Well before the Risorgimento’s cult of heroes took a flight, sculptor Antonio Canova commissioned a series of busts of ‘illustrious Italians’ for the ancient Pantheon in Rome. Started in 1809, when Rome was under French control, the project was developed in agreement with the Roman Curia until, in 1820, Pope Pius VII ordered its removal to the Capitoline Museums. This article probes the origins, form and function of the Canovian pantheon. It analyses the sculptor’s incentives in commemorating artists, scientists and men of letters of Italy’s past, and queries the project’s public reception. Moreover, it evaluates the selection of men and contrasts these to Canova’s predilections, both artistic and personal. Finally, it assesses the pantheon’s impact on the commemoration of illustrious men in post-1848 Rome, specifically in relation to the pantheons on the Pincian and Janiculum hills.
Keywords: Italianita, Patriotism, heroism, Antonio Canova, Pantheon, Rome