The story of one of the most famous artworks in the world that represents the love between the god Cupid and the beautiful Psyche, in the eternal conflict between reason and feeling.
Antonio Canova was born in Possagno in 1757 and from a very young age, having lost his father, he worked as a stonecutter and sculptor with his grandfather Pasino Canova, immediately showing enormous talent. Thanks to the interest of Senator Giovanni Falier who understood his genius, he became a practitioner at the studio of Giuseppe Bernardi, his master, and studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice, where he began to conceive his first masterpieces.
In 1779 Canova moved to Rome where he created his most beautiful works inspired by classical art, so much was he in love with Greek and Roman sculptures that at the time they were experiencing a period of great rediscovery and splendor. In 1787, just thirty years old, he was in Naples to rest from the fatigue of the funeral monument to Clement XIII and met the British colonel John Campbell, a fervent collector, who commissioned him a work dedicated to Cupid and Psyche, the protagonists of the Asinus Aureus by Apuleius. For this work, it seems that Canova got inspired by the frescoes he admired during his visits to the excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Surely I dreamt to-day, or did I see the winged Psyche with awaken’d eyes?
(John Keats, Canova’s lover, Ode to Psyche, 1819)
One of the most famous works in the world, Cupid and Psyche represents the contrasted and passionate love story between the god Cupid and the beautiful, but earthly, Psyche, in the eternal conflict between reason and feeling.
Canova created two different groups: the most famous called Cupid and Psyche Embracing and Cupid and Psyche Standing.
The first, in which the beautiful Psyche is awakened by the kiss of Cupid, commissioned in 1787 and made over several years, will never be delivered to Campbell, apparently due to economic problems. Instead, it was bought by the Dutch Enrico Hoppe and then sold to Joachim Murat, marshal of the French empire, king of Naples and brother-in-law of Napoleon, who, like the emperor, was a great admirer of the sculptor. The work, presented in 1801 in the Murat castle of Villiers-la-Garenne at Neuilly-sur-Seine, was then delivered to Napoleon in 1808 in exchange for ownership in the kingdom of Naples. In 1809 he had it transferred to the castle of Compiègne from where it was definitively passed to the Louvre transformed into the Musée Napoléon.
The second existing copy of Cupid and Psyche Embracing, at the behest of Empress Catherine II of Russia, was instead commissioned by Prince Nikolai Yusupov and is the one that can be admired today at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.
In the other group, again commissioned by Campbell, Cupid and Psyche are instead depicted by Canova standing in a gesture as romantic as it is significant: Psyche gives, in fact, a butterfly to her beloved, symbol of her soul, as in ancient Greek the insect is called Psyche, which means, in fact, soul. Remained again in the artist’s studio because it was not welded by Campbell, the sculpture was also sold to Joachim Murat and then became part, the same fate as the semi-reclining group, of the Louvre Museum collections.
The second copy of Cupid and Psyche Standing was sold by Campbell to Josèphine de Beauharnais, wife of Napoleon, and later purchased by Tsar Alexander I of Russia to place it in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.
It is therefore curious, for a game of fate, how the two different marble groups of Cupid and Psyche are today both owned by two of the most important museums in the world, the Louvre and the Hermitage.
And where are the plaster models? The technique with which the artist created his works consisted, in fact, in several steps, starting from a clay version, which served as a basis for making the plaster model, identical in size and shape to the final work, and then later sculptured in marble.
The plaster of Cupid and Psyche Embracing is therefore located at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, while Cupid and Psyche Standing can be admired at the wonderful Gypsotheca di Possagno, in the province of Treviso. From the Greek gypsos (plaster), meaning the place where plaster works are conserved, it is where many works by Canova are kept.
If today we can have the great privilege of admiring the plaster works of the genius of neoclassicism all in one place, we owe it to Antonio Canova’s half-brother, Bishop Giovanni Battista Sartori. Thanks to the heritage inherited from the artist’s death in 1822, he managed to have all the works present in the Roman studio transported first by sea to Marghera and then, thanks to donkey-drawn wagons, to the birthplace of Antonio Canova. Here, today, not only the Gypsoteca, completed in 1844, but also the famous Canovian Temple inspired by the Pantheon in Rome are open to visits.