The neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova (1757-1822) had a lifelong passion for dance. During his early years in Rome, he would often go walking in the hills around the city, or wander through the streets and squares of Trastevere so that he could see the peasant girls dancing. As his friend Antonio d’Este later remembered, he was enchanted by their delighted laughter, joyful innocence and graceful movements. Pulling out his sketchbook, he would make drawing after drawing, before rushing back to his studio to try to reproduce what he had seen, first in terracotta and then in marble.
As a new exhibition at the Bode Museum in Berlin reveals, this fascination for dance – and ballet – had a decisive influence on the development of Canova’s distinctive, flowing style of sculpture. In the years after his arrival in Rome, he would produce no fewer than three full-scale statues of dancers, as well as a number of smaller paintings.
These are filled with energy and movement, yet are also poised and graceful. The most remarkable is the Dancer with Cymbals, which forms the centrepiece of the exhibition. Caught in the middle of some Dionysian rite, she twists her body so that the hem of her dress flies up behind her. Raising her arms above her head, she prepares to clang her cymbals together once again. Yet her expression is calm, almost meditative; and her gestures are deliberately dance-like. Holding her left foot aloft, she balances on the toes of the right, almost en pointe. And her arms are held such that she seems about to do a pirouette.
As the curators show, Canova integrated the same balletic composure and fluidity of movement into his other works, especially those dealing with classical subjects. Among the most striking works on display is the Hebe. Were the goddess not holding a cup and a jug of wine aloft, and baring her breasts, she could easily be mistaken for a ballerina.
But many of his pieces that have not been included in this exhibition are equally illustrative. Look at the Three Graces and you’ll easily see it. Perhaps the best example, however, is Pysche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, commissioned by the Scotsman, John Campbell. Awakened from her slumber, Psyche reaches up, as if holding her arms in the fifth position (bras en couronne), while Cupid cradles her gently as he bends down on one knee.
But what this exhibition does not reveal is the extent to which Canova’s religious works were also shaped by his love of dance. To be fair, it is an understandable omission. By Canova’s time, the Church had long regarded dance with scepticism, even hostility. Although it is often associated with thanksgiving and pious celebration in the Bible (eg Exodus 15:20 or 1 Samuel 18:6-7), it had been treated as a dangerously pagan intrusion into Christian life ever since the late 4th century, when St John Chrysostom had denounced it as the work of the Devil.
Even during the Renaissance – when dancing became a mark of distinction, and ballet emerged as a distinct art form for the first time – great care was taken to prevent it from exerting any influence on devotional practices. This wariness extended to the visual arts. Where dance was represented in paintings or sculptures on Christian themes, it was almost invariably connected with sin and wickedness. Except on the rare occasions when angels were shown dancing – as in Botticelli’s Mystical Nativity – it generally only featured in depictions of Salome and other similarly immoral characters.
Yet despite this, Canova – who was the Papal States’ inspector-general of antiquities and fine arts, and who carved funerary monuments for three popes – found that by introducing balletic elements into his religious works he could heighten their spiritual intensity. There is, for example, a poised agony in Adam and Eve Mourning Abel’s Death. Arching his back in grief, Adam holds his murdered son’s hand as he looks to heaven and cries aloud, unable to comprehend the enormity of his horror. The Pietà is still more remarkable. Christ is outstretched upon the ground, his arms lying as if in third position by his side. His pose is truly balletic; while the Virgin, her head uplifted to God, is filled with a loving sorrow that no words could convey.
As such, Canova’s love of dance illustrates not only his originality, but also his importance as a truly Catholic sculptor. Although he drew inspiration from the elegance of balletic movements, he was concerned with more than mere stylistic innovation. Transcending traditional theological attitudes, he succeeded in harnessing his work to his faith. And in staging such remarkable ballets of the soul – in marble, in terracotta and, more rarely, on canvas – he arguably brought his viewer closer to God.
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