From Classical Perfection to Romantic Love: Canova, Hayez, and Byron in Venice

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Every epoch has its myths. At the beginning of the 19th century, the living hero of Venice was Antonio Canova.

Such was his fame that, in 1817, the Austrian Emperor Francis I agreed to accept works of art in place of the pecuniary gift that the Venetian Provinces owed him, provided that a piece by the Neoclassical master was included.

Canova, Hayez, Cicognara at the Accademia galleries, Venice: installation view
Installation view of the exhibition “Canova, Hayez, Cicognara. L’Ultima gloria di Venezia” showing “Polimnia” (1812-17) by Antonio Canova.

The piece that was sent to Vienna was a sculpture of Polimnia, the muse of History. In the current exhibition at the Accademia Galleries in Venice, you can see this sculpture of Polimnia as it was displayed at the time: on a rotating pedestal surrounded by the other works created in homage to the emperor. She is, however, only one of several examples of ideal, divine beauty created by Canova.

Apollo and the three graces, by Antonio Canova
Detail from the cover of “Omaggio delle Provincie Venete” (“Homage of the Venetian Province”), 1818.

Leopoldo Cicognara, then director of the Accademia and a big supporter of Canova’s art, received an ideal Head of Beatrice from the sculptor, a piece he liked so much that it even appears in his portrait.

Canova, Hayez, Cicognara at the Accademia Galleries in Venice, installation view
Installation view of the exhibition, showing “Ideal Head of Beatrice” (1812) by Canova (right), “Portrait of Leopoldo Cicognara” (1825) by Lodovico Lipparini (center) and “Colossal Bust of Antonio Canova” (1817) by Rinaldo Rinaldi (left)

Another living myth – George Gordon Byron, more commonly known as Lord Byron – was also enthralled by one of Canova’s masterpieces.

Portrait of George Gordon Byron by Thorvaldsen
Bust of Countess Teresa Gamba Guiccioli (1821) by Lorenzo Bartolini and Bust of George Gordon Lord Byron (1817-33) by Bertel Thorvaldsen. The two met in Venice in 1819 and became lovers.

During his stay in Venice in 1816, the British poet was invited to the artistic salon of Isabella Teotochi Albrizzi, where he had the chance to admire the Bust of Helen created by Canova in 1811.

It was love at first sight, and Byron was driven to write the following lines:

In this beloved marble view,
Above the works and thoughts of Man –
What Nature could – but would not – do
And Beauty and Canova can!

Canova, Hayez, Cicognara at the Accademia Galleries in Venice
“Ideal Head of Helen” (1811) by Antonio Canova.

According to Byron, Helen’s beauty is above nature, and thus Canova’s creative skill is almost divine.

But the times were changing, and the muses too.

Francesco Hayez, the painter that both Canova and Cicognara considered the most promising student in the Accademia, would favor medieval history and the epic poems of Ossian rather than classical mythology for his subjects. Lord Byron himself would choose two of the darkest episodes of Venetian medieval history for his tragedies: The Two Foscari and Marino Faliero.

Canova, Hayez, Cicognara at the accademia Galleries in Venice
“Rinaldo and Armida” (detail, 1813) by Francesco Hayez.

The heroines depicted by Hayez are praised more for their passionate feelings than for their perfect beauty, and are thus far removed from Canova’s solemn muses. Classicism, in the end, gave way to a brutal Romanticism.

Canova, Hayez, Cicognara t the Accademia Galleries in Venice
“Catmor and Sulmalla” (detail, 1819-21) by Francesco Hayez.

Antonio Canova died in 1822, and his remains where treated like relics: his body was taken to Possagno – his hometown near Treviso – his heart was interred in a monumental tomb in the Frari Church, and his hand was placed in an urn in the Accademia.

Canova, Hayez, Cicognara at the Accademia Galleries in Venice
The urn for the hand of Antonio Canova, designed by Giuseppe Borsato.

The urn is still there in the Accademia Galleries in the same room where a gypsum version of the Bust of Helen sits next to his statue of Paris, a good reminder of how perfect beauty can generate ruinous passion.

Canova, Hayez, Cicognara at the Academia Galleries in Venice
“Bust of Helen” (1811) and “Paris” (1807-12) by Antonio Canova.

The exhibition “CANOVA, HAYEZ, CICOGNARA L’ultima gloria di Venezia” runs through April 2nd, 2018, at the Accademia Galleries in Venice.

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