Antonio Canova’s Bust of Helen: ‘Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships?’

This marble bust of Helen of Troy is ‘a collector’s dream’, says our International Head of Sculpture, Donald Johnston. Made by the greatest sculptor of his era and boasting an unbroken provenance, it goes under the hammer in London on 6 July 2023

When the Romantic poet Lord Byron moved to Venice in 1816, he discovered a city that suited his lordly imagination and taste for extravagant gestures. Between plunging into canals and seducing countesses, he developed a prolific body of work. ‘You have never written better,’ wrote his publisher John Murray from London.

At the palazzo of Contessa Isabella Teotochi Albrizzi, one of Europe’s most famous society hostesses, Byron met the greatest Italian artists and writers of the day, among them the Neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova. Here, surrounded by the charm and sparkle of literary and artistic genius, the British poet discovered a beautiful marble head of Helen of Troy carved by Canova, for Albrizzi, in around 1811.

Gazing upon its intricate detailing and impossibly smooth white surface, designed to maximise the effects of flickering candlelight, Byron was enchanted. He wrote to Murray: ‘The Helen of Canova… is without exception, to my mind, the most perfectly beautiful of human conceptions, and far beyond my ideas of human execution.’

antonio-canova-marchese-d-istria-by-thomas-lawrence

Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), Antonio Canova, Marchese d’Istria, 1815-19. Oil on canvas, 92 x 72 cm. The Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth. Photo: Reproduced by permission of Chatsworth Settlement Trustees / Bridgeman Images

The poem On the Bust of Helen by Canova, written in 1816, was Byron’s passionate response to the work:

In this beloved marble view,
Above the works and thoughts of man,
What Nature could but would not do,
And Beauty and Canova can!
Beyond imagination’s power,
Beyond the Bard’s defeated art,
With immortality her dower,
Behold the Helen of the heart.

In Greek mythology, Helen is the daughter of Zeus who was born from an egg, along with her siblings, Castor and Pollux. Considered to be the most beautiful woman in the world, she was abducted by the Trojan prince Paris — or eloped with him — causing the outbreak of the Trojan Wars. This earned her the epithet coined by Christopher Marlowe: ‘the face that launch’d a thousand ships’.

Antonio Canova (1757-1822), Bust of Helen, 1816-17. Marble; on a circular marble socle. 24½ in (62.2 cm) high, overall. Sold for £3,549,000 on 6 July 2023 at Christie’s in London

Byron was not the only admirer of Canova’s Helen. In fact, so celebrated was the sculpture that in 1816-17, the artist carved another example as a personal gift to Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, later 2nd Marquess of Londonderry, to thank the British statesman for his efforts in helping to repatriate artworks stolen by Napoleon from Italy in the early years of the 19th century.

During the French Revolutionary Wars between 1792 and 1802, Napoleon led a series of campaigns in northern Italy, looting and pillaging along the way. Central to his cultural desires was a vast museum in Paris that would house all the treasures of Europe — a place, he said, to ‘bring together… all the products of human genius’.

‘The Helen of Canova… is without exception, to my mind, the most perfectly beautiful of human conceptions, and far beyond my ideas of human execution’ — Lord Byron

Each Italian city the emperor conquered was ‘liberated’ of its paintings and sculptures, and nowhere was sacred: he stripped the Vatican of its Greek statues, wrenched the enormous bronze horses from St Mark’s Basilica in Venice and dragged Paolo Veronese’s The Wedding Feast at Cana (1562-63) from the walls of San Giorgio Maggiore. In total, he stole around 600 artworks from Italy.

After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Canova travelled to France to negotiate the return of these spoils of war. Supporting the sculptor’s demands was Castlereagh, who had received a petition from 39 artists living in Rome begging for the restitution of the looted art. The request for repatriation was largely successful, but not all of Italy’s treasures were returned.

robert-stewart-viscount-castlereagh-after-sir-thomas-lawrence

After Thomas Lawrence, Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh and 2nd Marquess of Londonderry. Oil on canvas. 126.4 x 99.7 cm. Mount Stewart House & Garden, County Down, Northern Ireland. Photo: National Trust Photographic Library / Bridgeman Images

To thank Castlereagh, Canova sent him the present bust of Helen. Inscribed on the reverse are words in Latin which translate as: ‘Antonio Canova made this and presented it as a gift to the most eminent Viscount Castlereagh.’ The statesman had been instrumental in creating the grand alliance of nations that defeated Napoleon in 1815, and he initiated the post-war congress system of international relations.

When the artist Thomas Lawrence saw the bust at Loring Hall, Castlereagh’s home in south London, he wrote to his friend Canova: ‘It is your most beautiful head, entirely justifying the old gentlemen of Priam’s court in their indulgent admiration.’

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On 6 July 2023, Christie’s will offer the Bust of Helen presented to Castlereagh in the Old Masters Part I sale. The marble head is on the market for the first time, offered by the Trustees of The Londonderry Heirlooms Settlement.

Christie’s International Head of Sculpture, Donald Johnston, says the work is a ‘collector’s dream’. The highly prized sculpture has three crucial elements: ‘a celebrated author, an unbroken provenance and undisputed aesthetic appeal’.

‘Canova was universally respected and loved,’ says the specialist. ‘When he died in 1822, people wrote about what a great loss it was to all of Europe.’

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