Hope’s Venus is a small bust tucked away by the staircase in the sculpture gallery. For such a small sculpture, the story behind her is an alluring one. She is based upon a full-scale sculpture of the goddess Venus that resides to this day in Florence. The story begins with a sculpture of the Roman god Apollo; you will see how their paths cross a number of times.
In 1489 a celebrated marble sculpture from classical antiquity was rediscovered in central Italy. The sculpture found a home in the Belvedere Palace, part of the Vatican complex. It was the Roman god Apollo and would be known thereafter as Apollo Belvedere. Apollo is the god of poetry, music, truth, healing and medicine and could bring about ill health and plague.
During the late renaissance, Apollo Belvedere gained popularity, attracting the attention of famous artists including Michelangelo. Apollo Belvedere became one of the most celebrated artworks in Europe. Following Napoleon Bonaparte’s Italian Campaign in 1796, he ordered that Apollo Belvedere be taken to Paris. The sculpture entered the Louvre Collection in 1798 and was not repatriated to the Vatican until 1815.
Sculptor Antonio Canova (1757-1822) firmly established his reputation as a champion of Neo-Classicism after producing a statuette called Apollo Crowning Himself (1781-2). Canova was a Venetian and first arrived in Rome in 1780, too late to see Apollo Belvedere, but once in Rome he studied the works of Michelangelo who had sketched the sculpture prolifically. Canova’s most famous work was made in 1782, Theseus and the Minotaur. From the moment of its completion, Antonio Canova was the talk of Rome. He was named “the supreme minister of beauty” and “a unique and truly divine man”. Canova had an exemplary career and, by the 1800s, was considered the most celebrated artist in Europe. In the final decade of the 1700s, Canova worked on an idea that would come to fruition as Perseus with head of Medusa, based upon the stance of Apollo Belvedere which at the time remained in Paris. Perseus with head of Medusa first went on display in 1801 and was bought by Pope Pius VII. It was placed on the pedestal in the Vatican where Apollo Belvedere had previously stood.
Apollo Belvedere has just slain the serpent Python. The ‘quiver’ containing his arrows is still strapped over his shoulder and a robe is draped over his left arm. Both arms are open revealing his nudity. Perseus adopts a very similar pose. His robe drapes over his outreached left arm which lifts the head of Medusa. His right arm holds his sword out to the side, leaving his nudity in full view. His robe, unlike Apollo’s, reaches to the floor.
Apollo Belvedere’s popularity was rivalled by another sculpture from classical antiquity, Venus de’Medici. The first documentation of Venus de’Medici links her to Rome in 1638. A full scale marble sculpture, she was probably a copy of a much earlier bronze statue. She is nude and uses her arms to protect her modesty. The dolphins at her feet suggest that she has risen from the water. A critic cited her a “miracle of art” but she was exported to Florence in 1677 because of a suggestion she stimulated ‘lewd’ behaviour. In Florence she was exhibited in the Tribuna of the Uffizi which featured in the grand tour. Venus de’Medici was among the precious works of art shipped to Palermo in 1800 to escape Napoleon’s invasion. Undeterred, Napoleon still took custody of her. She was shipped to Paris in 1803 to be the ‘bride’ to Apollo Belvedere. She didn’t return to Florence until 1815, the same year that Apollo Belvedere returned to the Vatican.
So sorely was Venus de’Medici missed, the Italians commissioned the greatest living sculptor to make a copy. This was none other than Antonio Canova. In mythology, Venus was the goddess of love, fertility and beauty. In the sculpture Canova used his own imagination to interpret the features of Venus using flowing hair and a timid turn of the head. Canova’s Venus, named Venere Italica was made between 1804 and 1812. It is now housed in the Pitti Palace. Canova’s Venus presses a draped cloth against her body to protect her nakedness. The dolphins are absent from the scene but as the cloth clings to her body it is still possible that she is rising from the water.
Thomas Hope (1769–1831) was a wealthy connoisseur from a Dutch banking family. At 18 he set out on a series of grand tours that took him to Europe, Africa and Asia. He was heavily influenced by the architecture, sculpture and classical antiquities he experienced during these tours. He became an influential designer and settled in London. Our Hope’s Venus is a copy of the original made for him by the studio of Antonio Canova. The original is held at the Leeds Art Gallery. Of course our head, disembodied, tells nothing of this story apart from the archetype classical beauty as understood during the renaissance enlightenment. She is unrecognisable as the goddess Venus.