A pair of very fine sandstone carved lions, one sleeping and one vigilant, raised on a rectangular plinth c.1850, England.
The famous Canova lions were originally sculpted in marble for the tomb of Pope Clement XIII at St Peter’s Rome. There have been several notable reproductions made and distributed around the world, all moulded directly from Antonio Canova’s originals.
Looking closely, one can see that the lions are not depicted completely the same. One appears to be sleeping, its head tucked between its paws. The other is more vigilant, its head raised with open eyes, guarding. This disparity informs us on how Pope Clement XIII would have wanted to present himself. Perhaps implying his ability to combine levels of moderation, benevolence alongside determination and courage.
Antonio Canova carved and completed the original Carrara marble pair of lions in 1792 as guardians to the Pope’s tomb. The original designs of the lions were produced after a long period of study and development. Considered as the greatest Neoclassical sculptor of the late 18th century, Canova is credited with ushering in a new aesthetic that followed his bold yet rational approach to influences of classical antiquity. His method of intense study phases enabled him to avoid having to make considerable changes later on in the carving process. Canova’s renowned carving abilities enabled him to refine the surface of marble so much as to seem as soft and supple as flesh. These original marble sculptures were used as moulds to give opportunity for future copies. A French private collection around 1810 acquired these moulds from the Canova workshop in Rome.
In 1823, the 6th Duke of Devonshire commissioned a pair to be made for Chatsworth House. Rinaldo Rinaldi carved the sleeping lion and Francesco Benaglia the waking companion. Later copies of the lions were made in bronze. A pair of these bronzes are well known in Washington DC, the guardians to the Corcoran Gallery of Art and Design. The lions were cast in from Canova’s in Rome where Washington Businessman Benjamin Holladay bought them in 1860 to be placed in front of his home where they remained until his death. The lions were then purchased at auction by the Corcoran Gallery in 1888 and placed as guardians to the entrance of the museum. Another rendition was made by the Val d’Osne foundry near Paris, cast in iron. A Pair of these lions can be seen guarding the Town Hall in the market square of Aylesbury. One could also draw a connection between these popular lion sculptures to the work of Edwin Henry Landseer, whose own lion sculptures sit at the base of Nelson’s Column in London
The tomb of Pope Clement XIII can be found in St Peters Basilica, Vatican city, a location which has received contributions from some of the finest Italian sculptors, such as Michelangelo and Bernini. Institutions such as this would only be willing to work with the most respected artists in Italy at the time. To have ones name connected to this institution would ensure patronage, connections and prestige.
The copies of Canova’s lions, such as our pair at Nicholas Wells Antiques ltd, are exquisite with or without their papal connections. Their value is bound up in the name of Canova, but their display of craftmanship shows their undeniable aesthetic value.