In the upper part of the monument the kneeling figure of the Pope is the gem of the entire group, for a more gentle, reverent, and soulful posture it would be hard to conceive. There is almost a child-like simplicity about this prayerful old man, whose life continued for three-quarters of a century. Notice how naturally the corner of the graceful robe falls over the edge of the granite platform and how dainty is the fringe of the stole on which the pope is kneeling, as well as his triple crown, a little to the front and right of him.
On the right-hand side of the marble sarcophagus is a beautifully carved figure, representing the Genius of Death. Notice how feather-like is the wing, how real and luxuriant the hair, and how faultlessly beautiful the outlines of that snowy form. Observe that he is leaning against the sarcophagus and holding loosely in his right hand an inverted torch whose light he thus extinguishes, a most appropriate and suggestive thought. These two figures – that of the Pope and Death – are worthy of the immortal genius of a great artist; but you cannot contemplate the rest of the group without a feeling of disappointment.
That figure of Religion holding the cross in her right hand and resting her left upon the sarcophagus, her head encircled with gleams of light, is not worthy the man who chiseled it. There is about it an awkwardness that is disagreeable, and those lions, couch-ant at the entrance of the tomb, notwithstanding the praise bestowed upon them, are not to be compared with Thorwaldsen’s Lion of Lucerne.
Yet, as you stand before the tomb and almost within reach of this pair of kingly beasts, you cannot but forgive the artist’s desire to introduce them into his work, whatever their defects, when you reflect that it was to a lion that the sculptor owed the opportunity of his life. It happened thus. Many years before, when yet a boy, he was an humble waiter in an obscure ” Canova di vino ” or wine-shop, and here he obtained the name he afterwards made illustrious. One day, a great and noted man, overtaken by a storm, entered the little wayside inn and called for some refreshments. The proprietor, awed by the presence of such a celebrity, brought out the best the house afforded, and the young waiter, who possessed some artistic talent, contributed his part to the adorning of the table by modeling a lion in butter and setting it in the center of the table. The king of beasts, notwithstanding he was made of butter, attracted the attention of the rich stranger and he offered to give the boy an education in art at his own expense. And so, it is not surprising that Canova should have believed that the inspiration which was present when he modeled his first lion, and which was the means of transforming him from the humblest waiter to the greatest sculptor of his time, should be with him ever after when he had occasion to model that royal animal.
When the monument to Clement XIII was unveiled here in the presence of a vast concourse of people, Canova, disguised as a priest, mingled in the crowd, so as to learn their opinions ; and, if it were true then, as it frequently is now, that ” listeners hear no good of themselves,” while his heart must have been gladdened by the genuine outburst of admiration with which the people greeted that magnificent achievement, yet his ears must have tingled and his heart become sore as he heard one critic compare his lions to bull-dogs, and another his statue of Religion to a spectacular figure on the primitive stage of a provincial theater.
Observe how the same light that streams in on our left from that western window, bathing these marble statues in brightness, serves by the shadows it casts to add gloom to the tomb entrance beneath.
But, notwithstanding what may be justly said in detraction of the work, it yet remains true that it con tains more elements of power and beauty than any other group of sculpture in St. Peter’s, except one, the Pietà of Michelangelo.
The Pietà is situated in the extreme northeast corner of the basilica, to the right of the central entrance to the church (number 12 in plan of St. Peter’s). In order to reach it from the tomb of Clement XIII, we must traverse almost the entire length of the structure. It is in a lonely chapel considerably removed from the tread of the many feet that press the pavement of the nave.