Born in the Venetian Republic city of Possagno, from a long line of stone carvers, Canova learned from a young age the art of marble cutting. In 1768, on the recommendation of Senator Giovanni Falier, he became an apprentice for the sculptor Giuseppe Bernardi in Pagnano, before joining the Santa Marina school in Venice.
After winning several prizes at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia, he successively produced several works, combining the imitation of nature with the ideal antique beauties, which soon put him in the forefront of modern sculptors. He studied ancient art, and, throughout his life, carved various statues inspired by Greek and Roman mythologies, as well as cenotaphs, busts and standing statues of various famous figures of the period. He is renowned for the delicacy of his marble sculptures. His work is considered the archetype of neoclassical sculpture and has been the subject of several studies by Mario Praz.
He devoted a good part of the fortune earned from his art to charitable causes or to support young artists or artists in need. He was also very good at painting. Napoleon commissioned him several times in Paris, and he returned in 1815, where he was ordered by the Pope to recover the monuments removed from Rome, demanded by the pontifical government under the Congress of Vienna. He was responsible for negotiating, with Dominique Vivant Denon, France’s restoration of Italian artworks stolen by the Napoleonic army. He was subsequently knighted and received a number of honorary distinctions.
When he died in 1822, his heart was interred at the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice, in a funerary monument of his own creation, although he had originally dedicated it to the painter Titian. His remains are buried in Possagno, in the Tempio Canoviano, where his brother is also buried.