Leopoldo Cicognara

Written by  Gianni Venturi
An intellectual who revolutionized the assessment of works of art and the father of artistic historiography.
Francesco Leopoldo Cicognara was born in Ferrara in 1767 to count Filippo Cicognara and Luigia Gaddi from Forlì. As the eldest son of a great family, the young count's education was entrusted to the Collegio dei Nobili in Modena where he showed no particular interest in cultural matters. His unruly temperament was drawn to poetry and painting, an unusual choice that met with immediate paternal opposition.

It would have been easier, for example, had he devoted himself to poetry, following the example set by Vittorio Alfieri; according to the scale of values of the ancien régime, literature was a more noble activity than the visual arts. An intellectual of the calibre of Niccolò Tommaseo had some scornful words for this career choice; in his view, Leopoldo Cicognara painted mediocre landscapes and wrote poetry that was little more than verse. It is certainly true that the fame of the count from Ferrara does not rest on his paintings and verse, which, if anything, ought to be seen in the context of an enlightened worldview that was particularly sensitive to events in the liveliest centres of Italian culture.

On his youthful travels to Rome and Naples, Cicognara met the most authoritative representatives of the neo-classical movement and made political contacts that were to lead him into the Masonic brotherhood. This choice also explains why Cicognara found himself at variance with the Napoleonic regime, which led to his decision to abandon a promising political career.
Free of the burden of active political involvement, Cicognara was able to devote himself to the study of philosophy, which led him to take an interest in aesthetics, the new field concerned with concepts of art and beauty. The 1808 edition of the Trattato del Bello projected him into an international, cosmopolitan world of artists and scholars who held that Europe was an entity with no frontiers in which it was possible to discuss and exchange ideas regardless of national boundaries.

Francis Haskill's description of Cicognara emphasizes his multifaceted personality: an art critic according to the new sense of the term that was coming into currency at the time, Cicognara was still a connoisseur, in other words an amateur with good taste, but he was also an art patron and an art merchant, a bibliophile, an administrator, a politician and, above all, one of the sharpest minds in contemporary Europe.

Leopoldo Cicognara's decisions led to an intellectual career that did much to shape modern sensibilities. It suffices to think of the institutions he created amid the tragic splendour of a Venice suspended between the twilight of the Republic, the Napoleonic interregnum, and the return of Austria.
Cicognara underwrote the glory of Venice by promoting grandiose institutions like the Academy or the Ateneo Veneto, and at the same time he forged the legend of Canova, a genius whose work represented, in his judgement, the nec plus ultra of sculpture.
The husband of Massimiliana Cislago, a friend of many of the liveliest minds of the time, from Foscolo to Giordani, from Madame de Staël to Joséphine Bonaparte, on his wife's death, in 1808, Cicognara devoted himself exclusively to cultural activities. The president of the renewed Accademia di Venezia from 1808 to 1826 and of the Ateneo Veneto from 1812, he set himself the task of reorganizing the museums of Venice and watched over the careers of a group of young artists from the Veneto, including Hayez, who were serving their apprenticeship in Rome under Canova.

His defence of Venice's town plan is a model of civic sensibilities to this day, and one need only think of his strenuous opposition to the demolition of the church of San Geminiano to make way for the royal palace that Napoleon wanted to build in Piazza San Marco; or his defence of Jappelli's plan for the new university of Padua.

But the true greatness of Cicognara's cultural policy lies in the works that were to bring him renown throughout Europe: from the Fabbriche di Venezia to the Catalogue raisonée of his splendid library, an irreplaceable tool for historico-artistic research; but above all in his History of Sculpture, which took him virtually all his life to write.
The exact title of the work is as follows: Storia della scultura dal suo Risorgimento in Italia sino al secolo di Napoleone per servire di continuazione alle opere di Winckelmann and of d'Agincourt. Such a title is clearly the fruit of political calculation: in place of "secolo di Napoleone", the second volume has "sino al secolo XIX"; while the third does away with the neutral "secolo XIX" in favour of "il secolo di Canova".

In Cicognara's grand vision of artistic endeavour, the divine Canova had become the term of comparison that had no peer in the history of art, beyond the reach of all others. These choices reveal the strategy behind the operation: the dedication to Napoleon served to finance the undertaking (and the same holds for the dedication to the emperor of Austria, following the change of regime), while the mention of Canova suggests the book's real addressee.

But it was not to be a successful undertaking: despite the French and Austrian subsidies and other subscriptions, the task ruined Cicognara financially and he was obliged to sell his marvellous library to the Vatican.
While recent studies tend to limit Cicognara's influence to that of a forerunner of Italian liberal patriotism, in reality he should be seen as a member of that enlightened aristocracy that, while it repudiated the more reactionary ideology of the ancient regime, was nonetheless able to prevent the revolutionary impetus in favour of highly advanced cultural choices from breaking with the contemporary political system.

It was not cynicism that prompted Cicognara's decisions, therefore, but his absolute faith in the possibilities of beauty, the expression of a people's culture. Beauty understood as moral and social regeneration, a concept that underpinned a fundamental freedom of thought strong enough to attract the attention of the Austrian censors.

This freedom of thought brought Cicognara renown throughout Europe, but not as much as his friendship with Canova did. Theirs was a friendship that has bequeathed us one of the most interesting correspondences of the Nineteenth century, and one that covers the period between 1810 and 1822 (the year of Canova's death) on an almost day to day basis. In this testimony to fidelity the reader encounters a varied and complex slice of family life, from requests for beads, bulbs, and other trifling objects, to the major events of that politically troubled period: the campaign in Russia, the fall of Napoleon, and the sojourn at Malmaison with Joséphine, for whom Canova was to sculpt the Graces.
We also see glimpses of truly European circles: in 1812 Cicognara wrote from Paris to Foscolo and Giordani in Florence to tell them of the impressions aroused by Canova's statue Paris, sculpted for Joséphine, and to announce the commission for the Graces. Cicognara was a member of this international circle, which he used to erect a monument to his friend Canova in the form of his History of Sculpture.

But his friendship with the Bonapartes, especially with Joséphine and her son Eugène, worked against Cicognara after the fall of the emperor. A Venetian subject, he could not even frequent official circles because his second wife, Lucia Fantinati, the widow of a Bentivoglio, did not have sufficient noble blood to be received in society. His economic misadventures hit him hard even though his assets in Ferrara were shrewdly managed by his cousin Girolamo Cicognara, the podestà of Ferrara.

Cicognara died on 5 March 1834 in Venice and his funeral, despite the veiled opposition of the Austrians, took on the aspect of a civic mourning. To Ferrara, he left the manuscripts of his History of Sculpture with the corrections made by his friend Pietro Giordani, but above all his colossal bust, now in Palazzo Schifanoia, which Canova gave to him and which until a few years ago was in the Cell of illustrious men in the Charterhouse of Ferrara.