Theses Doctoral

Staging Canova: Sculpture, Connoisseurship and Display, 1780-1843

Ferando, Christina

Hailed in his time as the greatest living artist, Antonio Canova (1757-1822) expressed his genius not only through the masterful conception and carving of his sculptures, but also in the meticulous orchestration of their display. Enshrining his marble figures alongside plaster casts of ancient works, bathing them in candlelight, staining and waxing their surfaces, and even setting them in motion on rotating bases, Canova challenged his audiences to rethink the very nature of sculpture. My dissertation argues, for the first time, that the meanings and impact of Canova's sculpture depended in significant part on the ways in which he and his patrons exhibited them. Canova himself began staging his work in Rome in the 1780s. His patrons, following the artist's lead, subsequently mounted their own dramatic exhibitions of Canova's work. Organized as a series of case studies, the dissertation examines four key exhibitions of Canova's work in four major European centers--Rome, Naples, Venice and Paris--from 1780-1843. These exhibitions had multiple functions. On the one hand, they enabled Canova to showcase his artistic talent and allowed his patrons to advertise their wealth and good taste. More importantly, however, these exhibitions required viewers to transform their interaction with Canova's sculptures into performative moments in which they displayed their own historical, cultural and artistic knowledge. Viewers of Canova's work performed their own position as beholders, and, indeed, my dissertation is as preoccupied with the reception of Canova's sculptures as it is with his and his patrons' display strategies. Not only do viewers' accounts often reveal the particularities of the exhibitions themselves, but the intensity of beholders' responses to Canova's work also signals the way that his sculptures took on a wide-variety of meanings that he and his patrons could not always control. Equally striking is the way diverse visitors continued to find meaning, validity, and subjects for debate in Canova's work despite sixty years of political, historical, and social change. Throughout many transformations, Canova's sculptures remained a focal point for discussions of politics, cultural heritage, archaeology, connoisseurship, artistic production and the development of art history itself. I have focused largely on three Italian centers because Italy was the center of origin for many of aspects of Canova's stagings. In Rome, for instance, Canova was introduced to serious study of the antique and it was there that he began to compare his works of art with ancient masterpieces. The display of Triumphant Perseus next to a cast of the Apollo Belvedere, for instance, generated conversations regarding the nature of imitation and the importance setting and political circumstances had on the understanding of his work. In Naples, on the other hand, the exhibition of Venus and Adonis in a tempietto in the garden of Francesco Maria Berio, Marchese di Salza, launched a city-wide debate regarding modes of artistic production and the best means of communicating those artistic possibilities to an audience. In Venice, in 1817, Leopoldo Cicognara juxtaposed Canova's Polinnia with recently restored Venetian Old Master paintings, including Titian's Assumption of the Virgin, in the Accademia di Belle Arti's new public painting gallery. This exhibition reaffirmed the Veneto's artistic authority at a moment when Venice's political fortunes were at their nadir. Given the primacy French art has held in the study of the nineteenth century, I hope serious reevaluation of this period will contribute to a renewed understanding of the importance Italy had for the history of art at the turn of the century. Yet, I conclude the project by focusing on Paris. It was there, in the French capital, where the exhibition of Canova's Penitent Magdalene in the townhouse of Giambattista Sommariva launched a discussion about expression and the emotional resonance of art. Penitent Magdalene's despair encouraged beholders' self-reflection, and in so doing reinforced notions of individuality and the self, established the sculpture as a particularly "French" and modern work, and perhaps more importantly, forged a direct link between emotional resonance and aesthetic value. Throughout Europe, the staging of sculptures organized by Canova and his patrons generated discussion about the appropriate ways to look at, talk about, and write about sculpture. Reactions to Canova's works inspired wide-spread debates about the nature of artistic production, the writing of art history, the context and significance of exhibitions and personal emotional reactions to works of art. My dissertation reimagines Canova's keystone position in the larger art world of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century by bringing the contexts of exhibition and response into our understanding of the artist and his work.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Higonnet, Anne
Crary, Jonathan
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
March 4, 2013