Foundation, the Venice Foundation, the American Friends of Venice Foundation and the French Committee to Safeguard Venice to shine the spotlight on Antonio Canova, considered to be the greatest neoclassical European artist who ever lived. SUBLIME CANOVA is part of an overall project to transform the Correr Museum in Piazza San Marco into the Great Correr. The works of Canova will be restored, and the rooms of the museum arranged to highlight the celebrated sculptor from the Veneto, who died in Venice in 1822, just shy of his 65th birthday.

Daedulus and Icarus by Canova (1779)
The Comité Français pour la Savegarde de Venise has been around for years; they are responsible for restoring the Salla da Ballo inside the Correr, and the fine restoration of the apartments of my favorite empress, the feisty Elisbeth "Sissi"of Austria, who lived here in Venice when it was under Austrian rule -- as well as many other projects. And the prestigious Venice International Foundation was founded way back in 1966, after Venice's great flood, and is responsible for the restoration and preservation of a long list of works. It is headed by the universally-respected Franca Coin, who was here on behalf of the organization. But I was not aware of the American Friends of Venice, which is new, founded in 2012, and is the New York base of the Venice International Foundation. According to their website, their mission is:

Friends of Venice Italy is a non-profit organization that operates to raise funds for Venice. Founded in 2012, it selects and supports some of the charitable activities proposed by The Venice International Foundation, with particular reference to the Civic Museums Foundation of Venice in its work to preserve and enhance the art of Venice and its cultural heritage. As stated in a declaration signed by the president of the Civic Museums Foundation of Venice, Friends of Venice Italy is in charge of representing and promoting its cultural activities in the United States of America.
Friends of Venice Italy aims to preserve and enhance Venice’s identity, respecting the social and environmental sustainability of the city in order to guarantee the link between past present and future, to promote cultural exchanges, to communicate and share ideas and knowledge, to offer new opportunities for research and cultural production, and to attract new talent and resources.


After learning about Canova's statue of George Washington, it is fitting that the American Friends of Venice focus their efforts on SUBLIME CANOVA. They've got some distinguished people on the Advisory Committee, including Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Bobby Kennedy's oldest daughter and JFK's niece, which makes the project an interesting circle between the Veneto, France and the US. 

Psyché Revived by Cupid's Kiss by Canova
Antonio Canova's work is in nearly every important museum on the planet, from the Louvre to the Hermitage, the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Kunsthistorisches. Even though he was based in Rome, Canova's heart remained in the Veneto; he returned every year to his beloved village of Possagno. He died in Venice in 1822. He is buried in the Temple of Canova in Possagno, but his heart, literally, is here in Venice, in the monument based on the design Canova created for the great Venetian artist, Titian, inside the Frari.

Canova Monument - Frari 
The original plaster model for the Washington statue which is preserved in the Gipsoteca Canova in Possagno bears this inscription:

"Giorgio Washington al Popolo degli Stati Uniti 1796: Amici e concittadini…" which translates to "George Washington to the People of the United States 1796: Friends and fellow citizens…"

Apparently that inscription was not on the marble statue that arrived in Raleigh, North Carolina on Christmas Eve December 24, 1821. I wonder what George Washington would say to the People of the  United States of America today.

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

*Top photo of George Washington by Canova from The Life of H. Ernest Chen blog.

3 comments:

  1. I was astonished to learn that Antonio Canova, the renowned sculptor from the Veneto, had been commissioned to create a sculpture of George Washington by the North Carolina General Assembly back in 1816 for their State House when the Carolinians were feeling euphoric after the War of 1812. Thomas Jefferson himself urged that Canova, whom he considered the greatest sculptor in the world, create the neoclassical statue, which was brought to the United States on a war vessel, and arrived in Raleigh on December 24, 1821.

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  2. This was exceptionally interesting to read. Canova was such an inspired artist; his sculptures just glow with life.

    (I think Romano Vio's grandsons carry on the family tradition of art work, in Venice.)

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    1. Thanks, Yvonne, for your comment, which also led me to discover your lovely blog, Hello World. I agree with you about Canova; soon we will see much more of him.

      Ciao,
      Cat

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