The treaty (certainly not the first of its kind) included a transfer of art from Rome to Paris, at the selection of Napoleon and his advisors–the Figure 1: Leochares, Apollo Belvedere, c.
He had already completed the lay not only in its conquest over an antique Apollo, but also in the history of Perseus’s story in Italian art.
The most famous sculptural example to which Canova’s work would have been compared would have been Benvenuto Cellini’s Cellini’s example shows Perseus in a more typical fashion; he does not gaze upon Medusa, and therefore does not become petrified.
According to Ovid, Perseus, son of Jupiter and compelled by a king’s request, sets out to kill one of the Gorgon sisters, whose former beauty had been transformed into iconic ugliness when she was cursed with having snakes for hair.
Perseus receives gifts to complete his tasks, including a mirror, so that when he looked at Medusa he would not be killed, as had others.
The story allegorizes the birth of marble sculpture, but even if Ovid was not trying to mythologize the birth of sculpture, his story implied that sculptures were being made by the effects of Medusa’s fearful ugliness, such that innocent onlookers were permanently petrified.
Given Ovid’s story, and its popularity in Canova’s time, in attempting the subject the artist may have been attempting to outdo his predecessors, seen here with the perfectly suspended arm and head, the young hero’s ideal beauty, and the realization of figures in marble that are so true to nature that they seem incredulously encapsulated in the stone.
But by using marble, Canova chose the bloodless and fireless medium of stone.
Is this an admission of defeat to Cellini, or it is rather a metaphor for the birth of marble sculpture, which was more in keeping with Ovid’s account of Medusa and Perseus, which some believed allegorized the birth of sculpture as an art form?
While we may not know if Canova was trying to better Cellini by creating in marble what the latter chose to do in bronze, Canova’s was possibly meant to rival the Renaissance master, and the marble served an iconographic function, in the same way that Cole believes the bronze was significant for Cellini.
To be sure, Canova was able to suspend an outstretched arm with a heavy stone head without succumbing to gravity.