The Canova Monument in the FRAri church
The marble memorial to sculptor Antonio Canova in the Frari Church is Venice’s most striking monument from the age of neo-classicism.
A notable casualty of the damage wrought by the city’s rising water table, this magnificent work is now seriously at risk. With your help the Venice in Peril Fund is funding a major rescue operation by Superintendency for Architecture to conserve the pyramid the sculptures and their brick foundations. Like all of Venice in Peril’s restoration projects this is administered through UNESCO’s programme with the Association of Private Committees for the protection of Venice.
What needs to be done
Scientific surveys by the Sovrarintendenza, the official body for protection of the architectural heritage, have revealed the urgent need for a rescue operation. The creeping damp with its dire impact on both the brick foundations and the stonework of the monument itself can be kept at bay but only if the whole structure is dismantled, damp-proofed, and a thoroughgoing process of conservation applied to all its parts. A team of technicians and engineers will take charge of the singularly delicate business of detaching the marble slabs and sculptures and damp-proofing the substructure on which all of them rest. Part of the task will entail stripping away the various coatings of oil and wax applied by earlier restorers in well-intentioned if misguided efforts to control the humidity.
All the marble will then require immersion in special desalination tanks to remove invasive mineral deposits. Following this process, and after subsequent repairs to the monument’s different surfaces, a fresh protective coating will be brushed onto the stonework, before the reassembled monument is returned to its dominant and dramatic position at the western end of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari.
A short history of the monument
It was Count Leopoldo Cicognara (1767-1834), a distinguished president of Venice’s Accademia delle Belle Arti, who first proposed the idea of a monument to Antonio Canova. It would take the form of a pyramidal cenotaph modelled on Canova’s own design for a memorial to the painter Titian and funding for the project would come from an international subscription.
In 1827 the scheme went ahead as planned, its sculptural components carved in Carrara marble by five of Canova’s own pupils. Domenico Fadiga created the strikingly austere central pyramid and Luigi Zandomeneghi designed the two weeping figures of Painting and Architecture ( reflecting aspects of the artist’s talent). Bartolomeo Ferrari was given the talk of producing the image of Sculpture itself, swathed in a mourning cloak and veil, in whose hands is an urn containing the sculptor’s heart. Her attendant, the ‘Genietto’ —‘little genius’ —a boy carrying a torch, is the work of Rinaldo Rinaldi, who also conceived the Venetian lion of St Mark, an essential feature of the ensemble for reasons both personal and patriotic. Antonio Bosa incised the relief medallion of Canova, framed by airborne spirits representing the flight of fame. The languorous nude figure of Genius in repose, forming a crucial balancing element in the composition, is the work of Bosa’s fellow pupil in Canova’s studio, Giuseppe Fabris.
Almost from the outset, following its installation in the north aisle of the Frari’s nave, the Canova monument began to suffer from the ravages of damp, whether from the humid Venetian atmosphere, from the rising water table beneath its foundations or from the moisture given off by the crowds of worshippers and tourists within the church. Not only have the pyramid’s marble surface and those of its individual sculptures suffered serious decay over nearly two centuries, but the very basis on which they rest, a tall stepped platform of brick, is being attacked by the heavy mineral content of the moist subsoil below. The whole of this extraordinary ensemble has essentially become a massive sponge, soaking up the water beneath and around it.