A gleaming white marble figure, elegantly reclining on a marble cushion, has always been the centrepiece, the icon, of the Villa Borghese museum, a treasure trove that is rivaled only by the Medici collection in the Uffizi gallery in Florence and the enormous hoard of the tsars in the Hermitage of St Petersburg.

The Borghese princes from Siena who settled in Rome in one of its most perfect villas in the early 17th century, brought together not only a vast assembly of Roman and Greek sculpture, which had recently been dug up in the city, but also Renaissance works and pieces from their own time. The exquisite building became the private showcase for the delectation of informed visitors through the ages. In 1902, when the Italian government acquired it, it was opened to the general public.

It was in 1804 that prince Camillo Borghese commissioned the most celebrated sculptor of the period to begin a sculpture of his new wife. She was not an aristocrat like himself, but the sister of a conqueror. She was Pauline Bonaparte. The sculptor was Antonio Canova, a brave worker devoted to his craft, famed for his fabulous final touch, believed to make cold stone come alive.

Canova (1757-1822) was born in Possagno in the Veneto, the offspring of several generations of stonecutters. When the Venetian senator Giovanni Falier observed him in his grandfather