DOMINIC DREY-BROWN // Canova | Thorvaldsen: The Birth of Modern Sculpture

Canova | Thorvaldsen: The Birth of Modern Sculpture

Gallerie d’Italia, Milan

25th October 2019 – 15th March 2020

The Gallerie d’Italia’s sublime exhibition dedicated to Antonio Canova (1757–1822) and Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770–1844) is the first to pair these paragons of sculpture, despite their rivalry’s subjection to continuous art historical discussion in discourses ranging from the status of the nineteenth-century artist to the definition of modern sculpture. Displayed are over 150 artworks, many of them among their finest executed in marble, from the oeuvres of two of the most technically talented and aesthetically innovative artists to work in the medium, providing a comprehensive comparison which the field  historically neglected  thoroughly deserves. The ambitiously vast selection of artworks is carefully arranged to indulge the visitor’s appreciation for late-Enlightenment sculpture, without drowning out the curatorial premises of artistic rivalry and stylistic innovation in marble form.

Among the variety of emergent themes, surrounding the difference in artistic approach between Canova and Thorvaldsen, is a particular commitment on the curators’ part to encourage the visitor’s engagement with the artistic processes and the dynamics of viewership in the context of nineteenth-century Europe, which the catalogue does well to support. The exhibition follows several highly successful two-person exhibitions in recent years.[1] However, whilst these exhibitions have proven outstanding in delivering their respective aims, the specific focus of Canova | Thorvaldsen on the artistic dialogue between the sculptors’ oeuvres makes the present exhibition arguably the one to most constructively capitalise on the two-person exhibition format, visualising the art historical significance of their rivalry whilst effectively incorporating external themes.

Canova and Thorvaldsen enjoyed great success in their own time and had both established workshops in Rome during the 1790s. Though the two ought to have been enemies, competing for patronage across Europe and championing fundamentally contrasting styles, they were evidently on good terms and seem to have shared a friendly rivalry, as recorded in contemporary accounts.[2] Even when emulating the same themes originating in antiquity, which their art sought to rejuvenate, the sculptors’ works are certainly distinct enough to enable a strong comparison of both their skill and style; whilst Canova’s naturalistic figures place an emphasis on emotional intensity and sensory stimulation, Thorvaldsen’s preference for rationalism bestows his works with an ennobling austerity.

The curators’ emphasis on active engagement with these notions of rivalry and comparison is sustained throughout the exhibition by the conscious juxtaposition of artworks, with the most striking dialogue emerging from its two magna opera presented immediately upon entrance: Canova’s The Three Graces (1812–1817) and Thorvaldsen’s later version Cupid and the Graces (1820–1823). What immediately becomes apparent is that the works can be separated less by their makers’ technical ability than the artistic decisions and stylistic nuances instilled in them. The intimate embrace between Canova’s Graces is muted in Thorvaldsen’s group, which substitutes the sensuality of the former composition with a more modest dignity. Despite their superficially similar compositions, the impact of this divergence on the subject’s interpretation is severe; whilst the mutual tenderness between Canova’s figures binds them into a collective allegory of affection or benevolence, Thorvaldsen’s more solemn, moralistic approach heightens their individuality, in recognition of each of the Graces’ more unique virtues. In the exhibition, the effect of such stylistic intricacies on the aesthetic and philosophical significance of the artworks is a recurring theme, spatially emphasised by the thematic division of rooms according to subject matter. Dance, love, and allegory each enjoyed a renaissance under the inspiration of Canova and Thorvaldsen and provide the most compelling case studies to argue for a transition towards technical and stylistic modernity.[3]

At the same time, the curators are careful not to oversaturate this concept: Thorvaldsen’s pastoral sculptures, more introspective in character than most works by Canova, are given space to breathe. The careful dispersion of works by other sculptors who operated in Rome at the time  including John Gibson, Pietro Tenerani, and Camillo Pacetti  deserves a mention for broadening the viewer’s aesthetic perspective beyond the CanovaThorvaldsen canon. Similarly, the inclusion of miscellaneous, mostly commemorative artworks early in the exhibition’s progression satisfies a biographical curiosity, whilst further providing an insight into the extraordinary societal status enjoyed by both Canova and Thorvaldsen. Featured here are miniature cameos and courtly oil portraits of both sculptors, as well as Michele Fanoli’s impressive catalogue of Canova’s works in lithograph form.

One potentially frustrating element of the exhibition would be its reluctance to sufficiently engage with the discourse around the titular ‘Birth of Modern Sculpture’, a topic by no means simplistic enough as to be resolved by its glancing description in the catalogue, nor by the exhibition’s inclusion of works by less technically progressive artists as measures of comparison. Whilst an explanation regarding the legacy of Canova and Thorvaldsen in terms of ultimately influencing the conceptually intuitive works of Medardo Rosso (1858–1928) or Umberto Boccioni (1882–1916) is impossible to express in exhibition format, the catalogue essays’ reluctance to engage with the philosophical theories  particularly the aesthetic theories of Immanuel Kant  which informed Canovian modernity in sculpture is a missed opportunity. The catalogue otherwise sustains the exhibition’s themes very well and deserves credit for its inclusion of expansive essays which broaden the field  Letizia Azcue Brea’s analysis of the influence of Canova and Thorvaldsen on Spanish sculpture being one such instance.

Far from a dual retrospective, Canova | Thorvaldsen delivers an outstanding manifestation of the aesthetic and cultural paradigms of nineteenth-century Europe, displayed through the rivalry between two of the period’s most influential sculptors. The exhibition is exemplary in its adoption of artistic rivalry as a basic central premise serving to expose the wider external complexities it encompasses through intelligent execution, prompting an active participation from the viewer in the debates over sculptural practice and theory.

Dominic Drey-Brown is an MA graduate from The Courtauld Institute of Art. His primary research interests include eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sculpture, with a particular focus on post-revolutionary France.


[1] Amongst the most notable of these are The National Gallery’s Mantegna and Bellini (1 October 2018 – 27 January 2019) and the Museo del Prado’s A Tale of Two Women Painters: Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana (22 October 2019 – 2 February 2020).
[2] For further detail on the nature of Canova and Thorvaldsen’s rivalry, see David Bindman, Warm Flesh, Cold Marble: Canova, Thorvaldsen and their Critics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 11.
[3] The modernity emphasised throughout the exhibition is defined primarily by expressive and technical innovation, which had traditionally been constrained by academic practice.