Starting with his bust of Clio or Calliope in 1811 (Musée Fabre, Montpellier), Canova spent the second decade of the 19th century working on a series of idealized head sculptures.
Inspired by antiquity, and perhaps conceived from the idealization of existing female portraits, the heads are a depiction of beauty, with each expressing a different emotional nuance. Their creation also required less commitment than full-length statues, and allowed him to manage requests from various clients. After 1815, the idealized heads were used as gifts to the British intellectuals who had helped to recover the artworks of the Papal State, previously taken by the French during the age of Napoleon.
In "Vestale," Canova minimizes the formal elaboration so as to focus on the relationship between the figure's perfect and hieratic face and the drapery. The subject was replicated in 3 marble works: the one conserved in the Modern Art Gallery was sold to Milanese banker Luigi Uboldi in 1819; he left it to the Brera Academy in his will, and they in turn sold it to the nascent Galleria d'Arte Moderna in 1902.