Canova attended the school of nude studies at the Venice Academy and worked on the casts of ancient works in the collection of Filippo Farsetti. The influence of classical sculpture already emerges in Daedalus and Icarus (1777–79), which aroused great interest in Venice. This success enabled him to make a journey to Rome, which became his chosen home. The chance to see classical remains for himself and contact with the city’s enlightened circles led to the definitive turning point that made Canova the leading figure in Neoclassical art. The ideals of beauty championed by Winckelmann are already clearly evident in his Theseus and the Minotaur (1781–83), after which the sculptor worked on the funeral monuments of Pope Clement XIII (1783–92) and Clement XIV (1783–87). The influence of Bernini’s models appears to be wholly superseded in the funeral monument of the Archduchess Maria Christina of Austria (1798–1805), where the pyramid, an ancient element of funerary architecture, takes on a crucial symbolic role.
The sophisticated interpretation of mythological subjects in works like Cupid and Psyche (1787–93), Venus and Adonis (1789–84) and The Graces (1812–16) led to enormous success at the international level. Napoleon was also a great admirer of Canova, who portrayed him as Mars the Peacemaker (1803–06) and his sister Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix (1804–06).
When Napoleon fell from power, Canova displayed his ability to emerge unscathed from the political upheavals of the period and strove to ensure that the works of art transported to France after the Treaty of Tolentino were returned to Italy. His role as a consultant on the safeguarding and preservation of the artistic heritage came into play also on the occasion of his visit to London in 1815, when he advised against subjecting the marbles of the Parthenon to restoration. He thus emerges as a modern intellectual and artist, concerned among other things to promote his image and his work through new channels such as plaster casts and engravings.