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.
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