Antonio Canova’s Pauline Borghese as the Venus Victrix – remember me like this for ages

Pauline Borghese as the Venus Victrix, Antonio Canova, Galleria Borghese

Pauline Borghese as the Venus Victrix, Antonio Canova, Galleria Borghese

This sculpture, as soon as it was created, was thought of as a masterpiece, although it was rather controversial, even for that period of rather loose morals and Italian openness to all kinds of nudity in art. It depicted, not so much the goddess Venus – the victor of the battle between Olympus goddesses over Pairs, but an aristocrat, a well-known woman and in addition infamous for her loose morals and capricious character, who on top of all that, posed nude for the artist.

Pauline Borghese as the Venus Victrix, Antonio Canova, Galleria Borghese
Pauline Borghese as the Venus Victrix, Antonio Canova, Galleria Borghese
Pauline Borghese as the Venus Victrix, fragment, Antonio Canova, Galleria Borghese
Antonio Canova, Pauline Borghese as the Venus Victrix, Galleria Borghese
Pauline Borghese as the Venus Victrix, Antonio Canova, Galleria Borghese
Pauline Borghese, Francoise-Joseph Kinson, 1808, Museo Napoleonico
Bust of Pauline Borghese, Pietro Marchetti, Museo Napoleonico
Pauline Borghese as the Venus Victrix, Antonio Canova, Galleria Borghese

This sculpture, as soon as it was created, was thought of as a masterpiece, although it was rather controversial, even for that period of rather loose morals and Italian openness to all kinds of nudity in art. It depicted, not so much the goddess Venus – the victor of the battle between Olympus goddesses over Pairs, but an aristocrat, a well-known woman and in addition infamous for her loose morals and capricious character, who on top of all that, posed nude for the artist.

 

She was Pauline Borghese, the wife of a Roman aristocrat and the descendant of the renowned Borghese family, Camillo Borghese, and at the same time the sister of the French Emperor – Napoleon Bonaparte. A year after the wedding Camillo commissioned an allegoric painting of his wife from one of the most renowned Italian artists of that time, Antonio Canova. He could not have been surprised by the completed masterpiece – works on the sculpture which lasted nearly four years gave him ample time to see what the artist had intended. Initially it was to be Pauline – Diana (goddess of the hunt), however the idea was categorically rejected by the portrayed. Venus, fit her much better, especially since Rome was soon filled with rumors about her sexual conquests, lavishness and “wild” parties in which she took part.

Looking at the sculpture, we see a nude woman in a semi-lying pose, leaning on a chaise longue, covered with a mattress and cushions. With one hand she is delicately supporting her head, in another she holds an apple. Venus, with an attribute of a declaration of love, emanates an almost divine harmony. The sculpture was a version of a popular theme in art, the sleeping (or lying) Venus, which had for centuries been undertaken by the greatest Italian artists. The whole is completed by the perfection of the statue, whose surface was almost brought to a sparkle. Its classical beauty and modernity, attracted viewers, who came in throngs to see the work of a famous artist displayed by the husband of the portrayed. How does the aforementioned modernity manifest itself in a declared classicist like Canova? In refreshing the motif, and providing it with an earthly, erotic taste. It is not the sense of the innocence of the nudity of Renaissance goddesses, but the awareness of immorality which makes Canova cover Pauline’s womb, however the bulging cushions of the chaise longue, remind us of a lover’s bed, on which a temptress awaits, well-versed in all canons of seduction. It is neither the wisdom and knowledge of Minerva, nor the caring gift of Juno, but the allure of Venus, that gave her the apple of victory from the hands of young Paris. Pauline wields it as a symbol, an attribute of let us say, her own fate.

 

The sculpture was first shown to the Roman public in 1808 and immediately it created strong divisions: some admired the artistic mastery of Canova, others saw in it, simply an immoral image of a wife of a Roman aristocrat, which was far-removed from the traditional marital portraits. Fuel to the fire was added by the rumors repeated in salons, that when the duchess was asked if it was a problem for her to pose nude, with inborn simplicity replied: “no, since the atelier was well-heated.” After 1814 the sculpture was put up in the family residence in Palazzo Borghese at via di Ripetta.

In 1834 (nine years after Pauline’s death), access to the Roman Borghese palace had to be limited, since such a great number of those seeking sensation and knowledgeable in art, desired to view the already famous at that time masterpiece. They were drawn not only by the beauty of the sculpture, its strange mechanism, hidden behind a wooden drapery as if behind a catafalque, thanks to which the sculpture approached and moved away from the onlookers, the glow of candles, by which it could have been admired, but also the legend of a woman, whose ambitions were focused on achieving perfection in the field of beauty, allure and physical love. Was she not the true Venus of her times – a goddess until the very end of her days? Prior to her death Pauline expressed a wish for her corpse to not be set out in an open coffin – she desired to be remembered as the Venus Victrix (Venus Victorious) from Canova’s sculpture.

Antonio Canova, Pauline Borghese as the Venus Victrix (1805), Galleria Borghese