The Venetian sculptor Antonio Canova (1757-1822) was Europe's most celebrated artist from the end of the ancien régime to the early years of the Restoration, an era when the traditional relationship between patrons and artists changed drastically. Christopher M. S. Johns's refreshingly original study explores a neglected facet of Canova's career: the effects of patrons, patronage, and politics on his choice of subjects and manner of working. While other artists produced art in the service of the state, Canova resisted the blandishments of the political powers that commissioned his works.
Johns uses letters, diaries, and biographies to establish a political personality for Canova as an individual and an artist of international reputation. Though he had patrons as diverse as the pope, Napoleon, the Austrian Hapsburgs, the Prince Regent of Great Britain, and the Republic of Venice, Canova remained steadily employed and did so without controversy. A conservative and a Catholic, he devised a strategy that enabled him to work for patrons who were avowed enemies while remaining true to the cultural and artistic heritage of his Italian homeland. Using myth and funerary images and avoiding portraiture, he disguised the meanings behind his works and thus avoided their being identified with any political purpose.
Johns greatly enhances our understanding of Canova's place in European art and political history, and in showing the influence of censorship, display, visual narrative, and propaganda, he highlights issues as contentious today as they were in Canova's time.