Deep Dive: Exploring the Exhibits
Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix by Antonio Canova (reproduction) - 1805-1807
This small decorative piece is a carved replica of a larger marble work by the Italian sculptor Antonio Canova. Canova’s subject was Pauline Bonaparte (1780 – 1825), whose elder brother, Napoleon, was the French emperor. The reclining semi-nude sculpture is in the classical tradition of depicting mortals in the guise of the gods. Pauline holds an apple in her hand evoking Venus’ victory in the Judgement of Paris (the contest between the three most beautiful goddess of Olympus - Juno, Athena and Venus - for the prize of a golden apple).
The original sculpture was commissioned by Pauline Bonaparte's husband Camillo Borghese, after his marriage to Pauline in 1803 and is now on exhibit at the Galleria Borghese in Rome. Nude portraits were unusual and Canova was first instructed to depict Pauline fully clothed as the chaste goddess Diana. But Pauline, who had a reputation for promiscuity, insisted on Venus and probably enjoyed the controversy of posing naked. Camillo Borghese refused to allow the sculpture to be shown publicly, only showing it by torchlight to close friends. Although the date and origin of the Southampton History Museum’s piece are not known, America in the late 1800’s saw a resurgence in interest in classical Greek and Roman images.
In cursive, the underside inscription reads:
“Princess Pauline Borgheses by Anonio Canova (b. 1737 - d. 1822)
Favorite sister of Napoleon”