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In the little Italian village of Possagno there lived a jolly stone-cutter named Pisano. He was poor, of course, or he would not have been a stone-cutter; but he was full of good humor, and everybody liked him.
There was one little boy, especially, who loved old Pisano, and whom old Pisano loved more than anybody else in the world. This was Antonio Canova, Pisano's grandson, who had come to live with him, because his father was dead, and his mother had married a harsh man, who treated the little Antonio roughly.
Antonio was a frail little fellow, and his grandfather liked to have him near him during his working hours.
While Pisano worked at stone-cutting, little Canova played at it and at other things, such as modelling in clay, drawing, etc. The old grandfather, plain, uneducated man as he was, soon discovered that the pale-faced little fellow at his side had something more than an ordinary child's dexterity at such things.
The boy knew nothing of art or of its laws, but he fashioned his lumps of clay into forms of real beauty. His wise grandfather, seeing what this indicated, hired a teacher to give him some simple lessons in drawing, so that he might improve himself if he really had the artistic ability which the old man suspected. Pisano was much too poor, as he knew, ever to give the boy an art-education and make an artist of him, but he thought that Antonio might at least learn to be a better stone-cutter than common.
As the boy grew older he began to help in the shop during the day, while in the evening his grandmother told him stories or sang or recited poetry to him. All these things were educating him, though without his knowing it, for they were awakening his taste and stimulating his imagination, which found expression in the clay models that he loved to make in his leisure hours.
It so happened that Signor Faliero, the head of a noble Venetian family, and a man of rare understanding in art, had a place near Pisano's house, and at certain seasons the nobleman entertained many distinguished guests there. When the palace was very full of visitors, old Pisano was sometimes hired to help the servants with their tasks, and the boy Canova, when he was twelve years old, sometimes did scullion's work there, also, for a day, when some great feast was given.
On one of these occasions, when the Signor Faliero was to entertain a very large company at dinner, young Canova was at work over the pots and pans in the kitchen. The head-servant made his appearance, just before the dinner hour, in great distress.
The man who had been engaged to furnish the great central ornament for the table had, at the last moment, sent word that he had spoiled the piece. It was now too late to secure another, and there was nothing to take its place. The great vacant space in the centre of the table spoiled the effect of all that had been done to make the feast artistic in appearance, and it was certain that Signor Faliero would be sorely displeased.
But what was to be done? The poor fellow whose business it was to arrange the table was at his wits' end.
While every one stood dismayed and wondering, the begrimed scullion boy timidly approached the distressed head-servant, and said, "If you will let me try, I think I can make something that will do."
"You!" exclaimed the servant; "and who are you?"
"I am Antonio Canova, Pisano's grandson," answered the pale-faced little fellow.
"And what can you do, pray?" asked the man, in astonishment at the conceit of the lad.
"I can make you something that will do for the middle of the table," said the boy, "if you'll let me try."
The servant had little faith in the boy's ability, but not knowing what else to do, he at last consented that Canova should try.
Calling for a large quantity of butter, little Antonio quickly modelled a great crouching lion, which everybody in the kitchen pronounced beautiful, and which the now rejoicing head-servant placed carefully upon the table.
The company that day consisted of the most cultivated men of Venice--merchants, princes, noblemen, artists, and lovers of art--and among them were many who, like Faliero himself, were skilled critics of artwork.
When these people were ushered in to dinner their eyes fell upon the butter lion, and they forgot for what purpose they had entered the dining-room. They saw there something of higher worth in their eyes than any dinner could be, namely, a work of genius.
They scanned the butter lion critically, and then broke forth in a torrent of praises, insisting that Faliero should tell them at once what great sculptor he had persuaded to waste his skill upon a work in butter, that must quickly melt away. But Signor Faliero was as ignorant as they, and he had, in his turn, to make inquiry of the chief servant.
When the company learned that the lion was the work of a scullion, Faliero summoned the boy, and the banquet became a sort of celebration in his honor.
But it was not enough to praise a lad so gifted. These were men who knew that such genius as his belonged to the world, not to a village, and it was their pleasure to bring it to perfection by educating the boy in art. Signor Faliero himself claimed the right to provide for young Antonio, and at once declared his purpose to defray the lad's expenses, and to place him under the tuition of the best masters.
The boy whose highest ambition had been to become a village stone-cutter, and whose home had been in his poor old grandfather's cottage, became at once a member of Signor Faliero's family, living in his palace, having everything that money could buy at his command, and daily receiving instruction from the best sculptors of Venice.
But he was not in the least spoiled by this change in his fortunes. He remained simple, earnest, and unaffected. He worked as hard to acquire knowledge and skill in art as he had meant to work to become a dexterous stone-cutter.
Antonio Canova's career from the day on which he moulded the butter into a lion was steadily upward; and when he died, in 1822, he was not only one of the most celebrated sculptors of his time, but one of the greatest, indeed, of all time.