Canova's Italian Venus

© Donald Richardson, August, 2006

The life-sized marble sculpture of a partly-draped woman in Aelaide's North Terrace gardens is a copy of the famous Italian Venus (Venere italica) by the eighteenth-century Italian sculptor Antonio Canova (1757-1822). It was donated to the city in 1892 by W A Horn MP, who was concerned to ensure that the young city be aware of its European cultural roots (he also donated the copy of the Farnese Hercules which is in the city's Creswell Gardens).

Canova was universally considered the greatest sculptor of his generation, being designated 'the supreme minister of beauty' and 'a unique and truly divine man', although his reputation declined with the advent of Modernism. He was a leading exponent of the Neoclassical style which looked back to the art of ancient Rome and favoured tranquil poses, clean lines and smooth, neutral surfaces, often with an underlying suggestion of the erotic. Other readily-accessible examples of this style are the group of marble females, nude or partly so, which make a very impressive foyer display in the Art Gallery of South Australia. This conventionalised eroticism is a curious feature of the sculpture of the Victorian era of neck-to-knee bathing costumes in which even chairs and pianos had their legs covered with drapery! Yet, it had its limitations, generally allowing little more than the revelation of buttocks and one delectable breast.

Canova had a brilliant career. Established in Rome by the time Napoleon gained control of the city in 1801, he was forced to go to Paris to make a marble bust of the general as First Consul of the Republic. Eventually, he became an admirer of Napoleon and he made several marble portraits of him, including two as full-length nudes. However, he hated Napoleon's plundering of great works of Italian art for the Louvre and, after Napoleon was defeated in 1815, Pope Pius VII put him in charge of their restitution - for which service he was created Marquis of Ischia.

One portrait of Napoleon - a large marble equestrian - he modified in 1817 to turn it into a portrait of the restored Bourbon monarch, Charles III!

Many tourists visiting Rome would have seen Canova's famous Victorious Venus, a full-length nude portrait of Napoleon's sister, Paoline Borghese, reclining on a chaise longue, in the Borghese Palace. Her sexy, but aloof and imperious, pose has been described as 'the erotic frigidaire'.

In 1820, he carved a life-sized portrait of George Washington, seated, in the guise of an ancient Roman general, but this was destroyed by fire. He executed many commissions for British patrons, including the memorial to the Stuarts, in St Peter's cathedral, Rome.

Carved in 1812, the original of our Canova is in Palazzo Pitti, Florence. It was commissioned by the Medici family to replace the ancient Roman Medici Venus, which Napoleon had taken to the Louvre - a great compliment to Canova's genius and reputation. Not in any way frigid, but warm and vulnerable, she is depicted emerging from her bath, a pyxis of toiletries at her feet. This, together with the gathered drapery, in functional terms increases the bulk of marble at the ankles, strengthening it and enabling it to better support the weight of the body above it - a major consideration for marble sculpture.

Canova's sculptures became so popular he was able to sell several copies of some of them, including the Italian Venus. This was possible through the ancient stone-masons' technique of pointing, in which stone-working artisans carve completely accurate replicas of originals through fixing the depth and position of key 'points' within the new block of stone and joining them up. It was a common practice until the Second World War because stone-masonry was a common trade until then.

There are many unacknowledged copies of the Italian Venus in cities throughout the western world (including one in the public gardens in the Victorian city of Bendigo). However, our copy is inscribed on the base 'Venere di Canova' and it may be that this was done at the behest of W A Horn to assert its significance to South Australians. By the way, in front of a commercial building on North Terrace there is a clumsy concrete cast of this Venus. It would be interesting to know how and by whom that was made.

Like the Medici Venus itself, the subject is a variant of the Venus pudica (modest Venus) form, a beautiful young woman, naked rather than nude, modestly - although vainly - covering herself with her hands. Various versions have survived from ancient Greece and Rome. Canova's is discreetly draped - a concession to Victorian aesthetics and ethics. Its significance to Adelaide's culture must be asserted, and it is good to know that the city council is actively considering its conservation.