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Portrait of Antonio Canova

Landi Gaspare

(Piacenza 1756 - 1830)

This work is one of the many portraits of Antonio Canova painted by artists who were close to him – emblems of his great fame. The informal, spontaneous character of this representation conveys a very natural image, distant from the excesses of celebratory tributes. The canvas attests to the friendship between the sculptor and Gaspare Landi, the painter from Piacenza. Signed and dated 1806, the work was left to the Borghese Collection by Baron Otto Messinger in 1919, together with Landi’s Self-portrait.

Object details

oil on canvas
60 x 47 cm

19th-century frame with cymatium moulding and acanthus leaf frieze, 79 x 68.5 x 7.5 cm


Donated by Baron Otto Messinger, 1919.

  • 1922 Piacenza, Regia Scuola Normale
  • 1926 Biennale di Venezia
  • 1931 Roma, Istituto di Studi Romani
  • 1992 Milano, Palazzo Reale 
  • 2004-2005 Piacenza, Palazzo Galli; Roma, Palazzo di Montecitorio
  • 2009 Forlì, Museo di San Domenico
  • 2019-2020 Milano, Gallerie d’Italia
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1946-1948 Carlo Matteucci
  • 1952 F. Binna
  • 2008-2009 Laura Cibrario, Fabiola Jatta


The painting bears an inscription in its lower left-hand corner which gives us the name of the artist, the subject and the time and place of its execution: ‘Landi painted Canova in Rome in the year 1806’. The same information is provided in the lower portion of Landi’s Self-portrait, which also forms part of the Borghese Collection (inv. no. 558). The similar inscriptions, identical measurements of the two canvases and the fact that the three-quarter poses of the two portrayed subjects mirror each other suggest that the paintings were conceived as pendants (Stefani 2000, pp. 353, 355).

The work is one of the many portraits of Antonio Canova by artists who were friends of the famous sculptor and who held him in great esteem. Canova was often depicted in the guise of a great artist, shown together with the tools of his trade (as in the portrait by G.B. Lampi, Gemäldegalerie, Vienna) or next to his most famous works (as in that by Angelica Kauffmann, private collection). In some cases he was even represented as a divinity, as in the sculptural representation by Giovanni Ceccarini (Palazzo Comunale, Frascati): here Canova takes on the appearance of a half-naked athlete of Antiquity looking at the ancient head of Jupiter of Otricoli. By contrast, the tenor of Gaspare Landi’s portrait is much more subdued, attesting to the sincere friendship between the painter from Piacenza and the sculptor from Possagno. Landi chose to situate Canova in a more human sphere, giving him a spontaneous and completely informal appearance that lacks all traces of staging. The half-length figure emerges from a neutral backdrop, and the composition contains no objects that allude to his trade or production. His gaze is directed at the viewer and his lips are slightly parted, elements which highlight the natural and vital character of his face. Canova is dressed in his usual clothes and shown without his wig, which he usually wore to hide his baldness, as is evident in other portraits of him. This detail is particularly significant, both because it reveals the painter’s intention of depicting the man rather than the famous artist and because it attests to Canova’s close relationship with Landi, whom he entrusted to produce such an intimate image of his person.

The painter was among those whom Canova recommended to Napoleon as the most important artists on the Roman scene of the day, who were chosen to carry out the decorative programme for the new imperial residence in the Quirinal Palace. Canova further supported Landi’s candidacy for the prestigious chair of painting at the Accademia di San Luca, which he held from 1812 to 1827. On several other occasions, Landi paid tribute to his friend by incorporating iconographic allusions to Canova’s sculptures in his paintings; in particular he reproduced the famous marble group Cupid and Psyche (Louvre, Paris) in the painting with the same subject, held today at the Museo Correr in Venice (Mellini 1987, p. 53; Cerchi 2019, p. 331).

Although best known for his production of historical subjects, Landi also painted a number of portraits, experimenting with a variety of types: from the equestrian portrait of Sigismondo Chigi in the Company of Visconti (Chigi collection, Rome) to the idealised representation of the poet Teresa Bandettini (Palazzo Mansi, Lucca) and the group portrait of the family of Marquis Giambattista Landi delle Caselle, his patron in Piacenza. (D’Albertas collection, Turin). The work in question is an extraordinary example of a ‘speaking portrait’ in which Canova’s facial expression is rendered quite naturally, captured in an instant of great immediacy and intensity (Grandesso 2008, p. 16).

The painting formed part of the collection of Baron Otto Messinger, where Adolfo Venturi saw it in 1907 (pp. 59-60). It entered the Borghese Collection in 1919, together with Landi’s Self-portrait. Both works were donated by the baron.

The two paintings were certainly executed at nearly the same time, probably in the last months of the year indicated on both. The artist in fact does not mention them in his correspondence with the Marquis Landi delle Caselle, which continued until at least 4 September 1806. The marquis was a patron of artists who took the painter under his wing, financing his time of study in Rome.

Another autograph version of the Portrait of Antonio Canova, likewise signed and dated 1806, was commissioned by Count Antonio Pezzoli. Today it is held by the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo.

Pier Ludovico Puddu

  • A. Venturi, Un ritratto del Canova, in “L’Arte”, X, 1907, pp. 59-60.
  • P. D’Achiardi, La Collection O. E. Messinger, Rome 1910 (tradotto dall’italiano da E. Barican e H. Monton), p. 88.
  • V. Malamani, Antonio Canova, Milano 1911, p. 109.
  • III Mostra d’arte dell’Associazione Amici dell’Arte di Piacenza e Sala Landiana, catalogo della mostra (Piacenza, Regia Scuola Normale, 1922), Piacenza 1922.
  • R. Strinati, La Galleria Borghese di Roma. Gli ultimi acquisti. Giulio Cantalamessa, in “Emporium”, LX, 1924, p. 605.
  • Catalogo della XV Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte della città di Venezia, Venezia 1926, p. 130.
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 226.
  • Mostra di Roma nell’Ottocento, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Istituto di Studi Romani, 1932), p. 178.
  •  M. Rigillo, Un pittore neoclassico dell’800: Gaspare Landi, in “Aurea Parma”, XVI, 1932, p. 70.
  • A. De Rinaldis, Catalogo della Galleria Borghese, Roma 1948, p. 58.
  • A. De Rinaldis, L’Arte in Roma, dal ‘600 al ‘900, Bologna 1948, pp. 176-177.
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, I, Roma 1955, p. 52, n. 86.
  • G.L. Mellini, Terzo intervento per Gaspare Landi, in “Labyrinthos”, VI, 1987, 12, p. 48, 53. 
  • C. Stefani in P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Galleria Borghese, Milano 2000, p. 355, n. 8.
  • Gaspare Landi, catalogo della mostra (Piacenza, Palazzo Galli, 2004-2005; Roma, Palazzo Montecitorio, 2005), a cura di V. Sgarbi, Milano 2004, p. 150.
  • K. Herrmann Fiore, Galleria Borghese Roma scopre un tesoro. Dalla pinacoteca ai depositi un museo che non ha più segreti, San Giuliano Milanese 2006, p. 179. 
  • S. Grandesso, Gaspare Landi e la riforma del gusto nella pittura di storia, in La pittura di storia in Italia, a cura di G. Capitelli, C. Mazzarelli, Cinisello Balsamo 2008, p. 16.