Antonio Canova began working on Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix in 1805, the same year that Pope Pius VII appointed him Inspector General of Fine Arts and Antiquities for the Papal State. By this point, Canova’s reliance upon classical sources, idealized perfection of the forms, fluidity of line, graceful modeling, and exquisitely refined detail had solidly established his reputation as the preeminent sculptor in Europe.
Venus Victrix is an outstanding example of the neoclassical style, which was influenced by the archeological discoveries in Pompeii and Herculaneum and considered the works of the Greeks and Romans to be the pinnacle of artistic achievements. The life-sized reclining nude exemplifies Canova’s superlative technique; the modelling of the form is both idealized and extraordinarily realistic, while Canova’s treatment of the surface of the marble captures the soft texture of skin. This luster was enhanced through a patina of wax and acqua di rota, and it was once set upon a rotating mechanism, which allowed the static viewer to observe it from all angles.
Yet the sculpture’s owner, Prince Camillo Borghese, refused to allow the sculpture to be displayed and would only show it to close acquaintances by torchlight. How did this come to happen?