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A sculpture for everyone in Possagno

by Giovanni Sonego last modified 2008-06-20 15:10

When does a copy become an original? Why are the Americans so interested in the small museum of Possagno? How did Antonio Canova safeguard his heritage? Read on to discover the answers to these questions and much, much more . . .

Antonio CanovaAntonio Canova, Italy's most famous neo-classical sculptor, was born in a small town called Possagno, in the province of Treviso. His birthplace has been made into a museum which includes a "gipsoteca". There's no real translation in English for gipsoteca and being at best an unknown quantity and, at worst mistranslated as a "meeting point for gypsies", most tourists tend to steer clear. Those who do turn to their dictionaries will find out that the mysterious gipsoteca is none other than a gallery of plaster cast copies and invariably think - "What do I care about copies, I want to see the originals!"

Well my dear tourists, you couldn't be further from the truth as the museum is a real delight to visit. By examining the casts, sketches and terracotta models on show you can study the development of many of Canova's works from the drawing board to the masterpieces that made him famous throughout the world.
It is interesting to note that many of the casts on exhibit are working models as opposed to copies. If you look closely you will see that a series of small nails has been pushed into many of the casts. The nails were an important reference point for the sculptor, who, when working on the final marble sculpture, used a special compass to accurately reproduce his plaster model. Indeed when seen in this light we can say that the marble is a copy of the plaster and not vice-versa.

The visit becomes even more special as we approach the collection of Canova's working tools, carefully lined up beside his clothes and his death mask. It's almost as if we can see him at work and suddenly the plaster casts and sketches take on a new, more human dimension.

Plaques beside the casts and drawings indicate where the finished marble statues are exhibited taking us on a magical journey through the museums of Rome, Naples and London. However in some cases the location of the original (although in hindsight it seems inappropriate to talk of originals) is missing which brings us to another interesting discovery - some of Canova's works are no longer in existence. Indeed a number of statues have been lost or destroyed leaving us with the plaster cast which, in the absence of its marble mentor, becomes original and unique - the only of its kind in the world.
This is true for the busts of Gioacchino Murat and Carolina Bonaparte, both of whom ruled in Naples, and for the Statue of Washington which Canova first sketched, then moulded in clay, baked in China clay, cast in plaster and finally carved in marble before shipping it to the United States. Unfortunately the statue was destroyed in a fire making the plaster cast version in Possagno a unique tribute to the first President of the United States.

Why, I hear you ask, is the plaster cast of Washington not in the United States? The United States on their part are doing all they can to get their hands on the statue but Canova was most farseeing. Worried that his successors would dissipate the heritage in plaster and sketches he left the entire collection to the people of Possagno, who, he specifies in his will, can sell the plaster casts only after a unanimous vote of the town's population. So aficionados in the US are fighting a vain battle. - this precious collection is set to be an integral part of this seemingly unimportant town for a long time yet.

Antonio Canova - - A biography of the great neo-classical sculptor.
Works - - Some of Antonio Canova's works
Works - - Some of Antonio Canova's works
The statue of George Washington - - A marble copy (from 1970) of Canova's original statue of George Washington - - Become a sculpture

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