Antonio Canova was an Italian neoclassical sculptor who died 200 years ago this year at the age of 64. He is best known for his marble sculptures such as Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss and Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker, now in the Louvre in Paris and Apsley House in London respectively. Canova never set foot in Cork in his life, and yet his work is familiar to anyone who has ever visited the Crawford Art Gallery, which houses a collection of his casts, commissioned by Pope Pius VII and presented to the city by the Prince Regent Donated by Great Britain and Ireland, is on permanent display.
How the Canova Casts made their way from the Vatican to London and then on to Cork is legendary. “Pius VII was imprisoned by Napoleon for many years,” explains Dr. Michael Waldron, Associate Curator of Collections at Crawford. “After Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, Pius was released and he lobbied for the return of the art that Napoleon had taken from Rome. Canova was already a well-known artist, and Pius sent him to Paris to retrieve the Vatican artworks from what is now the Louvre. It wasn’t possible to bring them all back to Rome, so part of Canova’s job was choosing what to take.
“Britain helped return the artworks and Pius expressed his gratitude by commissioning Canova to make plaster casts of a number of his own sculptures and many other Vatican antiquities. There were over 200 in all, including life-size figures and friezes.”
The casts were shipped to London as a gift to the Prince Regent, the future George VI, but almost immediately the problem of where to place them arose. For a time they languished at Custom House on the Thames near St Paul’s Cathedral before being moved to a pavilion in the gardens of Carlton House, the Prince Regent’s London residence. The Prince then offered them to the Royal Academy but was turned down as the Academy already had a fine collection of casts and could not find space for more.
“The story goes that a Corkman who worked as a porter at the Royal Academy heard that the casts were available on request. He spoke to William Hare, Viscount Ennismore and Listowel, who happened to be President of the Cork Society for Promoting the Fine Arts. Hare, in turn, turned to the Prince Regent, who was only too happy to give it to Cork. He had them shipped within weeks.”
On November 7, 1818, a local newspaper called The Southern Reporter announced the cast’s arrival in Cork. There were 219 figures, busts, torsos, reliefs and fragments. The casts were installed in the former Apollo Society Theater on Patrick Street, where they were used for drawing lessons by the tutors of the newly formed Cork School of Art, whose pupils included Daniel Maclise and Samuel Forde. In time the casts became the property of the Royal Cork Institution and in 1832 they were moved to the old Customs House, now the Crawford Art Gallery.
Throughout the 19th century and into the 1970s, the casts continued to be used to teach drawing by observation. They were not always taken care of as well as they could have been. Some fell into disrepair, others disappeared, and their number has declined so much that only twelve original casts remain. The survivors include three copied from Canova’s original marble sculptures; The goddess Concordia, the mother of Napoleon the Great and Venus bathing. Of the nine others, most were cast by Canova and his assistants after ancient Roman or Greek sculptures.
There are rumors that other works from the Canova collection may have found their way into homes around Cork. Waldron would like to see them if there are any. “There should be an amnesty to bring them in,” he says.
The surviving casts were cleared and repaired several times. Most recently this work was done by conservator Eoghan Daltun, who observed that the fig leaves covering the genitals of Adonis, Apollo Belvedere, the Belvedere Torso, and the figures in Laocoon and His Sons appear to have been added to cork sometime after their arrival.
In June 2019, at an event dubbed “The Fig Reveal,” those “humble disguises” were removed. The occasion was recorded for inclusion in Mary Beard’s BBC television series The Shock of the Nude.
“Mary helped Eoghan remove the fig leaf from Apollo Belvedere,” says Waldron. “We didn’t know what to expect, but a 1971 Irish Ha’penny was found inside, confirming that the fig leaf was not part of the original cast. We also removed the fig leaves from the other sculptures; They appear to be much older and may date from the Victorian era. We have kept them all as archival objects and will exhibit them from time to time.”
The casts continue to fascinate visitors to the gallery. “Artists like Dorothy Cross and Vivienne Roche would have encountered the casts in the 1970s when Crawford was still both a college and a gallery. Art students still come to sketch them; You still have a life for the people. They have an international dimension but are also an integral part of Cork’s history.”