The sensational rediscovery of the so-called Self-portrait of Giorgione marks a significant addition to our knowledge of the great sculptor Canova’s work as a painter. The oil painting on wood (72.5 x 64 cm) is still housed in its magnificent original carved and gilded frame made in Rome, which we know to have been commissioned by Roman Senator Prince Abbondio Rezzonico, the young sculptor’s great protector and patron who was the picture’s first owner. Rezzonico, nephew to Pope Clement XIII, commissioned Canova to carve his uncle’s tomb in St. Peter’s Basilica, a monumental undertaking which contributed enormously to the definitive establishment of the sculptor’s renown. Rezzonico was also an accomplice in the bizarre story of the trick that Canova played on the greatest artists then present in Rome – people of the calibre of Angelica Kauffman, Gavin Hamilton, Antonio Cavallucci, Giuseppe Cades, Giovanni Volpato and others, who were invited to dine at the Senator’s home and shown this painting, which was palmed off as an original Self-portrait of Giorgione. They all adored it, thanks also to the mastery with which it had been painted, and acclaimed it to a man as an authentic work by the Venetian 16th century painter.
The truth of the matter was that Canova himself had skilfully painted the portrait on a 16th century panel painting of the Holy Family (the image of which has been traced through reflectography and infrared inspection), taking as his model a portrait of Giorgione from Carlo Ridolfi’s Le meraviglie dell’arte published in Venice in 1648. By 1792, when the famous dinner was held, Canova had already tried his hand at painting in the Venetian Renaissance style, producing, for example, a Venus with a Mirror which had also been mistaken for an authentic 16th century work.
The event is narrated by all the most authoritative sources for Canova’s life, in particular in the first monograph devoted to him by Fausto Tadini and in the two biographies penned by his secretarius Melchiorre Missirini and by the sculptor Antonio D’Este, who ran his workshop in Rome. Meticulous examination of these reliable sources has allowed Canova authority Fernando Mazzocca to confirm this major discovery and to reconstruct, in the catalogue published for TEFAF, all the phases of this fascinating and exemplary story pointing up Canova’s love of the glorious tradition of Venetian painting, in which he also sought inspiration for his sculpture.