Antonio Canova (Possagno 1757- Venice 1822)
Uffizi Galleries, Pitti Palace, Palatine Gallery, Inv. Palatina (1812) no. 878
In 1802, at the height of his fame, while passing through Florence, Antonio Canova was appointed by the King of Etruria, Louis of Bourbon, to replace the Venus de’ Medici with a copy. Formerly exhibited in the center of the Tribuna of the Uffizi, on September 11 of the same year it had been requisitioned by the French authorities and sent to the Louvre.
At first reluctant to entertain the idea of a replica, the Venetian sculptor eventually accepted, enticed both by the proposal to replace such a masterpiece and by the strong patriotic connotations that the undertaking had immediately assumed. In the meantime, however, Canova had the idea of challenging the ancient statue with a standing Venus, this time of his own invention. This prestigious commission was confirmed in 1805 by the Queen Regent of Etruria, Marie Louise of Bourbon, and ended up replacing the idea of making a twin replica of the ancient one.
In 1809, the new sovereign Elisa Baciocchi, just installed as Grand Duchess of Tuscany by her brother Napoleon, succeeded in convincing the emperor to pay Canova the 25,000 francs agreed upon, and on April 29, 1812, the sculptor’s Venus Italica reached the Tribuna of the Imperial Gallery of Florence. Instead of using the pedestal of the Medici statue, it was placed on a new rotating base, designed to highlight the novelty of his creation. In fact, the divinity by Canova differed from the illustrious original, as she was depicted while demurely drying herself after coming out of the bath, a vase of perfumed ointments at her feet. The subject’s natural grace is accentuated, compared with the conventionality of the concept of ideal beauty: Canova’s work depicts a beautiful woman, capable of making people fall in love, while the ancient one portrays an impassive, albeit beautiful Goddess, in line with the famous contrast expressed by Ugo Foscolo.
After the fall of Napoleon, in 1815 Canova went to Paris as an emissary of the papal state to negotiate the return of the works stolen by Bonaparte, and the ancient Venus was restored to its place in the Tribune, while the Venus Italica, now dethroned, was transferred to Palazzo Pitti.