POSSAGNO, Italy — Most large maps of Italy omit the name, others show it at the end of a squiggle leading north out of Asolo, 10 kilometers away.
There is one small hotel in this tiny village of fewer than 2,000 citizens cupped in the foothills of the rugged Dolomites in northern Italy; few cafes, infrequent visitors. It isn't listed in directories to the great art museums of the world.
But within the limits of this little community, the life story and complete works of the sculptor Antonio Canova is dramatically presented.
Canova carved the way from the influence of Renaissance religiosity to the secular Neoclassical culture of the 19th Century. He was born here in 1757, died here in 1822. Between those years he became one of the seminal sculptors in the history of art.
Perhaps Canova's masterful portrayal of Pauline Bonaparte in the Borghese Gallery in Rome is characteristic of the artist at his ultimate best. His immense talent is suggested in the brilliant sculptural passages of the reclining Pauline, sister of Napoleon. The challenge to rush out to smooth the wrinkles in the sheeted mattress and run the hand over the lyrical line of the extended arm is a signature of artistic genius.
Frozen in Embrace
Canova's "Cupid and Psyche" in the Louvre is another masterwork. The nude forms arrested in embrace the instant before the kiss that will spare Psyche's life is unforgettable.
That artistry and the vastness of Canova's lifework in sculpture, reliefs and terra-cotta sketches is vividly revealed in the plaster models in the Gipsotheca in Possagno, a museum constructed as an annex to Canova's home.
Possagno is a pleasant drive from Venice. It is 46 scenic miles rising slowly from the sea, winding through pastoral lowlands, skirting rolling hills decorated with cypresses, tall elm trees and magnificent 16th- and 17th-Century villas.
The tree-shadowed road suddenly reaches the rise of an old arcaded street and coasts down into the main piazza of Asolo. It takes less than two hours to drive from Venice.
The gently winding road leading to Possagno from Asolo is fringed with green tangled foliage and the browns and yellows of the season's flowers. As it abruptly widens to a crest, the rich panorama that is Possagno unfolds.
Protector of the Faith
Overlooking the deep ocher-hued mosaic of the village buildings from a dominating hill, like a protector of the faith, is the Temple, Possagno's parish church.
But it's far more than a parish church. Precisely designed by Canova, it is a suggestive merging of the ancient and the modern. The portico is pure Greek with the double row of eight Doric columns and gabled pediment. Yet entering the church, the purity of the classic line transmutes into a cylinder whose dome is an impressive example of modern geometric art.
At eye level the elaborate tombs of Antonio Canova and his step-brother, Sartori, demand attention. Historians state that the sculptor's body lies here; his heart is enshrined in Venice. More striking, however, than the ornate tombs are the sculpted busts of Canova and Sartori flanking the tombs. That of Canova is a realistic self-portrait. There are two additional pieces by Canova in the Temple: one, a bronze Pieta set in a niche, the other a "Deposition From the Cross" over the main altar.
Two hundred yards down the steep avenue leading from the temple across the road that is Possagno's only thoroughfare is a parking lot. It serves a simple, dun-colored structure over whose archway is engraved "Gipsotheca-Museo-Canovia," the Gallery of Original Plaster Models of Canova.
The visitor is enveloped by a sudden ethereal sensation of pure white in the Gallery. Streaks of light from above seem white. Vague shadows materialize as white. Disputing the senses, even well-defined silhouettes are unmistakably white.
But as one begins to accommodate to the low light, the nebulous shadows take definition. Plaster casts of "Cupid and Psyche" from the Louvre, "Venus" from Florence's Pitti Palace, Pauline from the Borghese, Napoleon from Milan's Brera Gallery, all become recognizable.
There is no artificial lighting. Three skylights supplemented by strategically placed windows in adjoining rooms are the sole light sources. The impact is spectacular when the sun is shining, and the skylights and windows are positioned to exploit its movement. Light playing over the plaster forms varies with each passing hour.
Sartori Canova accumulated all the original casts and brought them to Possagno after his brother's death. The completed carvings taken from the plasters in the Gipsotheca are in Rome, Paris, Milan and Vienna.