Models of Strength and Moderation for a Regency Connoisseur

April 6 2016, 3:44pm

This large-scale pair of English regency gilt-brass recumbent lions after the model by Antonio Canova dates to the first quarter of the nineteenth century.   Carlton Hobbs LLC

The mode of casting and  lacquer gilding, combined with distinctive English paterae and ball feet, indicate that these large sculptures were the product of one of the notable bronizers who flourished in early 19th century London. Such names as William Collins, Thomas Messenger and George Blake were all high-quality ateliers capable of undertaking these costly and technically difficult large castings. It is interesting to note that the present pieces are struck with a serial number, 10376, and ongoing research may lead to a more accurate attribution via this clue. This pair of lions is executed after the great marble pair on the tomb of Pope Clement XIII in Saint Peter’s Basilica (figure 1), one of the finest works by the Italian neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova (1757-1822), who was considered the greatest of his time and hailed by his contemporaries as “the supreme minister of beauty.”1 Figure 1 Canova was born in Possagno, near Venice, the son of a stonecutter, and studied at an early age under his grandfather who was also a stonemason and sculptor. At the age of twelve he trained under the Venetian sculptor Giuseppe Bernardi (also called Toretto) before traveling to Venice, where he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts. His earliest patrons were Venetian nobility who admired his initial rococo sensibilities, however, after two visits to Rome in 1779 and 1781 where he studied antiquities, Canova’s neoclassical style emerged and his reputation throughout Europe grew. He sculpted all manner of subjects, including portraits, mythologies, civic memorials, and funeral and religious monuments. Among Canova’s Venetian patrons in Rome who sponsored him during his stay was Girolamo Zulian, ambassador of the Venetian Republic to the Holy See from 1779-1783. Zulian was a collector and patron of the arts, and he provided Canova with a room and studio at the Palazzo di Venezia. Zulian also happened to be a first cousin of Pope Clement XIII, born Carlo Rezzonico, “and played a role in promoting the Venetian sculptor with the Rezzonico family, which ultimately commissioned the Tomb of Pope Clement XIII Rezzonico in Saint Peter’s.”2 Two of Clements nephews, Cardinal Carlo Rezzonico and Senator Abbondio Rezzonico also patronized and promoted the young sculptor;3 he received his commission for Apollo Crowning Himself from the latter, as a competition piece “which came to define the Neoclassical style.”4 Carlton Hobbs LLC Canova’s work on the tomb for Pope Clement XIII took place between 1783-92. He performed a harmonious introduction of neoclassicism to the Basilica with this cenotaph, while keeping in mind the baroque sensibilities of its other funerary monuments. At the apex of this staggered, pyramidal composition the effigy of Clement kneels in peaceful prayer above a sarcophagus. Below and to the left the figure of Religion stands holding a large cross, while farther down and to the right the Genius of Death rests on an inverted torch. The central entrance to the crypt is flanked by Canova’s exceptional lion sculptures; one is awake, the symbol of the Pope’s vigilant strength, and the other asleep, suggesting his moderation. The whole is carved in Carrara marble, with the exception of the lions, done in travertine. Canova was especially attentive to the realistic modeling of his figures, including the treatment of the lions. According to a biography of the artist by John Smythe Memes (1795-1858), Canova executed the lions “after long and repeated observation on the habits and forms of the living animals. Wherever they were to be seen Canova constantly visited them, at all hours, and under every variety of circumstances, that he might mark their natural expression in different states of action an of repose, of ferocity or gentleness. One of the keepers was even paid to bring information, lest any favourable opportunity should pass unimproved.”5 Carlton Hobbs LLC Praise for Canova’s monument spread throughout Europe, reaching even across the Atlantic. “The immediate admiration of the tomb and in particular the power and beauty of the lions themselves”6 resulted in copies of various sizes made in marble, terra-cotta and bronze as souvenirs of the Grand Tour. Reproductions in marble were commissioned by William Spencer Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire (1790-1858) for Chatsworth in 1823. A bronze copy made from molds of the originals were purchased in Rome in 1860 by American businessman Benjamin Holladay and today stand in front of the Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington D.C. For other connoisseurs who wished to appreciate the beauty of this model in their salons or studies, smaller examples were produced, such as the present pieces.