Monday, 13 October 2014

"Too athletic...": Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker

Antonio Canova  (Possagno, Italy, 1st November 1757 - Venice, Italy, 13th October 1822)

Self Portrait by Antonia Canova, 1892
Self Portrait by Antonia Canova, 1892
Today marks the death of Antonio Canova, a sculptor particularly noted for his nudes. Highly neoclassical, his heroic sculptures can be seen across Europe and today I take a closer look at the monumental Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker, a giant statue of more than eleven feet in height. However, when the Emperor saw it, he was somewhat less than convinced...

Leaving Rome in 1802, Canova was summoned to Paris by Napoleon himself who, keen to commission a statue from the famed artist, sat for a study and bust. After discussion with his patron as to the eventual look and theme of the word Canova went home once more and began work on the sculpture. He envisioned a depiction of Napoleon as Mars, envisioning a most colossal and breathtaking statue that would no doubt stop its audience in their tracks. 

Accordingly, Canova toiled at the sculpture and those who saw it during the period of its creation were suitably impressed and arranged for it to occupy pride of place in the Musée Napoléon. With the fate of the statue agreed, in 1806 the finished article took up residence in its new home and there it remained. With a somewhat full schedule, Napoleon himself did not actually make a visit to view the sculpture until 1811 and when he did, he was far from pleased with what he saw.

Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker

Regarding the muscular physique and classical pose, complete with orb and staff, Napoleon declared that it was "too athletic". It was removed from public view and placed behind a concealing screen in the Salle des Hommes Illustres, where it remained for half a decade. The sculpture was set to travel on though and, when the Musée Napoléon was once again named the Louvre, the British government came calling.

In 1816, a purchase price of £3000 was agreed despite Canova's wish to buy the sculpture for his private collection, and Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker crossed the sea and found a new home in England. Here it was presented by the Prince Regent to the Duke of Wellington, a keen collector of Canova's work. Work was carried out at Aspley House to reinforce the floor and then, finally, Napoleon was installed in London, where he remains to this day.

Life in the Georgian Court, true tales of 18th century royalty, is available at the links below.

Pen and Sword
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  1. Maybe I have a warped viewpoint, but there seems to be so much irony on so many levels...

  2. I suspect part of the embarrassment came when Napoleon took a look at what was for him the eye-level features.

  3. I wonder if the fig leaf has a date on it.

    1. You'd have to get a bit too close to find that out!

  4. Or maybe he had a moment of introspection, peeked down his belly, up at the statue, and blushed rather furiously at the obvious dissimilarities...

  5. Hilarious! Funniest thing I've read all day.

  6. Mars the Peacemaker is something of an oxymoron! I agree with your other posters that the contrast between Canova's ideal body and Napoleon's actual body must have given rise to Boney's dislike of the statue.