City blog. Rome based.

This is neo-classicism, baby! Canova’s Pope Clemens XIV revolutionary tomb

The church of the Holy Apostles (Basilica dei SS. XII Apostoli) contains one of the sculptor Antonio Canova masterpieces; it is actually ignored by most, but aroused great interest among the Roman public in XVIII century, and constituted a very important step in the definition of the new neoclassical style, of which the sculptor was the promoter and emblem.

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Cet article est disponible en français.

Questo articolo è disponibile anche in italiano.

  • Where: Basilica dei Santi XII Apostoli, piazza dei Santi Apostoli 51, Rome. It’s located nearby piazza Venezia next to the Galleria Colonna, a wonderful art collection
  • When: the church is open in the usual times
  • Why: The church, with its neoclassic front, also hosts the Giovanni Volpato tombstone (made by Canova too), and the original (but empty, now) Michelangelo tomb, in the garden. The Clemens XIV tomb worth to be well known because represents an essential artwork in Canova’s artistic carreer, coming from ancient art study. (we talked about the church Ss. XII Apostoli also in this post)

Canova moved from Venice to Rome in 1780; he was a sculptor with great technical virtuosity but still entered in the line of rococo tradition. After moving to Rome, he operates a real revolution of his style, which would have indelibly marked the world of arts. The definition of a severe style, pure and uncompromising madeimpose himself on the Roman scene with group of Theseus and Minutaurus (London, Victoria and Albert Museum); soon, thanks to the intercession of Gavin Hamilton (Scottish artist working in Rome) and the engraver Giovanni Volpato, was called to make two papal monuments (for Clement XIII in the Vatican, and Pope Clement XIV in the Basilica of the Holy Apostles), the most important committees that could be entrusted to a sculptor in Rome.


The funerary monument to Clement XIV, funded by the merchant Carlo Giorgi, whose name is graved in the basement along with that of the sculptor, imposed Canova on the artistic Roman scene. For its realization, he had to observe some of the conventions used for papal funerary monument in St. Peter (because also if not in Saint Peter Cathedral, it was a funerary monument for the Pope…), but refused to adopt the most typical Baroque elements: tumultuous drapery, polychrome marbles, rich ornamentation, light effects, symmetrical compositions.


He chose, in fact, to realize the monument with only one material: lumachella (pink marble) for the chair on which sits the statue of the pontifex, and Carrara marble (white) for the basement, the sarcophagus and the three statues that complete the tomb. Instead of the usual baroque allegorical figures, Canova turned the Humility and the Temperance into weeping women that, silently, lament the death of the pope. The marble group is closed in on itself, it doesn’t explode outside as they did in the baroque funerary groups. The entire monument isolates, concentrates all lighte, energies and material compactness.


Rejecting unnecessary elements, aspiring to simplicity and greatness, insting on horizontality: the figures are placed to the side or exacly frontal. Refusing a composition where all the elements complete each other, for a composition where the elements are well separated each other and juxtaposed.



In the middle of the composition is the dark space of the door of the sacristy; it was in place before the monument, could not be ignored and, on the contrary, constituted a constraint that must necessarily to be considered in the design. Canova turned this constraint into an opportunity, by integrating the rectangular room with its basic geometric construction, inspired by the monument to Alexander VII in St. Peter, by Bernini. This empty space thus assumes a strongly expressive and symbolic value of the passage between life and dead. It would be returned in the other tombs of the same artist: the monument to Clement XIII in the Vatican (1784-17929), the tomb of Maria Christina of Austria  in Augustinekirche in Vienna (1798-1805), in the tomb of Titian at the Frari of Venice (1790-1791). The access door of the sacristy is an ambiguous element, because it exists only in the border around the empty, dark space; at the same time it has a strong symbolic meaning because it represents the imperceptible transition between the two kingdoms.

The strict and essential geometry is also confirmed by the arrangement of the statues, which form a pyramid culminating with the pope’s statue. The symmetrical plan is strict, only barely moved from the slight asymmetry of the two allegorical figures, the Temperance and Humility.

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The gesture of the pope, at the same time blessing and  command, evidently considering to Urban VIII by Bernini in St. Peter’s, and the bronze statue of Innocent X by Alessandro Algardi in the Capitol in (in Musei Capitolini).

If, after Michelangelo and in especially throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the integration between sculpture and architecture had become usual for the funeral monuments, Canova here eliminates any mannerism on behalf the purest simplicity. The care for every single detail was meticulous, even for an artist who in the rendering of surfaces was, at that time, incomparable.

The greatness of Canova was to infuse the spirit and the feelings inspired by the past, in a composition which is living into the present. Tthis was the cornerstone element of the great neoclassical artists.

But why the tomb of a pope is in a church different from Saint Peter’s? The decision to place the tomb of the pope in the basilica of the Holy Apostles was dictated by his membership of this Franciscan order, which owns the church.

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(you can find a post about the church Ss. XII Apostoli in this blog at the following page)

Essential bibliography:

HONOUR Hugh, Neo-classicism, London: Penguin Books, 1968 (ed. italiana Torino: Einaudi, 1980)

PINELLI Antonio, Il Neoclassicismo nell’arte del Settecento, Roma: Carocci editore, 2005

ROSSI PINELLI Orietta, Le arti nel Settecento europeo, Torino: Einaudi, 2009

BARROERO Liliana, Le Arti e i Lumi. Pittura e scultura da Piranesi a Canova, Torino: Einaudi, 2011

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