Canova Antonio, The return of Telemachus
BD00139AFC.jpg
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1,787 - 1,790; plaster
cm. 109 x 219 x 17

Inventory: BD00139AFC
Exibition: 1999, Monza, n. 49; 2002, Milano, Palazzo Reale, n. XV.19

The entrance of the series of three theological virtues (Justice, Hope and Charity) into Abbondio Rezzonico’s collection in Bassano in 1793 was followed by the purchase of eight large bas-reliefs in plaster representing episodes from the Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid as well as Plato’s Phaedo. Now held in the Museo Canova in Possagno, the prototypes were kept in his studio and used to produce several versions of the reliefs for the most prestigious noble residences in Venice, Padua and Rome, where their display in the highly sophisticated setting of a "Canova Room" demonstrated the patron’s status and acquaintance with the new Neoclassical taste. While the series in Bassano was one of the most famous, repeatedly mentioned by the contemporary sources and circulated on a large scale through prints, others include those of Girolamo Zulian in Padua (now in Venice at the Museo Correr), the procurator Antonio Cappello in Venice and the senator Giovanni Falier as well as the decorations for Villa Lante on the Janiculum and the dining room of Villa Torlonia in Rome.

The method used for the serial reproduction of reliefs involved destruction of the mould, from which just one work could therefore be obtained. The artist adopted a shrewd promotional policy highlighting the originality of the reliefs, and their particular technique of reproduction meant that the different versions did indeed present variations of a sometimes significant nature, attributable in all probability to direct intervention on his part. Canova thus ensured himself a reliable source of income (the prices ranged from five scudi for small works to twenty for large ones) together with an effective way of making his work known.

The sculptor’s manuscript biography provides an essential point of reference to establish the long and complex genesis of the bas-reliefs, commenced in 1783 but modelled between 1787 and 1792 in moments of "idleness and respite" during the creation of the Monument to Clement XIII.

The Odyssey is instead the source of the Return of Telemachus to Ithaca and Meeting with Penelope (XVII, 96–150) and the Dance of the Sons of Alcinous (VIII, 261–65 and 367–80). The first scene, prompted by the 18th-century popularity of the modern Adventures de Télémaque, shows Telemachus returning to Ithaca after travelling to Pylos and Sparta to seek news of his father. Penelope arrives, trembling with emotion, as he is being greeted in the palace by Eurycleia, the old nurse of Odysseus, and a handmaiden. The artist conceived Dance of the Sons of Alcinous as a joyful pendant to the tragic intensity of the Death of Priam "in order to contrast a subject of grief with one of joy". The lightest and most dynamic of Canova’s reliefs shows the dance held by the king of the Phaeacians in honour of Odysseus, depicted to one side with the royal family. The theme of dance had been repeatedly addressed by Canova in painting, especially the monochrome works now in the Museum of Bassano, in a gentle, charming interpretation related to the theme of gracefulness.

The literary influence on the choice of subjects was rooted in a broader cultural movement marking a revival of the classical epic in conjunction with critical debate on the "question of Homer" and rediscovery of The Poems of Ossian and the poetry of Dante. "It is true that I work like a dog all day, but it is also true that I listen to reading nearly all day and have just listened for the third time to all the eight volumes of Homer." Antonio Canova wrote these words in a letter of 8 February 1794 to Melchiorre Cesarotti, a celebrated literary figure of Padua and author of a translation of the Iliad, several editions of which were included in the artist’s library.

It was the search for an effective vocabulary to capture the ideal tension of the ancient epic that prompted the artist most powerfully to embark on new experiments with his means of expression, finally breaking free of convention. Far removed from the pictorial and illusionistic character of baroque sculpture, the reliefs immediately appeared to the eyes of contemporaries in all their innovative power, distinguished by the use of a new sculptural syntax. Canova marked a turning point in the tradition by drawing on the linear rhythm of Attic and Etruscan vases, with which he was certainly acquainted through the collections of Sir John Campbell and William Hamilton, the plastic arts of the 15th and 16th century, and the primitivism of northern cultural circles in Rome, in close dialogue with antiquity and with the models offered by contemporary painters like Gavin Hamilton and John Flaxman.

From November 2011, the work has been on view at the Gallerie d’Italia in Milan.

Bibliography

Giuseppe Pavanello, Antonio Canova: i gessi “Rezzonico”, in “Bollettino del Museo Civico di Padova”, LXXIII, Padova, 1984, pp. 145-162;
Fernando Mazzocca, I bassorilievi di Antonio Canova, in “Ca de Sass”, 119, Cariplo, Milano, Settembre 1992, pp. 20-26;
Fernando Mazzocca, Antonio Canova e i bassorilievi della collezione Rezzonico, Cariplo, Milano, 1993, (con bibliografia precedente);
Grazia Bernini Pezzini e Fabio Fiorani, a cura di, Canova e l’incisione, catalogo della mostra, Roma, Istituto Nazionale per la Grafica, 11 novembre 1993 – 6 gennaio 1994, Bassano del Grappa, Museo Civico, 19 gennaio – 24 aprile 1994, Ghedina e Tassotti, Bassano del Grappa, 1993;
Andrea Spiriti, Antonio Canova, in Maria Luisa Gatti Perer, a cura di, Le collezioni d’arte. Dal Classico al Neoclassico, Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio delle Provincie Lombarde, Editore, 1998, nn. 44-56, pp. 140-154;
M. Guderzo, I Bassorilievi Cariplo, in Renato Barillli, a cura di, Canova e Appiani alle origini della contemporaneità, catalogo della mostra, Monza, Serrone della Villa Reale, 30 aprile - 25 luglio 1999, Mazzotta, Milano 1999, pp. 111-113;
Fernando Mazzocca, Il Neoclassicismo in Italia. Da Tiepolo a Canova, catalogo della mostra, Milano, Palazzo Reale, 2 marzo – 28 luglio 2002, Skira Artificio, Milano, 2002, nn. XV.12-XV.24, pp. 518-520;
Pietro Giordani - Antonio Canova - Giovanni Battista Sartori. Carteggio con la riproduzione di 85 incisioni canoviane, Edizione critica a cura di Matteo Ceppi e Claudio Giambonini, TiPleCo, Piacenza, 2005;
Enrico Noè, Abbondio Rezzonico committente del Canova, in Giuliana Ericani - Fernando Mazzocca, a cura di, VI settimana di studi canoviani, Istituto di ricerca per gli studi su Canova e il Neoclassicismo, Bassano del Grappa, 2008, pp. 69-84;
Elena Lissoni, in Fernando Mazzocca, a cura di, Da Canova a Boccioni. Le collezioni della Fondazione Cariplo e di Intesa Sanpaolo, Skira, Milano, 2011, nn. I. 1-13, pp. 179-181, ill.;
Marco Bona Castellotti, Breve itinerario tra le opere d'arte della Cariplo, in "La Ca' de Sass", numero speciale, Cariplo, Milano, s.d., pp. 10-13

Elena Lissoni
 
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