Bertel Thorvaldsen was born in 1770 and was admitted to the Royal Academy of Arts at the early age of 11, where among others the famous Danish artist Nikolai Abildgaard became his encouraging teacher. In 1796 Thorvaldsen travelled to Rome, originally with the opportunity to have a three year study abroad. He arrived in Rome on the 8th of March, 1797 and referred to this date as his “Roman birthday”. However, his stay abroad lasted not three but 40 years.

In 1804 C. F. Hansen asked Thorvaldsen to oversee the decoration work for Christiansborg Castle, the Castle Church and the Copenhagen City Hall. It came naturally to also ask the famous sculptor to decorate the new Church of Our Lady a couple of years later. Bertel Thorvaldsen stayed in Copenhagen during the winter of 1819-20 to finalise the agreements, but apart from this brief stint he lived and worked in Rome.

A main character in the Roman art circles

Thorvaldsen was familiar with the antique sculptures from the collection of casts in Copenhagen, but in Rome he was infinitely closer to the source. The Danish archaeologist Georg Zoëga became his close friend and teacher. As early as 1798 Thorvaldsen sent home examples of his works to Denmark, both copies of older works as well as new models of figures from the Antique. He also started the sculpting of ‘Jason with the golden fleece’, a larger-than-life statue of the hero of the ancient Greek legends.

When the wealthy Thomas Hope ordered the statue and paid an advance, it helped secure Thorvaldsen’s stay in Rome. It should, however, take 30 years before Hope was able to display the statue in his private collection. The most famous sculptor of the time, Antonio Canova (1757-1822), saw ‘Jason’ in Thorvaldsen’s atelier and gave it high praise: ’It was as if Thorvaldsen blew new life into the Antique’. Thorvaldsen was now regarded as the most important sculptor in Rome following Canova, and in 1804 he became a member of the Florence Academy of Art; the Danish Academy followed in 1805 and in 1808 he was accepted into ’Accademia di San Luca’ in Rome.

Thorvaldsen quickly became a main character in the Roman art circles. His atelier and work room became a reference point for young Danish artists during their studies in Rome and rich art collectors alike. So when the orders started pouring in from Copenhagen, Thorvaldsen was already working on pieces for Ludwig of Bavaria among others, the Alexander frieze for Palazzo Quirinale in Rome, and the Swiss Lion of Lucerne.

Thorvaldsen’s clientele increased, and one of his great triumphs was the commission for the Monument to Pope Pius VII for St. Peter’s Basilica. Thorvaldsen worked with small reliefs and large statues as well as small portraits and antique gods. He employed many artists in his work room, Danes as well, who worked on modelling, casting and sculpting.

Cultural gathering point

Many painters, sculptors and poets of the Golden Age sought his company in Rome, where Casa Buti became an anchor for a Danish-German fellowship of artists, which included Freund, Eckersberg, Marstrand, Blunck and Bødtcher among others. Hans Christian Andersen looked for Thorvaldsen as his first order of business when he arrived in Rome in 1833: “Now I have acquired private accommodation and am staying in the same street as Thorvaldsen: Via Sistina..”.

Thorvaldsen became a solid supporter and a good role model for Hans Christian Andersen, and on his 100th anniversary Andersen wrote: “..I felt that so many traits of my life are shared with Thorvaldsen, our poor upbringing, our struggle and our great world recognition..”. Bertel Thorvaldsen returned to Denmark in a resounding triumphal procession on the 17th of September, 1838. A will had been drawn up so that he donated all of his art collections to the city of Copenhagen in 1839. He only returned to Rome for a brief period from 1841-42.

Thorvaldsen died in 1844 in The Royal Danish Theatre, thus he never lived to see all of the statues of the Apostles and the reliefs properly displayed in Church of Our Lady.