“Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix” by Antonio Canova
“Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix” by Antonio Canova is a life-size reclining neo-Classical portrait sculpture reviving the ancient Roman artistic traditions of portraying mortals in the guise of the gods, and in depicting the female form reclining on a couch. Canova was initially commissioned to depict Pauline Bonaparte fully clothed as the chaste goddess Diana, but Pauline insisted on Venus. Pauline Bonaparte had a reputation for promiscuity and may have enjoyed the controversy of posing naked. She also holds an apple in her hand, evoking Aphrodite’s victory in the “Judgement of Paris”, the story in which the golden apple was awarded to the most beautiful goddess.
By the time of this depiction in 1808, nude portraits of living individuals were unusual, and high-rank subjects usually had strategically placed drapery. In this sculpture, the head is a realistic portrait, but slightly idealised, while the nude torso is a neo-classically idealised female form and not necessarily based on the Pauline Bonaparte. The style of the sculpture may have also been affected by the Borghese family’s mythical ancestry. The Borghese claimed they could trace their descent to Venus, through her son Aeneas, the founder of Rome.
The sculpture’s lustre was not only due to the exceptional quality of the marble but also to the waxed surface, which has been recently restored. The draped base once contained a mechanism for rotating the sculpture, as in the case of other works by Canova. This rotating mechanism was the fashion for some enhanced plates of ancient sculpture in galleries so that a viewer could observe it from all angles without having to move.
Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victorious was commissioned by Pauline Bonaparte’s husband Camillo Borghese and executed in Rome from 1805 to 1808, after Pauline’s marriage into the Borghese family. Today, the room in which the sculpture is exhibited at the Galleria Borghese also has a ceiling painting portraying the “Judgment of Paris”, painted by Domenico de Angelis in 1779.
Pauline Bonaparte (1780 – 1825) was an Italian noblewoman whose elder brother was Napoleon, the first Emperor of the French. She married Charles Leclerc, a French general, a union ended by his death in 1802. Later, she married Camillo Borghese, 6th Prince of Sulmona.
Upon Napoleon’s fall, Pauline sold all of her assets and moved to Elba, using that money to better Napoleon’s condition. She was the only Bonaparte sibling to visit her brother during his exile on Elba. Her home in Paris was sold to the British government and used by the Duke of Wellington as his official residence during his tenure as British Ambassador to France. Today the house is still the home of the British ambassador.
After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, Pauline moved to Rome, under the protection of Pope Pius VII, as did her mother and other members of the Bonaparte family.
Venus Victrix (“Venus the Victorious”) is the Romanised aspect of the Aphrodite in armour that the Greeks had inherited from the East, where the goddess Ishtar was a goddess of war. Venus Victrix’s cult was such that Roman generals such as Sulla and Caesar claimed to be her protégé. In 55 BC a temple was dedicated to her in the Campus Martius. She had a shrine on the Capitoline Hill, and festivals were dedicated to her together with an annual sacrifice. In neo-classical art, her epithet as Victrix is often used in the sense of “Venus Victorious over men’s hearts” or in the context of the “Judgement of Paris”.
Judgement of Paris
The Judgement of Paris is a story from Greek mythology, which was one of the events that led up to the Trojan War and in later versions of the story to the foundation of Rome.
In the Greek myth, three goddesses claimed the golden apple as the prize for the most beautiful. The three Greek goddesses were Hera, Athena and Aphrodite. They asked Zeus to judge which of them was fairest. In his wisdom, he was reluctant to favour any claim himself and declared that Paris, a Trojan mortal, would decide the beauty contest.
After Paris failed to judge their beauty with their clothing on, the three goddesses stripped nude to convince Paris of their worthiness. While Paris inspected them, each attempted with her powers to bribe him. Hera offered to make him king of Europe and Asia, Athena offered wisdom and skill in war, and Aphrodite offered him the world’s most beautiful woman. The most beautiful woman was Helen of Sparta, wife of a Greek king.
The bribery had long-lasting consequences, as Paris accepted Aphrodite’s gift and awarded the apple to her. Paris eventually received Helen as well as the enmity of the Greeks and the other goddesses in the contest. The Greeks’ expedition to retrieve Helen from Paris in Troy was the mythological basis of the Trojan War.
The story of the “Judgement of Paris” was popular with artists as it offered the opportunity to depict a beauty contest between three beautiful female nudes.
Antonio Canova (1757 – 1822) was an Italian Neoclassical sculptor, famous for his marble sculptures. Canova was regarded as one of the greatest of the Neoclassical artists; the Baroque and the Classical Revival inspired his artwork. Canova’s passion in sculptures were either Heroic compositions, compositions of Grace, or Tomb monuments. Canova was a highly recognised successful sculptor, and his skill and talent are evident in his work of “Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss”.
Antonio Canova was born in the Venetian Republic, and unfortunately, his father was a stonecutter, died when Canova was three years old, Fortunately, he was put into the care of his paternal grandfather who was a stonemason and a sculptor who specialised in altars with statues and low reliefs. His grandfather led Antonio into the art of sculpting. At the age of nine, Antonio Canova executed two small shrines of Carrara marble, which are still in existence. After these works, he was employed under his grandfather as a sculptor.
Antonio Canova worked in Venice, Rome, France and England, and by 1800, Canova was the most celebrated artist in Europe. He promoted his reputation by publishing engravings of his works and having marble versions of plaster casts made in his workshop. He was so successful that he had patrons from across Europe including France, England, Russia, Poland, Austria and Holland. In 1820, Canova made a statue of George Washington for the state of North Carolina.
- Do you know why she is holding the apple?
Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix
- Title: Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix (or Venus Victorious)
- Alternative: Paolina Borghese Bonaparte come Venere Vincitrice
- Artist: Antonio Canova
- Year: 1805-1808
- Place Created: Italy
- Medium: Marble, Carrara
- Dimensions Height: 92 cm (36.2 ″) with bed 160
- Museum: Galleria Borghese
- Name: Antonio Canova
- Born: 1757 – Possagno, Republic of Venice
- Died: 1822 (aged 64) – Venice, Lombardy–Venetia
- Nationality: Italian
- Movement: Neo-Classical
- Notable works:
Explore the Galleria Borghese
- “Truth Unveiled by Time” by Bernini
- “Apollo and Daphne” by Bernini
- “David” by Bernini
- “Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix” by Antonio Canova
Explore Italian Museums
- The Vatican Museums
- Capitoline Museums
- St. Peter’s Basilica
- National Roman Museum, Museo Nazionale Romano
- Galleria Borghese
- Santa Maria delle Grazie
- Sforza Castle Museums
- Brera Art Gallery, Pinacoteca di Brera
- Museo Poldi Pezzoli
“Every block of stone has a statue inside it
and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”
Photo Credit: 1) Burkhard Mücke (User:Pimpinellus) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]