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WORK OF THE WEEK | 29 April 2024 

CAG.0916 Antonio Canova, The Mother of Napoleon the Great, c.1816, plaster cast, 150 x 149 x 68 cm. Transferred, Royal Cork Institution, c.1849.


As its Napoleon’s anniversary this Sunday (5 May), let’s take a closer look at Antonio Canova’s The Mother of Napoleon the Great (c.1816).

This is a plaster cast of Canova’s famed portrait sculpture of Letizia Ramolino Bonaparte (1749/50-1836), a Corsican noblewoman who would ultimately become known as Madame Mère de l’Empereur. She and Carlo Buonaparte (1764-1785) had thirteen children together, only eight of whom survived to adulthood.

Curiously, while pregnant with Napoleon, and aged just nineteen, she fought alongside her husband and Pasquale Paoli in the Corsican guerrilla movement against the French. Some 36 years later, she would be proclaimed Madame Mother to the Emperor of the French, Napoleon I, reputedly remarking: ‘Pourvu que ça dure!’ (Let’s hope it lasts!)

Antonio Canova (1757-1822) was the leading Neoclassical sculptor of his generation. Although often considered reserved in person, as well as in his work, he could be passionately assertive when the need arose and his sculptures possess a warmth that belies their cold material. His complex relationship with Napoleon resulted in several family portraits and a perhaps unexpected career as a Papal diplomat.

The original marble version of this portrait was modelled from life, in Rome, in 1804 and first exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1808. A decade later, it entered the collection of the Dukes of Devonshire at Chatsworth House where it remains to this day.

One of our original Canova Casts, The Mother of Napoleon the Great (c.1816) is featured in RECASTING CANOVA in our Sculpture Galleries.

The Arts House: Conor Tallon chats with curator Michael Waldron about a work from the Collection every Sunday morning on Cork’s 96FM and C103 Cork. 

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