Oh, Pauline!

Oh, Pauline!

26 Jul 2020 - 13:53 BY Jeni Fraser

Oh, Pauline!

And the winner of “Miss Arte Italiana” is—drum roll please—Antonio Canova’s Paolina Bonaparte (Borghese) as Venus Victorious! Or so, at least, is what a recent poll carried out for the Marilena Ferrari Foundation decided.

 “Miss Italian Art,” a cringeworthy epithet for a portrayal of Napoleon’s wayward sister Paolina (Pauline) perhaps, but one which, given the strength of the competition, is nothing to sneeze at—works by Botticelli, Leonardo and Titian were also in contention. Certainly, the semi-nude, life-size portrait of Napoleon’s wayward sister is a sumptuous work of art, but how did it come about and what was its reception?

Antonio Canova began working on the portrait-sculpture in 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, idealised perfection of the forms, fluidity of line, graceful modelling, and exquisitely refined detail had solidly established his reputation as the pre-eminent sculptor in Europe.  Four years in the making, it was commissioned by Paolina’s second husband, the Italian prince Camillo Borghese, after their marriage in 1804, a union designed to help Napoleon realise his dreams of establishing a pan-European dynasty and legitimise his claims to the Kingdom of Italy. 

Originally, Canova was to depict her as Diana, the chaste goddess of the moon and the hunt, a role that would have required her to have been clothed – which, for Paolina, was totally out of character; she insisted on Venus. A bit of a loose cannon with a reputation for promiscuity, the Emperor’s sister enjoyed courting controversy and posing naked would certainly have raised a few eyebrows in polite society. While less grasping and rapacious than the rest of her family, Paolina was widely considered vain, capricious, and selfish.

But there was more to Paolina’s choice in reviving the ancient Roman artistic traditions of portrayals of mortal individuals in the guise of the gods.  Apparently, the Borghese family believed themselves to be descended from the heroic founder of Rome, Aeneas who, according to Virgil, was the son of Venus. The choice then not only suited Paolina's flirtatious character, but also would have been met with approval by the Borghese family, suggesting continuity between the ancient and modern worlds. Her hair, a mass of curls bound in a Psyche knot, serves as a visual connector between the two, being worn in imitation of ancient Greek styles as was the fashion of the day. Its careful articulation offsets the smooth shallow planes of her torso.


Paolina is depicted as the Roman goddess of love, holding in her hand the apple which marked her as the winner in the divine beauty contest known as the Judgment of Paris; here designed to enhance her social and dynastic rank and her celebrated beauty. 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 (a sort of turntable), as in the case of other works by Canova.  A revolving plinth was employed in galleries for some pieces of ancient sculpture so that a viewer could observe it from all angles without having to move.

Inevitably the sculpture was going to cause a scandal. While intended for a private audience sophisticated enough to appreciate the classical allusions, given Paolina’s infidelities the sculpture also served to confirm the rumours about her. If anything, Paolina enjoyed the attention. Asked if she minded having to pose nude, she replied: “Why should I? The studio was heated.” Camillo refused to allow the sculpture to leave his residence. Napoleon agreed. 

Illustrations: Canova, Paolina Bonaparte (Borghese) as Venus Victrix, 1804-09, Galleria Borghese, Rome


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