Antonio Canova’s Orpheus and Eurydice at the Correr Museum in Venice
Antonio Canova started his career as a sculptor thanks to senator Giovanni Falier. In 1775 at the age of 18 his Orpheus and Eurydice were placed at the gates in the garden of Falier’s Villa in Asolo. Two years later, they were finally exhibited on Ascension Festivity in Venice. It was the first time for Antonio Canova to design large dimensioned sculpture. He chose nude as the academic education he had received at the Fine Arts Academy had taught him. Canova re-enlivened the art of sculpture promoted by Jacopo Sansovino and Alessandro Vittoria in the 16th century… but with such a passionate intensity, drama and evocative power underlining a new, modern attitude.
When visiting the Correr Museum in Venice you will find many of Canova’s art works, including these two lovers. The tension between them is palpable. Orpheus, a poet and musician in love with his wife, the most beautiful Eurydice, is represented in the moment when he turns to her, not able to resist and thus dooming her to the flames of Ade. Hermes’ hand seizes her and she is lost forever.
Orpheus and Eurydice
You may remember the story as narrated by Virgil. Eurydice tried to flee away from the unwanted attention of one of Apollo’s sons and trying to do so, stepped on a snake. The venom killed her and her husband, Orpheus, convinced the demons of Ade to return her to him. His art was able to move them, but he was given a condition. While leaving the Ade, Eurydice would be behind Orpheus and he had never to turn to her. Fearing she was not following him, in the end he could not resist and giving vent to human weakness or folly, he lost her.
Antonio Canova imagined the two lovers stretching their hands, not close enough to hold each other. The separation is theatrical and touches our hearts, as it represents the theme of death, or rather the detachment from the ones we love.
Antonio Canova’s artistic path
Antonio Canova presented one more work in Venice in 1777, still on the occasion of the Ascension Festivity. Icarus and his father Daedalus is in fact another masterpiece you can admire in the halls of the Correr Museum in Venice.
Commissioned by the procurator Pietro Vettor Pisani for his Palazzo Pisani Moretta on the Grand Canal, this work earned 100 zecchini for young Canova allowing him to move to Rome. There, he would eventually confront ancient art and start an important career leading him to work for Popes, Emperors and Empresses through the French Revolution, the fall of the Venetian Republic, the surge and fall of Napoleon and the raising Hapsburg domination. Not to mention Thomas Jefferson’s endorsement when designating Canova as the only sculptor able to make a statue of George Washington.
The cenotaph for Antonio Canova’s heart at the Frari Church in Venice
Sometime it happens that some artists become famous when they die. And viceversa. Success for living artists turns into criticism or oblivion when they die. In fact, this is what happened to Antonio Canova. In 1946 the art historian Roberto Longhi wrote Canova was an artist “born dead” whose heart lies at the Frari Church, his hand at the Fine Art School in Venice and the rest, he did not recall. Not exactly a compliment.
Antonio Canova is buried in Possagno, where one can visit a wonderful museum also designed with the help of Carlo Scarpa. While his hand is now in Possagno, too, his heart is still at the Frari Church in Venice in the pyramid-shaped like temple all visitors are attracted by.
The restoration of Antonio Canova’s cenotaph by Venice in Peril
With an investment of almost 250,000 euro, Antonio Canova’s cenotaph is currently being restored thanks to Venice in Peril Fund and Ottorino Nonfarmale srl:
Within this summer (2022), the restoration will be finished and I cannot wait to see the work done. The capillary action of the brackish water had affected Carrara marble and its crumbling process seemed to be irreversible. Protective films had been laid preventing the marble from “breathing” and metal structures inside had been corroded by humidity.
The story of this monument is quite well known. Canova died on October 13th in 1822 in Venice. His heart was placed in a crystal vase two days after his death and the same day of the funeral in St Mark’s church, the academic faculty launched the fund raising to erect the monument in the Frari Church in Venice. Foreign shareholders, 125 altogether, collected enough money. Also the Emperor and Empress of Austria, but also in America, Bavaria, Prussia, Holland, Portugal, France, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Poland and Saxony.
The project for Titian’s Tomb revised
The monument was a replica of the tomb Canova himself had originally designed for Titian, also buried in the Frari Church, but never executed. Leopoldo Cicognara changed the position of the mourning arts so that they would be viewed from the front when entering the church. Architecture and Painting let Sculpture hold the canopy vase and approach the door of the pyramid first. A winged lion mourns as the whole Venice. While the inspiration Genius in a lascivious posture is blowing the torch off announcing obscurity, the snake eating its own tail around the cameo of the artist’s profile seems to announce eternity.
The 200th anniversary after Antonio Canova’s death
In the 200th anniversary after Antonio Canova’s death, his works’ harmonious dialogue between classical beauty on one side and romantic visions on the other still strikes us. Especially if we do not forget they were created at a time when Europe was torn apart by conflicts and nationalism.
by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy