Canova at the Gallerie d'Italia

The bas-reliefs of the Rezzonico Collection

by Lavinia Colonna Preti
The bas-reliefs by Canova at Gallerie d’Italia — Lombardia Secrets

The rooms dedicated to Antonio Canova at the Gallerie d’Italia, together with the Gypsotheca in Possagno and the Correr Museum in Venice, house the most important collections in the world of the genius of neoclassicism.

In the museum complex of Intesa San Paolo, there are, in fact, thirteen plaster bas-reliefs, masterpieces owned by the Cariplo Foundation, which were collected by Abbondio Rezzonico, senator of Rome, nephew of Clement XIII and descendant of one of the most important Venetian families, for his villa in Bassano del Grappa.

Abbondio met Canova in Rome in 1778 and, being a sculpture lover and a fine patron of the arts, he became his client and friend. In 1783 the sculptor was entrusted with the task, commissioned by Abbondio and his brothers Carlo and Giovanni Battista, for the funeral monument of Pope Clement XIII, their uncle. It’s during the realization of this work that, for pleasure, Canova began to work on the series of bas-reliefs. In fact, this technique allowed the artist to be inspired by classical art with a completely new style and language, very innovative for the time.

The bas-reliefs by Canova at Gallerie d’Italia — Lombardia Secrets

Canova created around 1793 the first three bas-reliefs inspired by Charity and Hope, casts of the figures carved on the sarcophagus of Clement XIII, and by Justice. The latter is the most precious subject as it constitutes an original study by the artist that does not appear in the final realization of the funeral monument.

Then following series of bas-reliefs is dedicated to the Iliad and the Odyssey, classic poems mediatically rediscovered at the time when Canova worked in Rome, and which were read to him as a pastime while he was working. Among the various themes, the episodes in which Achille returns the slave Briseide (and here we recall that Canova gave us the most beautiful B-sides in the history of art) and the Dance of the sons of Alcinoo are truly wonderful.

The next series is dedicated to Socrates’ Phaedo, probably inspired by Canova’s friendship with the writer Melchiorre Cesarotti who translates many Socrates’ texts, including the moving subjects Socrates drinking the hemlock and Crito closing the eyes of Socrates. The last series depicts the allegories Feeding the hungry and Teach the ignorant, perhaps commissioned by Rezzonico for the school for the education of children that was due to be built in his Bassano villa.

Although each bas-relief was designed to remain a unique piece (the shapes with which they were made were destroyed once terminated each work of art), they became so popular that Canova created several series for the most important noble families of the time.

The bas-reliefs by Canova at Gallerie d’Italia — Lombardia Secrets
The bas-reliefs by Canova at Gallerie d’Italia — Lombardia Secrets

Canova’s masterpieces are certainly not the only reason to visit the beautiful museum complex that arises from the union of various monumental sites: the eighteenth-century Palazzo Brentani, Palazzo Anguissola Antona Traversi, defined in 1841 “The house perhaps the most admired in Milan” after being renovated between 1775 and 1778 and transformed into one of the most elegant noble palaces in the city, the garden that belonged to the adjacent House of Alessandro Manzoni, and the spaces of the former Banca Commerciale Italiana (including its evocative underground rooms and the vault, open for special visits).

The “Galleria dell’800″ boasts wonderful rooms dedicated to Romanticism and Francesco Hayez, of which the museum holds important paintings, while the “Cantiere del ‘900″ houses the 20th and 21st centuries works owned by Intesa Sanpaolo, including masterpieces by Giorgio De Chirico, Lucio Fontana and Mimmo Rotella.

All this wonder also offers a gourmet break. In fact, the Galleries host Voce Aimo and Nadia – restaurant, bistro, café and ice cream parlor – and Voce in Giardino. The very best of Italian cuisine by chefs Dario Pisani and Alessandro Laganà can be tasted in the beautiful garden that once belonged to Alessandro Manzoni. Located between the house of the famous writer and Palazzo Anguissola Antona Traversi, it’s a green oasis embellished with fountains, neoclassical-inspired busts and sculptures by artists such as Joan Miró, Giò Pomodoro, Jean Arp and Pietro Cascella.

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