Canova e Thorvaldsen. La nascita della scultura moderna (Canova and Thorvaldsen. The birth of modern sculpture)

Gallerie d’Italia - Piazza Scala, Milan
25 October 2019 – 15 March 2020
Exhibition curated by Stefano Grandesso and Fernando Mazzocca


§  With more than 150 works on display, a major exhibition will, for the very first time, enable visitors to compare the two great contemporaries and rivals heralded as the founders of modern sculpture.

§  The project has been set up in collaboration with the Thorvaldsens Museum in Copenhagen, the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and a number of other museums and collections in Italy and abroad.

§  This is an unmissable opportunity to admire the most important works of art by Canova and Thorvaldsen, together for the first time.

§  It is a story about the good fortune they enjoyed during their lives and the mark they left on the history of art, which has influenced countless numbers of students, followers and imitators.


Milan, July 2018 - The Gallerie d’Italia – Piazza Scala, the Intesa Sanpaolo museum complex in Milan, presents the exhibition Canova and Thorvaldsen. The birth of modern sculpture, on display from 25 October 2019 to 15 March 2020, curated by Stefano Grandesso e Fernando Mazzocca.

Set up in collaboration with the Thorvaldsens Museum in Copenhagen and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, this exhibition was made possible thanks to the contribution of major works loaned by museums and private collections in Italy and abroad. A few of these include: the Vatican Library, the Uffizi Galleries in Florence, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, the Pinacoteca di Brera gallery and Pinacoteca gallery of the Ambrosian Library in Milan, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Museo e Gypsotheca Antonio Canova in Possagno, the National Gallery of Ancient Art in Rome and the Gallerie dell'Accademia in Venice.

For the first time ever, this exhibition will offer visitors the chance to compare the works of two major icons of modern sculpture from the neoclassical and romantic periods: the Italian Antonio Canova (1757-1822) and Danish Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844), two “modern classic” artists who transformed the very idea of sculpture itself and its techniques to create immortal artworks that have become popular and have been recreated throughout the world.

The city of Rome — where both spent a good portion of their careers — was the arena in which these two illustrious masters originally came up against one another: Canova arrived in Rome in 1781, where he died in 1822, while Thorvaldesen settled in the city in 1797, spending the next forty years there. 

Here, the two artists engaged in one of the most famous and fruitful instances of artistic competition in history, interpreting identical themes and subjects to create a number of masterpieces:  classic mythological works, such as Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss, Venus, Paride, Hebe and The Three Graces embodied some of life’s great themes, such as the brevity of youth, the enchantment of beauty, temptation and heartbreak.

The acclaim they received from contemporary critics is representative of a civilisation that admired ancient works yet yearned for modern art at the same time — a duality that both artists masterfully interpreted and used to create their works. Canova was a revolutionary artist who gave sculpture precedence over other forms of art by confronting ancient works and transcending them. Keeping a close eye on the work and strategy of his rival, Thorvaldsen was inspired by a stricter and more conservative adherence to classical norms, beginning a new period of Nordic art inspired by Mediterranean civilisations.

By establishing large studios the size of complex workshops with numerous colleagues and students, both artists were able to break free from the constraints that clients typically placed on sculpture due to the high costs of marble or bronze. Thanks to the technical innovations introduced by Canova and used on a large scale by Thorvaldsen (e.g. creating a plaster model before a marble statue), sculptors had — for the very first time — the freedom to express their own poetic vision through statues designed without being commissioned.

With 150 works divided into seventeen sections, the aim of this exhibition is to document the extraordinary complexity of works created by Canova and Thorvaldsen — intended for high-profile collectors both in Italy and abroad — and the huge following that their sculptures had by continually comparing them with other artists of any nationality.

1.       The first section deals with the theme of “The Image of the Artist. Self-portraits of Canova and Thorvaldsen”, and features works completed by the artists at the beginning of their career, once they were established, and those completed in their later years. Through a series of paintings, Canova established himself as a painter as well as a sculptor. In a number of illustrations Thorvaldsen left behind, he depicts a more intimate image of his face with romantic features. However, two busts in which the artists depict themselves as heroic, larger-than-real-life characters — much like works from ancient times — are the two official portraits. These two self-assured portraits occupy a timeless space and are brought to life by the artists’ intense introspection.

 The next section entitled “The Studies of Canova and Thorvaldsen in Rome” features a series of works that take us back to the actual workshops where the two masters worked in the centre of Rome: works on display by Domenico Conti Bazzani, Francesco Chiarottini, Johan Vilhelm Gertner, Hans Ditlev and Christian Martens, Gaetano Matteo Monti, Friedrich Nerly, Ferdinand Richardt, Pietro Tenerani and Letterio Subba are testament to how the studio became something of an artist’s museum for Canova and Thorvaldsen, where they would exhibit their work and plaster models to be replicated.

The following sections are dedicated to portraits that, for the most part, pay tribute to the two sculptors and together reveal a phenomenon that, in terms of numbers and quality, is unrivalled throughout the history of art due to the admiration for the subjects depicted in the portraits. Canova is portrayed both as an internationally renowned artist and as an embodiment of Italian identity. Thorvaldsen, the ‘Nordic Phydias,’ is a key figure in the rebirth of Nordic and Germanic art in general.

3.       The third section entitled Glory. Portraits of Canova  features a series of portraits by Andrea Appiani, Giuseppe Bossi, Giovanni Ceccarini, Antonio D'Este, Hugh Douglas Hamilton, Angelica Kauffmann, John Jackson, Giovanni Battista Lampi Junior, Thomas Lawrence and Ludovico Lipparini, depicting Antonio Canova. Very different from one another, these images reveal the artist’s greatness — he is sometimes depicted alongside his own works — and the admiration he inspired. A monumental statue in the middle of this section, in which Canova does not appear in modern clothes as he does in other portraits, but sat half-naked with an athletic body next to the ancient head of ‘Jupiter from Otricoli’ is truly symbolic.

 The next section entitled “Scenic Portraits  brings together a number of commemorative portraits, including works that depict the two artists in their ceremonial attire (three by Rudolph Suhrlandt and one by Jacob Munch), as well as works by François Xavier Fabre featuring Ugo Foscolo, Vittorio Alfieri and Antonio Canova considered glorious Italian treasures. The Venus Italica, the portrait of Marie Louise of Hapsburg and the Monument to Vittorio Alfieri — all works by Canova — mark the last great period of allegorical portraits glorifying ancient art.

Meticulous attention was paid to the fifth section “Popular Icons. Replicated Masterpieces”, in which replicas crafted by other artists using all kinds of materials and techniques, from bronze miniatures to engravings, are shared with visitors. Alongside two wax reliefs by Canova and a wax portrait of Thorvaldsen by Giovanni Antonio Santarelli, as well as five waxworks by Benedetto Pistrucci and replicas of works by Antonio Canova, there is a gold medal by Christen Christensen with an image of Thorvaldsen on the front and a depiction of “Denmark being presented with Thorvaldsen's Cupid with the Lyre by Galathea” on the back, which can be compared with a bronze medal depicting Canova by Giuseppe Girometti.

Pride of place is given to gilded bronze miniatures used as exceptional furnishings. Desiderio Cesari portrays the Danish Master with this technique, and a version of Hebe (one of Canova’s favourite subjects) created by the Strazza and Thomas manufactory is also on display. These are comparable with miniature versions of Thorvaldsen figures, modelled by Pietro Galli and completed by Wilhelm Hopfgarten and Benjamin Ludwig Jollage, whose version of Jason with the Golden Fleece is also on display.

The section ends with religious lithographs and neoclassical portraits by Michele Fanoli from the Braidense National Library, which were printed and distributed throughout the world, showing the versatility and wide range of Canova’s work.

6.       In the sixth section entitledGlory. The Portraits of Thorvaldsen” around the monumental full-length self-portrait of the artist with the statue of Hope, with which the artist brought the mysterious beauty of ancient Greek art roaring back to life, we find images that portray him or reproduce his works by Karl Begas, Ditlev Conrad Blunck, Vincenzo Camuccini, Johan Vilhelm Gertner, Alessandro Puttinati, Carl Adolf Senff, Horace Vernet, Carl Christian Vogel von Vogelstein and Emil Wolff: Thorvaldsen's image became extraordinarily popular, feeding the myth of the Northern sculptor who had become an interpreter of the classical and Mediterranean ideals of beauty.

 The Supremacy of Sculpture and Celebrating Genius” focuses on the good fortune that sculpture, as an art form, was blessed with thanks to Canova and Thorvaldsen. This is proven both on an illustrative and allegorical level, on marble and on canvas, by Giuseppe Borsato, Carl Dahl, Giacomo De Maria, Julius Exner, Constantin Hansen, Leopold Kiesling, Tommaso Minardi, Giuseppe Sabatelli, L.A. Smith and Fritz Westphal. Classical allegories are used to celebrate the power of the arts and, in particular, the power of sculpture, the art form most capable of imitating the natural world and emulating it through the creation of three-dimensional figures that occupy space.

We also see portraits of Canova in which his life is celebrated during the solemn ceremonies officiated after his death, which inspired national mourning, and in monuments that remind us of his all-encompassing genius. Upon his return to Copenhagen, Thorvaldsen too was celebrated as a god and a personal museum was dedicated to him; such an honour had never before been bestowed to a living artist.

8.       In the great main hall, the focal point of the exhibition, a section entitled “The Graces and The Dance” is dedicated to a remarkable, first-of-a-kind comparison of two famous marble masterpieces depicting The Graces, in which Canova and Thorvaldsen best expressed their own ideals of beauty. Thorvaldsen responds to the idea that fluid movement is gracious — Canova’s group of women, from the Hermitage museum, appear freer and more expressive — by reiterating his own conservative ideal of pure simplicity with his masterpiece Cupid and The Graces from the Thorvaldsens museum. These two works are surrounded by a choreographed group of four figures in which Canova, Thorvaldsen and one of their followers, Gaetano Matteo Monti, capture the theme of dance. This was an innovative development, as the theme itself had never before been depicted in sculpture.

 Portraits Mirroring an Era” revisits the vast array of marble portraits by Canova and Thorvaldsen, restoring an image of European society as a whole as it existed at the time, with sovereigns, aristocrats, collectors, artists and writers who wanted to be immortalised in idealised forms, such as Francis I of Austria or Alexander I of Russia. Despite their idealised form, these faces do not appear cold, but full of life thanks to both sculptors’ extraordinary ability to recreate the emotional features of their subjects.

Another theme held dear by both sculptors is represented by the section “Venus and the Triumph of Beauty”. Depictions of Venus, the goddess of love, by Canova, Thorvaldsen and their follower Mathieu Kessels are compared here. Canova particularly admired this subject, capturing, through a number of different statues, all of which differ slightly from each other, the theme of Venus emerging from the sea trying to cover herself from prying eyes. He sought to capture the emotion felt each time one encounters true beauty. Canova’s goddess appears more womanly and, as a result, more sensual than Thorvaldsen’s who, while completely nude, remains a divine figure: a victorious yet perfectly motionless depiction of Venus triumphantly holding the apple of victory won in a famous competition.

11.    The eleventh section, “Amor vincit omnia. The Portrayal of Cupid, examines one of the most beloved themes of sculpture and painting from the Neoclassic and Romantic periods, Cupid. A symbol of sensual grace and innocent, unspoiled beauty with the body of a teenager or child, the figure of Cupid enabled artists to showcase their uniquely brilliant skills through his wings, which make these images so extraordinarily seductive. Thorvaldsen and his follower Wolff portray Cupid as a victorious and proudly triumphant deity, thus rendering the power of love itself, which affects us all, dominant over mankind’s life and destiny. Particularly admired and sought-after were bas-reliefs in which Thorvaldsen was able to depict, with boundless elegance, the ancient myth of Cupid being consoled by Venus, and symbolise, with Bacchus or Anacreon, the four seasons, where the beauty of youth is explored together with the allegorical aspects of the mythology to show that there is always a time for love. In Apollo Crowning Himself, an experimental piece created by a young Canova between 1781-82 in his workshop in Rome (now kept in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles) and in the recently rediscovered Apollino, greater emphasis appears to be placed on movement. Canvas works by José Álvarez Bouquel, Francesco Hayez, C.F. Høyer, Mathieu Kessels, Joseph Paelinck, Julien de Parme and Emil Wolff are also on display.

Following on from Cupid, two sections dedicated to the two sculptors’ favourite subjects have been added. The twelfth section is dedicated to Cupid and Psyche and the thirteenth to Hebe.

In the first of these, entitled “In the Name of Grace. Cupid and Psyche”, the theme is explored through canvas and marble works by Giovanni Maria Benzoni, Agostino Comerio, François Pascal Simon Gérard, Felice Giani and Johan Tobias Sergel, which surround Canova’s famous standing group Cupid and Psyche from the Hermitage museum and Thorvaldsen’s Psyche with a vase. In the two marble sculptures by Canova and Thorvaldsen, the lovers’ embrace is depicted in very different ways. In the first sculpture, they seem focused on a butterfly, which can be identified as representative of the soul, while in the second they gaze upon a vase, which acts as a mysterious object and fundamental part of the myth. Compared to the enveloping sensuality of Canova’s creation, the Danish sculptor’s work is marked by a more detached elegance.

In the second, entitled “Figures in flight. Hebe, the Cupbearer of the Gods”, works by Vincenzo Camuccini, Gavin Hamilton, John Gibson, Gaspare Landi and Pietro Tenerani offer insights into Canova’s Hebe from the Hermitage museum and three works (statues and reliefs) by Thorvaldsen, featuring Hebe, Hercules, Nemesis and Jupiter.

Unlike Venus, Cupid and Psyche, the figure of Hebe, identified as a symbol of eternal youth, did not have an iconographic tradition dating back to ancient times that could serve as inspiration for Canova and Thorvaldsen. During the neoclassical era, Hebe was a very popular figure in painting, especially among English artists, as demonstrated by the work of Gavin Hamilton, considered one of the Canova’s first supporters. In contrast to the extraordinary dynamic force of Canova’s half-naked statue with see-through clothing being blown against her body by the wind, the motionless purity of Thorvaldsen’s Hebe — closed within her own melancholic and spiritual beauty is truly distinctive.

 A separate part, entitled “The Great Patrons. Napoleon and Sommariva”, focuses on the two Masters’ clients, including patrons such as Napoleon and his family and the great Lombard collector Giambattista Sommariva, who purchased numerous statues by Canova and obtained Thorvaldsen’s masterpiece Alexander the Great's Entry into Babylon, commissioned by Napoleon for the Quirinal Palace but then completed for the villa of Tremezzo by Lake Como. Thanks to Sommariva and other clients, both artists had special links to Milan. In portraying Napoleon, Canova tried to capture the charm of a hero and man of destiny, while Thorvaldsen divinised the emperor by depicting him as Jupiter-like figure with an eagle. Sommariva is depicted in a magnificent portrait by Prud’hon, inspired by portraits of great English collectors who had been painted by Batoni alongside much-admired ancient statues from Rome.  In creating the highly original Statue of Peace for a Russian client, Canova took the bold step of committing himself to a new theme that, politically speaking, denounced the Napoleonic wars.

 The next section, which deals with themes held dear by Thorvaldsen, is entitled “Eternal Youth. Ganymede. One of the Master’s favourite subjects, alongside Hebe, Ganymede was never considered by Canova. The Danish artist rendered the image of a beautiful adolescent male a symbol of eternal youth, experimenting with different ways of depicting it and influencing contemporary painters and sculptors, as is evident in the works of Camillo Pacetti, on display in the exhibition.

Featuring works by Hippolyte Flandrin, John Gibson, Aleksandr Andreevic Ivanov and Bertel Thorvaldsen dedicated to natural beauty and the sentimentality of Arcadian and pastoral subjects, “Romantic Legacy. The Wandering Shepherd” epitomises the legacy of Canova and Thorvaldsen’s stylistic features and their timeless universal language. Here, the more idealised features of Ganymede are replaced by the more natural features of the Shepherd, who, in the version kept at the Manchester Museum, still rests on his original pedestal designed by Flaxman. In Fauno by Thorvaldsen's best follower, Pietro Tenerani, the resemblance to the real subject whose body appears relaxed to music is striking. Similarly, sleep gives the abandoned and dream-like figure of Gibson's shepherd a melancholic feel. We see the same languor and a longing for the lost utopia of Arcadia in the painting of the Young Shepherd by Flandrin.

The lengthy exhibition concludes with a section entitled “Homer and Socrates in the Rezzonico bas-reliefs by Canova”, which features 13 plaster casts — all from the Fondazione Cariplo Collection — immortalising certain mythical scenes alongside depictions of some of the precepts of Socratic philosophy.

The exhibition catalogue is published by Skira.

Press materials and pictures at: https://bit.ly/2SFGb21

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25 October 2019 – 15 March 2020


Gallerie d’Italia – 6 Piazza della Scala, Milan

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Opening hours: 9.30am – 19.30pm (Thursday closed at 22.30pm) – Monday: closed