Pietro Canonica was born in Moncalieri, on the outskirts of Turin, in 1869 in a newly united Italy. In the Piedmontese capital, he attended the Accademia Albertina following the courses of sculptor Odoardo Tabacchi (1831- 1905). He showed his artistic talents at an early age, so much so that at only 14 he sculpted an admirable child’s head in marble.
In a short time, Pietro Canonica made his name known and won several prizes and awards while still at the Academy.
He immediately took part in numerous editions of the Turin Promotrice: his debut was at the 1886 Promotrice, participating with three works: Head of a Man, Portrait of a Man and Annalena; in 1888 he exhibited Goggiam Gembesi, Count Savoiroux’s Abyssinian and Portrait of A.C., in 1891, he participated with Tristis Anima, Pages d’Amour, and Marble Sepulchral Monument; and in the following edition, the five-year edition, he exhibited four sculptures: Half-figure, Spring, Faith and Contrasts.
Pietro Canonica, court sculptor
Pietro Canonica quickly became very celebrated and in demand among the Italian and European aristocratic classes. He was in fact called to various foreign courts to create mainly portraits or commemorative monuments: in England, in 1903, he executed the portrait of Princess Victoria of England that is now in Buckingham Palace; and the portraits of Arthur James Cavedish Bentik and Winifred Anna Dallas Yorks, Duke and Duchess of Portland.
In Russia he worked on the portraits of Nicholas II Tsar of Russia and Alexandra Feodorovna in 1910, Grand Duchess M. Paulovna Vladimir of Russia in 1909 and the Monument to Nikolaevich in 1913 which was destroyed during the Revolution.
In Turkey, he realised the Monument to Kemal Ataturk in 1927 and the Monument to Faysal I King of Iraq in 1933.
He also worked in Iraq, Holland, Colombia and Argentina. His works can be found in various museums and squares around the world.
The First World War brought with it destruction and great changes, changes that also involved the world that had been the artist’s point of reference, but above all his main patron. Pietro Canonica thus found himself faced with new commissions, especially monumental and celebratory compositions. In fact, many of the war memorials that enrich the squares of Italy bear his signature.
The search for beauty and truth
Pietro Canonica was endowed with a very refined taste and extraordinary technical ability, through which he was able to render the ‘palpitation of flesh’, but at the same time an ideal beauty. Pietro Canonica was able to narrate the most secret motions of the soul without transfiguring faces, he was able to create an art capable of idealising, but at the same time narrating the true.
“The artist’s aim is to study truth in its purest form, concentrating the maximum of feeling in it”, these are the artist’s words that encapsulate his credo.
Pietro Canonica could not fit into any artistic avant-garde born at the turn of the century; in fact, the artist was able to express romantic anxieties in neoclassical balance and perfection.
Pietro Canonica’s success at the Venice Biennale
The sculptor also exhibited on several occasions at the Venice Biennials. The first edition he took part in was that of 1895 with Istinto materno; in 1897 he exhibited Contadina di Gressoney (Peasant Woman from Gressoney); while at the 1899 edition he participated with two works Sogno di primavera (Spring Dream) and Cristo crocifisso (Crucified Christ).
He ranged from portraits to religious or symbolic subjects, while remaining faithful to his search for beauty and truth. Pietro Canonica’s participation in the Venice Biennale continued in 1901 and 1903: he exhibited seven works in 1901 including Christ, Communicants and In cordis Vigila, while in the following edition he participated with six works including Bust of S. M. the Queen Mother, Praying Souls and Portrait of a Little Girl.
Success continued to smile on our sculptor so much so that a personal exhibition was dedicated to him at the Venice Biennale in 1912 with seventeen works on display including Donna Franca Florio, The Abyss, Senator Antonio Carle, The Princess C. Murat and La pietà.
Emanuela Di Vivona