by Roderick Conway Morris

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Canova's 'Venus Victorious'

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 7 December 2007
Borghese Gallery, Rome.
Antonio Canova's sculpture
of Paolina Borghese Bonaparte
as 'Venus Victorious.'



Nearly four years in the making, in July 1808 Canova's seminude, life-size statue of Napoleon's sister, Paolina Borghese Bonaparte, as 'Venus Victorious,' was ready to be unveiled in the sculptor's studio.

The event coincided with the departure of the first of two huge convoys of wagons bound for Paris carrying more than 500 sculptures, bas-reliefs and other finds. This constituted almost the entire Borghese collection of antiquities, sold to Napoleon by Paolina's husband, the already immensely wealthy Camillo, and was to form the basis of the Louvre's Greco-Roman gallery.

On meeting Napoleon two years later at Fontainebleau, France, Canova himself did not hesitate to denounce to the Great Dictator's face the sale of 'the most beautiful private collection in the world,' telling him: 'That family will be dishonored as long as history is written!'

Meanwhile, the 'Venus Victorious' enjoyed a 'succès de scandale' from its very first showing and became, and remains, one of the prime attractions at the Borghese Gallery, which happily still retains one of the world's finest collections of Old Master paintings and Baroque sculptures. The statue is the centerpiece of 'Canova and the Venus Victorious,' curated by Anna Coliva and Fernando Mazzocca, the second of a series of enlightening special exhibitions at the Gallery. Almost 50 additional Canova sculptures of the female and male nude, other portraits of sitters in classical guise, paintings, drawings and clay models have been loaned by collections around the world. (The show continues until Feb. 3.)

The 'Venus Victorious' was commissioned before the passionate relationship between Camillo and Paolina, who were married in 1803, rather rapidly cooled. Reclining on a couch, she holds the apple awarded to the goddess by Paris when he judged her to be more beautiful than her rivals Minerva and Juno. The Borghese family claimed descent from Aeneas, whose mother was Venus. Thus, the choice of personification flattered not only Paolina, but also the dynasty's vanity.

Canova had the satisfaction of hearing that some of his own works sent to France with the antiquities were, in the confusion on their arrival at the Louvre, mistaken for genuine classical statuary. The display of them at the Salon of 1808 confirmed his position as the most famous artist in Europe.

The sculptor undoubtedly regretted that his 'Venus' was not also shown there, as did Paolina. But Camillo Borghese was determined to hang on to it - particularly in the extended absence of its flesh-and-blood model. Napoleon, too, seems to have been ambivalent at the prospect of the exposure of the statue in the capital of the empire - given his sister's reputation as a loose cannon.

Aside from its obvious artistic merits, Paolina's notorious promiscuity added spice to the statue's appeal. (Canova had initially considered posing the newlywed as Diana, goddess of chastity, but wisely thought the better of it.) And, in Italy, Camillo partly salvaged his tarnished name after the sale of the Borghese antiquities by consistently refusing to let the simulacrum go to France. For the scandalous associations of the work were making it a juicy subject for Roman gossip. A favorite anecdote was of a lady friend of Paolina, who asked her if she felt uncomfortable posing virtually in the nude. She replied with a quip worthy of Mae West. 'Why should I? The studio is heated.'

The very qualities that the public admired in Canova - the extraordinary lifelike molding of the nude body and miraculous illusion of softness of the skin - tended to be condemned by contemporary Neo-classical purists as not in keeping with their theories as to the essential austerity of classical art. But Canova did not consider ancient statuary as the sole or even main standard against which to measure his art. When asked to make a copy of the 'Medici Venus,' which had also been taken to France, he refused. He carved instead a figure of his own invention, the 'Italica' Venus (on loan here from the Pitti Palace in Florence.)

Indeed Canova was inspired as much by painting as by previous sculpture, and applied his genius to emulating the painter's illusionist effects in stone. The starting point for the 'Venus Victorious' lay in the reclining Venuses of Giorgione, Titian and other Venetian painters. Paolina's pose was a development of these, which Canova had already experimented with in at least two paintings as early as the late 1780s and early 1790s. (Both have been lent by the museum at the artist's birthplace, Possagno in the Veneto.) And the influence of the 'Venus Victorious' on 19th-century artists, both painters and sculptors, was enormous.

Canova regarded his paintings as important preparatory tools for his sculptures, and also as works of art in their own right. For Bernini, the great baroque sculptor and architect of the 17th century, they were almost a hobby, not apparently directly related to his sculpture and little noted or valued by his patrons and contemporaries. As a painter, Bernini was essentially self-taught and his canvases are vivid informal documents of his acute powers of observation and restless creativity.

Scipione Borghese, creator of the eponymous gallery, was the leading patron of the young Bernini, and as well as his early sculptural masterpieces the Gallery has three small Bernini canvases, two self-portraits and an oil sketch of a boy. These have been temporarily lent for 'Bernini the Painter,' an absorbing gathering of all the known Bernini oils (16 in all), autograph drawings and relevant works. This exhibition, curated by Tomaso Montanari, continues at Palazzo Barberini (which has two Bernini canvases of its own) until Jan. 20.

There are a number of copies of his self-portraits (some once thought to be by Bernini himself) that enjoy here the somewhat oxymoronic designation of 'non-autograph self-portraits.' Most of them probably by his students, these appear to date from 1630s and early '40s, when Bernini ran an art school at the Cancelleria, then the palazzo of Cardinal Francesco Barberini.

Bernini was a keen amateur playwright and a noted performer, and his students seem to have participated in his dramas. One of his comedies, staged in 1635, revolves around two art academies in Naples, one of painting, another of sculpture. The text is unfortunately lost, but we can be sure that a principal theme of the piece must have been the debate, which had been going on since the 15th century as to whether painting or sculpture was the greatest of the visual arts.

The only sculpture in the show is Bernini's study of 'Costanza Bonarelli,' which is closer to his paintings than to any of his other sculptures. The young woman was the wife of one of Bernini's studio assistants, who became his mistress around 1636-37. He immortalized her in this uniquely unorthodox portrait, her hair disheveled and chemise in disarray, revealing a glimpse of cleavage, as though she had just tumbled out of bed.

On his discovery that she was also involved with his younger brother, the sculptor's jealous reaction was so violent that their mother asked Cardinal Francesco Barberini to intervene. But Costanza, contrary to popular legend not an obscure working-class girl but of noble birth, weathered this real-life Bernini drama and ended up making a comfortable living as an art and antiques dealer.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023