It was only by chance that I visited Canova’s Temple. Stuck in the environs of Treviso, surrounded by gently rolling farmlands, sloping vineyards and rows upon rows of the Colli Asolani, I wanted to be excited, wanted to learn, but Rome had spoiled me with its grandiosity, Venice with its romance and Florence with its art.
But the temple seemed to loom over as I approached it. Its majesty was so undeniable and it was so unlike anything else in the region that though it was not the highest structure on the highest hill, it may as well have been the only thing in sight.
Designed by Antonio Canova between 1804 and 1818 to hold his works and eventual ashes, the Temple combined the elements of an apsidal chapel, the round body of the Pantheon, and the colonnade of the Parthenon in order to represent what Canova considered to be the main phases of culture: Greek, Roman and Christian. With its double rowed Doric columns, Attic architrave, round atrium and perfect hemispheric domed roof, it stood imposingly on an ascending cobblestoned base and made chins lift for a better look and jaws drop at its relative enormity. Inside, a self-portrait of Canova in marble, his tomb, and Latin inscriptions I could no longer understand quoting his name – I knew this Canova, I was sure of it, but I wasn’t sure from where.
It wasn’t until we passed the Gypsoteca down the street entitled Canova e Danze that I reached for my excessively used guidebook and found what I was looking for: it was in the Galleria Borghese in Rome that I had learned of him – his was the famed Venus Victrix! Yes! I had something to hook onto and off I went to the gallery of his works.
It felt calming to be in a grand hall of nothing but statues again. There were white walls, white sculptures and silence. Many of the statues were plaster casts and not Canova’s originals as those were sold off in order to raise money for the Temple, but they were still remarkable. Perseus with Medusa’s head, Venus and Mars, the Three Graces, Hercules – all bringing back the history, the myths, and the memories to me. And then, there she was, reclined on a heavily pillowed chaise, the Venus Victrix. Of course, this was the less detailed cast – the original was showcased amidst Bernini statues in Rome – but she was beautiful. Though that was her official title in the Galleria Borghese, the subject of the sculpture was actually claimed to be Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister, and Prince Camillo Borghese’s wife, Paolina. And sure enough, her plaster cast plaque read “Paolina Borghese” – it was her after all.
The rest of the Gypstoteca consisted of a studio explaining how Canova worked using his plaster casts, and rooms and hallways of his terracotta models, sketches, and paintings. In the center of the last room, with the lights dimmed, a Danzetrice seemed to move to the soft harp music playing from above.
I seemed to have found it then, the treasure of this place, a little bit of Rome hidden amidst the villas and the olive groves. The Danzetrice, yes, but also the renewed desire, the restlessness for knowledge – that is what I was looking for. And here she was, the star attraction, right in front of me.
Her arms in the air, cymbals in her hands, posed mid-step on her slowly turning base, she floated to the melody as a ballerina might upon a jewelry box. And I was mesmerized.