By 1813, Italian Neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova was the most celebrated artist in Europe. The son and grandson of quarry-owning stonemasons, his reputation had grown enough to secure pivotal commissions from popes, royals and even the government of the fledgling United States.
At the same time, Joachim Murat, then King of Naples, was at the pinnacle of his own career. The son of an innkeeper, Murat had climbed the French military ranks to become one of Napoleon’s most trusted advisors — so much so that the French Emperor offered Murat his sister Caroline’s hand in marriage. The Murats fostered a glittering artistic court in Naples, and one of the highlights of their patronage was to commission their own portraits in marble from Canova.
Canova produced engravings for most of the sculptures and busts he worked on
In 1813 the pair summoned the artist to Naples, where he completed two initial busts from plaster. He then returned to his studio in Rome, where he rendered the works in his preferred material, Carrara marble. Further documentation reveals that the finished marble busts of Joachim and Caroline Murat were delivered to Naples in the spring of 1814, as recorded in a letter from the Archbishop of Taranto to Canova in May of that year. Murat was apparently so pleased with the result that he gave Canova a series of books as a token of his gratitude.
In 1815, continental Europe descended into war; the busts seemingly followed Caroline Murat when she fled to Trieste. They were recorded at her sister Elisa Baciocchi’s villa nearby, after which time trace of them is lost. Joachim Murat was executed in 1815; Canova, for his part, turned to the more politically stable England for royal patronage.
As soon as this work was uncrated in the office of Isabelle d'Amécourt, specialist in Early European Sculpture and Works of Art at Christie’s in Paris, she had a hunch that it could be one of the long lost busts. ‘I thought, I'm in front of something very important,’ d'Amécourt says. ‘When you look at a Canova piece, you know. It's in the chiselling, the purity of the line.’ Canova had a great talent for ‘bringing a sculpture to life.’
Looking for clues, d'Amécourt travelled to Canova’s birth town of Possagno, where his archives are known to contain some of the original plaster models. In the Canova Museum, she examined the preliminary plaster portrait of Murat. Every detail perfectly matched the marble bust in her office, confirming it as the original which had been missing for more than 200 years.
The original plaster model of the bust of Murat at the Canova Museum in Possagno, Italy
One of the most important rediscoveries of a work by Canova, this piece is hugely significant for scholars. ‘It’s an important document for Canova; for the Bonaparte and Murat families; and for the history of patronage in Napoleonic times in Europe,’ d'Amécourt says.
Still, one more mystery has yet to be solved: the location of the bust of Napoleon’s sister, Caroline, remains unknown.