Antonio Canova was an Italian neoclassical sculptor who died aged 64, 200 years ago this year. He is best known for his marble sculptures, such as Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss and Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker, which are now in the Louvre in Paris and Apsley House in London respectively. Canova never set foot in Cork in his life, yet his work is familiar to anyone who has ever visited the Crawford Art Gallery, where a collection of his casts, commissioned by Pope Pius VII and donated to the city by the Prince Regent of Great Britain and Ireland, is on permanent display.
How the Canova Casts made their way from the Vatican to London and then Cork is legend. “Pius VII was incarcerated by Napoleon for many years,” says Dr. Michael Waldron, assistant curator of collections at Crawford. “After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, Pie was freed and he campaigned for the return of the art taken by Napoleon to Rome. Canova was already a well-known artist, and Pius sent him to Paris to recover the works of art from the Vatican in what is now the Louvre. It was not possible to bring them all back to Rome, so part of Canova’s job was to select what would be taken.
“Britain helped return the artwork 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 arose of where to house them. For a time they languished at Custom House on the River Thames, near St Paul’s Cathedral, before being moved to a pavilion in the gardens of Carlton House, the London residence of the Prince Regent. The prince then offered them to the Royal Academy, but was rebuffed, on the grounds that the academy already had a fine collection of casts and could no longer find room.
“The story goes that a Corkman, working as a porter at the Royal Academy, heard that the casts could be obtained on request. He informed William Hare, Viscount Ennismore and Listowel, who happened to be chairman of the Cork Society for Promoting the Fine Arts Hare in turn approached the Prince Regent, who was only too happy to offer them to Cork, and had them shipped within weeks.
On November 7, 1818, a local newspaper called The Southern Reporter announced the actors’ arrival in Cork. There were, he reported, up to 219 figures, busts, torsos, reliefs and fragments. The casts were installed in the former Apollo Society theater on Patrick St, where they were used for teaching drawing by tutors from the new Cork School of Art, whose students included Daniel Maclise and Samuel Forde . In time ownership of the casts passed to the Royal Cork Institution and in 1832 they were transferred to the former Custom House, which is now the Crawford Art Gallery.
Throughout the 19th century and well into the 1970s, casts continued to be used in the teaching of observational drawing. They weren’t always cared for as well as they could have been. Some have crumbled, others have disappeared, and their numbers have dwindled to the point where only twelve original casts remain. Survivors include three that were copied from Canova’s original marble sculptures; The goddess Concordia, the mother of Napoleon the Great and Venus bathing. Of the remaining nine, most were cast by Canova and his assistants from ancient Roman or Greek sculpture.
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 get them in,” he said.
The surviving casts have been cleaned and repaired several times. More recently this work has been done by curator Eoghan Daltun, who observed that the fig leaves covering the genitalia of Adonis, Apollo Belvedere, the Belvedere Torso and the figures from Laocoon and His Sons appear to have been added some time after their arrival in Liège.
In June 2019, at an event billed as The Fig Reveal, these ‘coverings of modesty’ were removed. The occasion was recorded for inclusion in Mary Beard’s BBC TV 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, which confirmed that the fig leaf was not part of the original cast. We also removed the fig leaf fig tree from the other carvings; they appear to be much older and possibly date from the Victorian era. We have kept them all as archival items and will display them from time to time.
The casts continue to fascinate gallery visitors. “Artists like Dorothy Cross and Vivienne Roche are said to have encountered the casts in the 1970s, when the Crawford was still a college as well as a gallery. Art students still come to draw them; they still have a life for people. They have an international dimension, but they are also an integral part of Cork’s history.