One of Canova’s last completed sculptures fell into obscurity during the 20th century. It was found in the 1960s in the overgrown front garden of an antique dealer’s home. Now, this discovery ‘of fundamental importance for the history of art’ is offered for sale at Christie’s in London.
On 7th July, this long-lost masterpiece will be offered in the Old Masters Evening Sale in London. It is one of the sculptor’s last works, commissioned in 1819 and completed just weeks before his death in 1822.
The sculpture, commissioned by the British Prime Minister Lord Liverpool, depicts Mary Magdalene. It was hailed during Canova’s lifetime as a work of genius, both passionate and mysteriously restrained. On seeing it, the 19th-century poet Thomas Moore wrote that it was ‘divine: she is lying recumbent in all the abandonment of grief; and the expression on her face, the beauty of her figure… are perfection’.
It was through luck that the sculpture was rediscovered, as she had passed from one owner to another, in the meantime losing her identity as both Magdalene and a Canova.
Once identified, Christie’s carried out research to find her story. Then, in an amazing twist, they found her playing a cameo role in a Ken Russell film. In a scene from the 1960s cult classic documentary Pop Goes the Easel, the painter Peter Blake is seated on a statue in the garden of a house in Kensington, west London. That statue was Canova’s Magdalene.
Who was Canova?
Canova was born in 1757 in Possagno, about 60km northwest of Venice. His career spanned revolution and the rise and fall of Napoleon. Canova’s first major success was in 1785, when he designed a funerary monument to Pope Clement XIV.
It is an awe-inspiring work, with the pope, muscular and animated, stretching out his arm to reveal the vast power of the Catholic church. It secured Canova’s reputation as Italy’s leading Neoclassical sculptor, and he was still only 28.
The artist was famous for his technical virtuosity, and for his ability to contrast different textures in the marble. Whilst he turned down many foreign rulers, including Catherine II of Russia, he did not refuse the call of Napoleon Bonaparte.
In 1802, he was summoned to Paris to create a heroic nude of Napoleon Bonaparte. The resulting was an almost 4-metre colossus, Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker. The work now stands in Apsley House in London, the former residence of the Duke of Wellington.
However, Canova used this, his only experience of court life, to his advantage. He demanded Napoleon provide cultural support for Italy, and formed alliances that proved pivotal after the Emperor’s fall in 1814.
‘He was of critical importance in the restitution of art seized by the French,’ explains the Canova specialist, ‘negotiating the return of a number of important works plundered from Italian churches and museums.’
The price guide for the piece is 5-8million British Pounds.