Born in Trevisano, Canova was trained in Venice in numerous workshops of artisans and sculptors in which he learned to model in terracotta, marble and plaster. He arrived in Rome in 1779 to undertake a lengthy and fruitful collaboration with the Pius Clementine Museum, which was then in the process of enlargement. In Rome, he devoted himself to the study of the ancient and modern statuary conserved in the Vatican collections. He immediately distinguished himself by sculpting vibrant interpretations of the ancient models. For the artist, the Apollo Belvedere and the Dioscuri at the Quirinale were opportunities for the artist to create an unprecedented canon of contemporary beauty that earned Canova a place among the forerunning artists of Neoclassicism. Soon after his arrival, he joined the entourage of the Venetian Ambassador Zulian and the pontifical Rezzonico family, around whom the painters Hamilton, Pompeo Batoni and the French scholar Quatremère gravitated, friendships that proved significant for the artist. Between 1780 and 1790 he made numerous works for important patrons, sovereigns and foreign collectors. These include The Theseus who sits on the Minotaur (London, Victoria and Albert Museum), the Amorini for the Polish Princess Cecylia Lubomirska (Poland, Castle of Lancut) and Amour and Psyche for Colonel John Campbell (Anglesey Abbey, National Trust).
The bust depicts Pope Pius VII Chiaramonti, founder of the Chiaramonti Museum, and is the plaster copy made by the artist himself. Canova had created several marble and plaster portraits of Pope Pius VII between 1803 and 1807, including the original of this bust sent to the Emperor Napoleon on the occasion of his coronation (today at the Musée de l’Histoire de France in Versailles). The bust was donated to Chiaramonti and then exhibited in Promoteca Capitolina where it appeared in 1820, the year of its inauguration. A copy of this bust was destined for the Braccio Nuovo in the Vatican Museums. Among the various copies of the bust is this plaster cast, which appears to be a faithful version of the marble portrait preserved in the Vatican. the work is striking for the naturalistic grace with which the artist captures the pontiff – the spontaneous expressiveness evident in the half-open mouth, in the softness of his hair and in the design of his bushy eyebrows. The minutia with which the cape and corded shirt are carved allow the sculpture a high quality of detail, which leads to the assumption that the cast was conceived for its exhibition in the Vatican.
Despite the continued contact with Napoleonic France (between 1814 and 1817), for Josephine of Beauharnais, the first wife of the Bonaparte, he made the Three Graces), Canova was always openly critical towards the appropriation of artworks by the Emperor in Italy during his military campaign. In 1815, the artist was officially commissioned by Pope Pius VII to go to Paris to facilitate the repatriation of Italian art stolen by the French, as guaranteed in the Treaty of Tolentino. This delicate task and its success were celebrated in Rome by Pope Pius VII, who honored the sculptor with the title of Marquis of Ischia and his inscription in the Golden Book of the Capitol.