1830 (ca.): Canova presenting recovered Roman treasures to the Pope

Commented by: Matilde Cartolari

Material Description

The drawing by the Venetian painter Pietro Paoletti (1801-1847) shows Canova presenting to Pius VII the Monuments of Italian Glory recovered from Paris in the Vatican State in 1814 (Canova presenta a Pio VII in Vaticano li Monumenti della Gloria Italiana ricuperati in Parigi l’anno MDCCCXIV, 25,4 x 34,5 cm). In 1830 Paoletti sent the drawing to the Count Leopoldo Cicognara, who collected it in an Album together with others ranging from different authors and iconographies. The Album was later given by Cicognara to his second wife, Lucia Farinati, and is currently held at the Cabinet for prints and drawings of the Musei Civici of Venice (Album Cicognara, A. 77, n.44). The drawing may have been preparatory design for an etching.

Short Summary

After surrendering to Napoleonic troops in 1797, the Papal States had to cede to the French government one hundred selected masterpieces from their collections. In accordance with revolutionary ideology, this process represented a way to democratize the former aristocratic and clerical culture by exhibiting it in the newborn French public museums. Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, however, prompted claims for restitution by the restored sovereigns. Given the difficult political situation, Pope Pius VII Chiaramonti turned to the unassailable authority of Antonio Canova, universally acknowledged as the greatest artist of that time, to negotiate the restitution of the confiscated artworks.


The drawing represents a fictitious rendering of the moment when Canova presented the Roman masterpieces recovered from the Louvre to Pope Pius VII (one of the boxes carries the mark of the Parisian customs, Douane de Paris). On the right, we immediately recognize some of the treasures from the Papal collections: the Torso and the Apollo del Belvedere behind it, the half-hidden head of the Giove di Orticoli and the massive group of the Laocoön lifted on a pedestal. Beside it, the upper part of the huge panel of the Transfiguration, Raphael’s final work, completes this amazing series of iconic masterpieces. These artworks are only a selection: other paintings are being taken from the boxes directly into the museum through the gate on the left, which is duly inscribed Ingresso al Museo (Entrance to the Museum).

The setting is precisely depicted and perfectly recognizable: is the so-called Cortile di S. Damaso or Cortile delle Logge, the courtyard overlooked by the Logge with Raphael’s frescoes. Since 1811, the courtyard indeed included the new entrance to the Vatican Museums, through a gate which almost perfectly matches to the one drawn by Paoletti. Despite its accuracy, neither is this image a truthful illustration (Paoletti was not in Rome when the artworks arrived in 1816) nor is it a chronicle of a real event (for diplomatic reasons, no official ceremony was held to welcome the returned artworks).

The space where the event takes place rather suggests a double association. On the one hand, it is the site where Raphael actually worked and created some of his most admired frescoes (the Logge and the adjoining Stanze). On the other hand, it is the entrance to the Vatican Museum’s collections of antiquities, and in particular the Pio Clementino Museum, to which the above-mentioned statues belonged. Pius VII’s predecessors had founded the Museum at the end of the eighteenth century, before the opening of the Louvre. Therefore, this setting evokes the role of the Vatican Museums as both a historical and museological cradle to which the artworks naturally belonged and finally returned.

As the inscription below testifies, the protagonist of the image is Antonio Canova, who ceremoniously presents to the Pope the outstanding results of his mission. Not only was Canova the director of the Vatican museums, but his intervention had indeed been crucial for the recovery of the Roman masterpieces. It was only thanks to his international celebrity and diplomatic ability that the Vatican could obtain the support of the European kingdoms and, consequently, the return of the majority of its artworks. The owner of the drawing, Leopoldo Cicognara, was a close friend of Canova (who was a former pupil and member of the Academy of Venice, later directed by Cicognara himself) and was in regular correspondence with the Venetian sculptor even during his Parisian stay.

In his History of Sculpture Cicognara, as many others in that time, claimed that Canova’s artistic achievements had led the Italian sculpture to a level of perfection only comparable to classical antiquity. Canova’s reputation as »Emulator of the Greek masters« (Emulo di Fidia e dei Prassiteli) led the Pope to appoint him General Inspector for the Fine Arts (Ispettore generale delle Belle Arti), a role that only Raphael had held previously. Such parallels – both with regard to artistic excellence and civic responsibility – are also evoked by Canova’s position in the image, standing just below Raphael and beside the antiquities.

The elderly Pope Pius VII appears on his gestatorial chair, surrounded by the two large ceremonial fans (so-called flabella). The arrival of the Pope triggers the immediate reverential gestures of the surprised carrier on the right and of the two friars at the centre, who also form a compositional counterpoint to the standing figure of Canova in the background. The population also welcomes the restored ruler with admiring devotion (the mother pointing him out to her kneeling daughter) and enthusiasm (the group of women throwing the Swiss Guard off balance), while a crowd of anonymous, ghostly figures is witnessing the event from the logge above. In the excitement of the moment, the calm dialogue between Canova and the Pope conveys a sense of sacredness and noble restraint.

Canova and Cicognara fostered Venetian artists by supporting their apprenticeship in Rome, where they could study antiquities and meet new patrons. The author of this drawing, Pietro Paoletti, was himself a Venetian artist working in Rome after Canova’s death and enjoyed Cicognara’s enthusiastic support. We do not know whether the choice of this particular iconography was a request of Cicognara for the book of »memories of his friends« (as he defined the Album – see Rizzioli 2016, p.877) or a spontaneous homage by Paoletti to his ideal master.

The caption, however, offers an insight into the creation of the myth of Canova according to Cicognara’s cultural project, probably shared by Paoletti himself. Canova’s role is here explicitly framed within a patriotic rhetoric, in relation to the restitution of the artworks as Monumenti della Gloria Italiana (Monuments of Italian Glory). This statement mirrors the effort made by Cicognara and others (and partially shared by the sculptor himself during his lifetime) to extol Canova as a proto-national hero. At a time when Italy was still divided into different sovereignties and foreign dominations, Canova’s figure proved the existence of an artistic and cultural supremacy that linked Rome to Venice, and modern Italy to classical antiquity.

This national perspective appears clearly in the description of Canova’s Parisian mission made by Cicognara in his biography of Canova (written soon after the artist’s death in 1822): »It’s difficult to tell the troubles and anxieties that this deserving son of Italy faced […] to get the restitution of the intact treasures. […] His return to Rome was a triumph, and […] the painting of the Transfiguration could hear again the hymns celebrating Raphael’s memory, and the Apollo and the Laocoön remembered to the modern defenseless Rome the triumphal entrances performed during Emilio and Tito’s pageantries to show the monuments of the world they once dominated« (Cicognara 1824, pp.32-33). The return of the Roman treasures represented, thus, not only a way to celebrate Canova’s political role, but also an image of civic responsibility and restored national dignity.


Roberto Balzani (ed.), L’arte contesa nell’età di Napoleone, Pio VII e Canova, Milan 2009, pp. 170-172.

Elena Bassi, Attilia Dorigato, Giovanni Mariacher, Giuseppe Pavanello, Giandomenico Romanelli (eds.), Venezia nell’età di Canova, 1780-1830, Venice 1978.

Leopoldo Cicognara, Biografia di Antonio Canova, Venice 1824.

Valter Curzi, Carolina Brook, Claudio Parisi Presicce (eds.), Il museo universale. Dal sogno di Napoleone a Canova, Milan 2016.

Giuliano Dal Mas, Pietro Paoletti (1801-1847), Belluno 1999.

Paola Marini, Fernando Mazzocca, Roberto De Feo (eds.), Canova, Hayez, Cicognara. L’ultima gloria di Venezia, Venice 2017, pp. 156-159.

Elisabetta G. Rizzioli, L’Officina di Leopoldo Cicognara: la creazione delle immagini per la Storia della scultura, Rovereto 2016.

Giandomenico Romanelli (ed.), Dai dogi agli imperatori. La fine della Repubblica di Venezia tra Storia e Mito, Milan 1997.

Ilaria Sgarbozza, Le spalle al Settecento. Forma, modelli e organizzazione dei musei nella Roma napoleonica (1809 – 1814), Vatican City 2013.

Cite this article as:
1830 (ca.): Canova presenting recovered Roman treasures to the Pope, commented by Matilde Cartolari, in: Translocations. Ikonographie: A collection of commented image sources on cultural heritage relocations since antiquityhttps://transliconog.hypotheses.org/kommentierte-bilder-2/1830-ca-canova-presenting-recovered-roman-treasures-to-the-pope, published 29.01.2019.
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