Antonio Canova
Italian neoclassical sculptor



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Antonio Canova
Italian neoclassical sculptor

Birth Date

November 01, 1757

Death Date

October 13, 1822

Sr. Contributor

Antonio Canova started out as a butter face pauper and ended up 'The Supreme Minister of Beauty.'

Antonio's life started out a little sad, for real. His father dies when he's an infant and he's sent to live with his destitute stonecutter of a grandfather. But, like Obama promised, things got better. One night, young Canova was washing the pots and pans at a big feast, like every poor urchin is wont to do. The feast is held by Faliero, the area's senator and all around big shot. The back of the house gets in a tizzy when everyone realizes there isn't a centerpiece for the table. Canova steps up and asks for all the butter they can muster. That request accommodated, he sculpts the giant butter lion to end all giant butter lions. The senator gets a load of that lion and turns his feast into a party in honor of the dishwasher.

Not wanting such talent to go to waste, Faliero sets young Antonio up with Bernardi, a grade A teacher. When Antonio's strikes out on his own, Faliero sets him up with some sweet nepotism money from the Senate's coffers and arranges it so the kid crashes with the Pope's ambassador in Venice. Canova moves on to Rome and lands the best commission a sculptor could hope for: Pope tombs. Designing Papal funerary digs spread his name around the Eternal City by putting him all over guidebooks. In no time, anyone talking about fine art on the Continent was talking about Antonio Canova.

What drove everyone bonkers for Canova was his take on that classical Greek vibe. Vacant heroic looks off into the distance, white marble, nudes, that kind of thing. Napoleon came calling for Canova's hand in sculpture, and got the cold shoulder. That is, until Bonaparte convinced his good buddy the Pope to have a chat with Canova. On the Pope's insistence, the Venetian moved to Paris and became Napoleon's official court sculptor. A primary job duty was doing nudes of Napoleon and his family (separately, not like an #awkwardfamilyportrait).

Eventually, the world cooled to Canova's vision of art. He's plenty appreciated now, but his reputation soured in the decades after death. Dropping him from the 'Supreme Minister of Beauty' to a nobody. Still, Antonio had a huge fanbase in his own lifetime. Canova designed a monument to Titian that was unrealized by the time the sculptor died. Instead of going through with the whole Titian idea, Canova's students and acolytes kissed his butt all the way to the afterlife by using the design as a tribute to their deceased, butter loving idol.


Born November 1, 1757 - Died October 13, 1822

Orphaned at age 3, raised by grandma and grandpa, who also taught him how to draw, paint and sculpt.

When he was 13, a visiting senator who noticed a lion Canova had carved into a stick of butter. The senator saw to it that Canova received the best training available and became his patron for life.

Canova believed in hard work. He once made a resolution to create a new design every single day, and he kept that resolution for several years.

His doctors concluded that hard work may have taken its toll, because after his death their autopsy revealed that 1) he died from stomach cancer, and 2) the right side of his chest was indented from constantly leaning on the head of a "trapano" (sort of a heavy chisel like tool). Of course that diagnosis was made in 1822, and it seems a bit unlikely that a deformed chest and stomach cancer are necessarily related, but "he died from excessive devotion to his art" certainly sounds more romantic than "stomach cancer".

Canova was buried in two pieces: his body went to his home town of Possagno, but his heart was laid to rest in a marble pyramid in the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice.

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Here is what Wikipedia says about Antonio Canova

Antonio Canova (Italian pronunciation: [anˈtɔːnjo kaˈnɔːva]; 1 November 1757 – 13 October 1822) was an Italian Neoclassical sculptor, famous for his marble sculptures. Often regarded as the greatest of the Neoclassical artists, his artwork was inspired by the Baroque and the classical revival, but avoided the melodramatics of the former, and the cold artificiality of the latter.



In 1757, Antonio Canova was born in the Venetian Republic city of Possagno to Pietro Canova, a stonecutter. In 1761, his father died. A year later, his mother remarried. As such, in 1762, he was put into the care of his paternal grandfather Pasino Canova, who was a stonemason, owner of a quarry, and was a "sculptor who specialized in altars with statues and low reliefs in late Baroque style". He led Antonio into the art of sculpting.

Before the age of ten, Canova began making models in clay, and carving marble. Indeed, at the age of nine, he executed two small shrines of Carrara marble, which are still extant. After these works, he appears to have been constantly employed under his grandfather.


In 1770, he was an apprentice for two years to Giuseppe Bernardi, who was also known as 'Torretto'. Afterwards, he was under the tutelage of Giovanni Ferrari until he began his studies at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia. At the Academy, he won several prizes. During this time, he was given his first workshop within a monastery by some local monks.

The Senator Giovanni Falier commissioned Canova to produce statues of Orpheus and Eurydice for his garden – the Villa Falier at Asolo. The statues were begun in 1775, and both were completed by 1777. The pieces exemplify the late Rococo style. On the year of its completion, both works were exhibited for the Feast of the Ascension in Piazza S. Marco. Widely praised, the works won Canova his first renown among the Venetian elite. Another Venetian who is said to have commissioned early works from Canova was the abate Filippo Farsetti, whose collection at Ca' Farsetti on the Grand Canal he frequented.

In 1779, Canova opened his own studio at Calle Del Traghetto at S. Maurizio,. At this time, Procurator Pietro Vettor Pisani commissioned Canova's first marble statue: a depiction of Daedalus and Icarus. The statue inspired great admiration for his work at the annual art fair; Canova was paid for 100 gold zecchini for the completed work. At the base of the statue, Daedalus' tools are scattered about; these tools are also an allusion to Sculpture, of which the statue is a personification. With such an intention, there is suggestion that Daedalus is a portrait of Canova's grandfather Pasino.


Canova arrived in Rome, on 28 December 1780. Prior to his departure, his friends had applied to the Venetian senate for a pension. Successful in the application, the stipend allotted amounted to three hundred ducats, limited to three years.

While in Rome, Canova spent time studying and sketching the works of Michelangelo.

In 1781, Girolamo Zulian – the Venetian ambassador to Rome – hired Canova to sculpt Theseus and the Minotaur. The statue depicts the victorious Theseus seated on the lifeless body of a Minotaur. The initial spectators were certain that the work was a copy of a Greek original, and were shocked to learn it was a contemporary work. The highly regarded work is now in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, in London.

Between 1783 – 1785, Canova arranged, composed, and designed a funerary monument dedicated to Clement XIV for the Church of Santi Apostoli. After another two years, the work met completion in 1787. The monument secured Canova's reputation as the pre-eminent living artist.

In 1792, he completed another cenotaph, this time commemorating Clement XIII for St. Peter's Basilica. Canova harmonized its design with the older Baroque funerary monuments in the basilica.

In 1790, he began to work on a funerary monument for Titian, which was eventually abandoned by 1795. During the same year, he increased his activity as a painter.

The following decade was extremely productive, beginning works such as Hercules and Lichas, Cupid and Psyche, Hebe, Tomb of Duchess Maria Christina of Saxony-Teschen, and The Penitent Magdalene.

In 1797, he went to Vienna, but only a year later, in 1798, he returned to Possagno for a year.

France and England

By 1800, Canova was the most celebrated artist in Europe. He systematically promoted his reputation by publishing engravings of his works and having marble versions of plaster casts made in his workshop. He became so successful that he had acquired patrons from across Europe including France, England, Russia, Poland, Austria and Holland, as well as several members from different royal lineages, and prominent individuals. Among his patrons were Napoleon and his family, for whom Canova produced much work, including several depictions between 1803 and 1809. The most notable representations were that of Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker, and Venus Victrix which was portrayal of Pauline Bonaparte.

Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker had its inception after Canova was hired to make a bust of Napoleon in 1802. The statue was begun in 1803, with Napoleon requesting to be shown in a French General's uniform, Canova rejected this, insisting on an allusion to Mars, the Roman god of War. It was completed in 1806. In 1811, the statue arrived in Paris, but not installed; neither was its bronze copy in the Foro Napoleonico in Milan. In 1815, the original went to the Duke of Wellington, after his victory at Waterloo against Napoleon.

Venus Victrix was originally conceived as a robed and recumbent sculpture of Pauline Borghese in the guise of Diana. Instead, Pauline ordered Canova to make the statue a nude Venus. The work was not intended for public viewing.

Other works for the Napoleon family include, a bust of Napoleon, a statue of Napoleon's mother, and Marie Louise as Concordia.

In 1802, Canova was assigned the post of 'Inspector-General of Antiquities and Fine Art of the Papal State', a position formerly held by Raphael. One of his activities in this capacity was to pioneer the restoration of the Appian Way by restoring the tomb of Servilius Quartus. In 1808 Canova became an associated member of the Royal Institute of the Netherlands.

In 1814, he began his The Three Graces.

In 1815, he was named 'Minister Plenipotentiary of the Pope,' and was tasked with recovering various works of art that were taken to Paris by Napoleon.

Also in 1815, he visited London, and met with Benjamin Haydon. It was after the advice of Canova that the Elgin marbles were acquired by the British Museum, with plaster copies sent to Florence, according to Canova's request.

Returning to Italy

In 1816, Canova returned to Rome with some of the art Napoleon had taken. He was rewarded with several marks of distinction: he was appointed President of the Accademia di San Luca, inscribed into the "Golden Book of Roman Nobles" by the Pope's own hands, and given the title of Marquis of Ischia, alongside an annual pension of 3000 crowns.

In 1819, he commenced and completed his commissioned work Venus Italica as a replacement for the Venus de' Medici.

After his 1814 proposal to build a personified statue of Religion for St. Peter's Basilica was rejected, Canova sought to build his own temple to house it. This project came to be the Tempio Canoviano. Canova designed, financed, and partly built the structure himself. The structure was to be a testament to Canova's piety. The building's design was inspired by combining the Parthenon and the Pantheon together. On 11 July 1819, Canova laid the foundation stone dressed in red Papal uniform and decorated with all his medals. It first opened in 1830, and was finally completed in 1836. After the foundation-stone of this edifice had been laid, Canova returned to Rome; but every succeeding autumn he continued to visit Possagno to direct the workmen and encourage them with rewards.

During the period that intervened between commencing operations at Possagno and his death, he executed or finished some of his most striking works. Among these were the group Mars and Venus, the colossal figure of Pius VI, the Pietà, the St John, and a colossal bust of his friend, the Count Cicognara.

In 1820, he made a statue of George Washington for the state of North Carolina. As recommended by Thomas Jefferson, the sculptor used the marble bust of Washington by Giuseppe Ceracchi as a model. It was delivered on December 24, 1821. The statue and the North Carolina State House where it was displayed were later destroyed by fire in 1831. A plaster replica was sent by the king of Italy in 1910, now on view at the North Carolina Museum of History. A marble copy was sculpted by Romano Vio in 1970, now on view in the rotunda of the capitol building.

In 1822, he journeyed to Naples, to superintend the construction of wax moulds for an equestrian statue of Ferdinand VII. The adventure was disastrous to his health, but soon became healthy enough to return to Rome. From there, he voyaged to Venice; however, on 13 October 1822, he died there at the age of 64. As he never married, the name became extinct, except through his stepbrothers' lineage of Satori-Canova.

On 12 October 1822, Canova instructed his brother to use his entire estate to complete the Tempio in Possagno.

On 25 October 1822, his body was placed in the Tempio Canoviano. His heart was interred at the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice, and his right hand preserved in a vase at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia.

His memorial service was so grand that it rivaled the ceremony that the city of Florence held for Michelangelo in 1564.

In 1826, Giovanni Battista Sartori sold Canova's Roman studio and took every plaster model and sculpture to Possagno, where they were installed in the Tempio Canoviano.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about Antonio Canova.