This post appeared first in 2003 on the Chimera site. It is reproduced here with minimal modifications. Also, I am involved right now in writing a more detailed and in-depth article on Cellini's "Perseus and Medusa" which should appear in the coming months
The body of Medusa is sculpted with loving care. She is not a monster, as legend would have her, but a woman, headless of course, but a beautiful woman. She lies on the pedestal, her right hand abandoned on a side, her left hand clasping with great force her right ankle. Medusa is dying, yes, but she is not completely defeated yet. Perseus foot presses against her belly as if to keep her down. (picture on the right: by Parigi, center and left, by author).
Benvenuto Cellini unveiled his masterpiece in 1554 in the “Loggia de Lanzi” in Florence, where it still stands today. We call this statuary group the “Perseus” even though this is clearly unfair to Medusa. First, because Medusa is an essential part of the myth, second because in Cellini’s work Medusa is sculpted with loving care and great mastery, resulting in a figure which, although perhaps less prominent than Perseus, is no less important in the group. We could as well call Cellini’s piece “Medusa” and this is not just a semantic detail. The relations male/female, victor/vanquished, slayer/slain, oppressor/oppressed are the fundamental theme of this statue, which, at the time of its creation had a deep political meaning, a meaning that it still maintains today as we have no lack of oppressed, vanquished, and slain people in the world. These notes have the purpose of retelling the story of the creation of Cellini’s masterpiece and to discuss a little of its meaning. A second purpose is to show a collection of digital images of the statue, a modest homage to the greatness of Cellini, who, with this piece, crowned a whole age of sculpture in the Italian Renaissance.
(Picture on the left: Medusa’s head, photographed by Lamberto Perugi)
Note: all pictures shown in this page are believed by the author to be in the public domain. This includes pictures taken by the author himself and some pictures of Lamberto Perugi taken from “Il viaggio del Perseo” (Pagliai ed. 2000). In the latter case, the public domain status is inferred from the lack of a copyright notice in the book and from the fact that some of these pictures have already been reproduced in other internet sites. In any case, the reproduction of Perugi’s pictures is intended as a homage to his splendid work as a photographer and as an encouragement for the interested reader to get the book with the complete set. As for the “Perseus” itself, copyright expired more than four centuries ago.
Benvenuto Cellini told us in his “Life” that a piece of statuary “must have eight views, and it must be that all of them be of the same quality”. Indeed, you may look at the Perseus from any of its “eight sides” and for each one you’ll notice new details and different qualities. The Perseus is, actually, a rich mix of elements and details, not all of which are perfectly in tune with each other. The majestic hero is what catches the attention first, but this hero is at the same time a demi-god and a very realistically cast human being. For instance, clearly, Perseus’s belly is not as flat as it would be fitting for such a radiant hero, actually it can be defined as something of a paunch. Then, Perseus’ head is certainly handsome, but in its abstract perfection, it hardly fits with the rest of the body which, as we said, is that of a real person. And other elements of the piece are no less impressive, highly detailed and, in part, in a less than perfect relation with each other. (pictures above by the author)
The way Medusa’s body lies has a strong sensual character and this sensuality is enhanced by the thick flow of blood, which is more of a coral-like intriguing substance rather than a repulsive one. And then, Medusa’s head, held so high and in such a prominent position. Again, this is not a monster’s head, this much is obvious even when observing it from the ground level. But from close range pictures its sensual beauty is truly stunning: eyes closed, mouth half open, a hint of teeth, the oval of the face framed in a mesh of snakes above and the folds of the skin at the neck wound, where neither the snakes nor the blood pouring out are shocking or repulsive but instead carnally sensuous.
Perhaps the most peculiar feature here is how he two faces, Perseus and Medusa, look like each other. The similarity is evident in several details, especially the mouth and the nose (detail picture by the author, the two full heads by Parigi). In addition, Medusa’s hair, made out of snakes, is nearly identical to Perseus' curly hair. The similarity of the two heads is just one of a series of questions that we may ask about the Perseus. Why are the two heads nearly identical? What was that Cellini wanted to say with that? What is the sense of sculpting the Perseus in that way and not in another? And what is the sense of sculpting a Perseus at all?
In the Perseus we are seeing the work of a mature artist who was conscious that he was creating his masterpiece. Born in Florence in 1500, Benvenuto Cellini was around fifty when Duke Cosimo 1st commissioned to him what was to be a major piece of statuary, something that had to stand in the same square where some of the most famous and renowned pieces of the older masters where, for instance Michelangelo’s “David” and Donatello’s “Judith”. It was an exceptional (and perhaps unexpected) chance for someone who so far had been known mainly as a goldsmith but not as a master sculptor. So, we may be sure that all the details of the Perseus were carefully thought out even though, as it happens with any creative process, the final outcome is not always consistent with the intentions of the author. Benvenuto Cellini himself tells us something about how the statue was made in his “Vita” (the life). Written in the late years of his life (he died in 1571), Cellini’s autobiography is a remarkable document which perhaps tells us more details about him than we would care to know. But we can’t avoid to be fascinated by this relation of a turbulent life, always a fight, always running, always engaged in fights or in working with demonic energy in titanic feats of creativity. Cellini was truly one of the geniuses of his age. About the Perseus, Cellini tells us a wealth of details. The description of the volcanic enterprise of fusing the statue is in itself a good piece of literature as well as a small but an illuminating treatise on the ancient art of bronze metallurgy. But mastering the ways of fusing bronze is not enough for a masterpiece: what counts is the idea, the form, what the sculptor wanted to express with his statue. And on these points Cellini says little. We are only told that the Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo 1st, wanted a Perseus and that when Cellini showed him a model of the statue the Duke was enthusiastic, telling him that for the finished statue he could “ask him whatever he wanted” (a promise that was not kept). But we have no comment from Cellini on why exactly the duke wanted a Perseus.
Perhaps it was just the whim of a capricious ruler that conceived the idea of a giant Perseus in the main square of Florence, but it may also be that there were deeper reasons. To examine this point we may look first at the myth behind the statue, a well known classical myth. Medusa had been a beautiful girl once, but she had been too proud of her beauty. According to the various versions of the story, she had either allowed herself to be seduced by Neptune (or by Apollo) in a sacred temple, thereby defiling it, or she had claimed that her hair was more beautiful than that of the goddess Minerva. Either way, she was punished by the Gods by having her hair transformed into snakes and her face transformed into something so monstrous that all who saw her were turned into stone (picture: Etruscan Medusa from the Firenze Archeological museum). Perseus was the hero chosen to dispatch the monster, something that he did, apparently, without many problems because of all the powers that the Gods had bestowed on him for the task: for instance he could fly and make himself invisible. According to some versions, he even surprised Medusa sleeping, cutting off her head before she could defend herself (not so glorious, indeed). It is not difficult to see in this story the garbled rendition of a much more ancient myth, with Medusa one of the aspects of the Moon goddess. But this is not especially relevant here: we can be reasonably sure that neither Cellini nor Duke Cosimo knew anything of, or cared about, moon goddesses. Cosimo certainly knew the myth in its classic version and if he wanted a Perseus it was because of that version. And the classic version could be linked to the political situation of Cosimo’s times (something that has been pointed out already by many commentators, for instance by C.A. Galimberti). Cosimo had been created Duke and ruler of Tuscany after the murder of his uncle Alessandro who, in turn, had taken over after that the Spanish army had crushed the Florentine Republic in 1530. In mid 16th Century Cosimo was the absolute ruler of Florence, but the memory of the Republic was still fresh and for Cosimo it was important to repress this memory as much as possible. Getting back to statuary, there was a statue which was in many ways a symbol of the old Florentine republic: the “Judith and Holophernes” by Donatello.
Donatello had fused his “Judith” about one century before Cellini’s Perseus (photo by the author). In terms of style and meaning the Judith is both symmetric and opposite to the Perseus. The roles, for instance, are reversed. Judith, Jewish heroine, had used a ruse to get close to Holophernes, commander of the Philistine army, and had killed him by cutting his head as he was drunk and sleeping (just as Perseus had surprised Medusa sleeping). In the statue of Judith by Donatello we have again a masterpiece where the characters of the figures are dramatically enhanced by their posture and even by their facial traits. The “Judith” was more than an artistic masterpiece, it was ethically and politically charged. In a symbolic way, the story was understood as the triumph of humility against arrogance and this statue can certainly be seen as representing just that. But, more than that, the figure of Judith could be seen (and was seen in Florence) as representing the people killing a tyrant. In this latter view it was surely something that Cosimo wasn’t so happy about, especially in having it in a prominent place in Piazza della Signoria, the very center of Florence. However, Cosimo was a prudent man and also liked to present himself as patron of the arts, so he couldn’t conceive to destroy the Judith or hide it in a basement. What he thought as more clever and perhaps even more effective was to have it dwarfed by a larger and more spectacular piece. A piece that would proclaim the exact opposite than the Judith did, a triumphant hero killing a woman. A piece which would represent and proclaim the death of the republic. The Duke even saw himself as Perseus the slayer. In an earlier piece by Cellini, Duke Cosimo’s portrait, we have him wearing the head of Medusa on his chest, something indeed that only Perseus could have done.
So, we may be reasonably sure that duke Cosimo and Cellini both understood the symbolic relations duke/Perseus and republic/Medusa. There remains to be seen how Cellini interpreted this symbolism, and how enthusiastically he agreed with representing in bronze the slaughter of the republic. And, we may ask: if the political position of the Duke is obvious, how about Cellini’s one? Here, things are not so clear and Cellini himself is, understandably, reticent about this point. When he wrote his “life” he was an old man living in Florence under what we would call today a dictatorship. Duke Cosimo liked to appear as a benevolent ruler, but when it was a question of showing his teeth, he was ruthless and heads rolled not only in a figurative sense. So, Cellini’s “life” is outspoken and detailed on many things, but nearly silent about others, for instance about the siege of Florence in 1530. A few years before, in 1527, Cellini had fought as a gunner against the Spanish army at the siege of Rome and he tells us a number of spectacular deeds that he performed there. But when it was Florence’s turn to be besieged by the Spanish troops, Cellini tells us only that he was there (it was his home town) but little else. No mention is made that he fought the Spanish in 1530, he only says that in that year he was recalled to Rome by the Pope and that later on he moved to France to work for King Francis 1st. If we consider that it was the Spanish army that had reinstated the Medici family in Florence and hence, indirectly, Cosimo 1st, we may understand that Cellini was reticent in telling us anything about what he had done during the turbulent year 1530 and why he had deemed a good idea to take refuge in France afterwards.
Was Cellini a republican at heart? We cannot say, he doesn’t tell us. Maybe he himself didn’t know for sure. The only mention in this sense we find in the “life” in something that happened when he was in Rome, after the Medici restoration in Florence. In the community of Florentine Republican exiles that Cellini knew so well (a revealing detail), there came news that Duke Alessandro had been assassinated in Florence. The exiles rejoiced, thinking that the republic would be restored, but Cellini told them “isciocconi” (“fools”), “in three days we’ll have another duke”, which is exactly what came to pass. Not exactly a republican position, but hardly an enthusiastic one for the Duchy. In general, anyway, we know that Cellini’s whole life was a series of fights and battles. A man of such independent spirit hardly submits to the power of an absolute ruler, be that a Duke or an emperor. Yet, even independent spirits must at some point come to compromises and in the “life” many times we find a Cellini eager to please the despot Cosimo, even too much, we are tempted to say.
Given this somewhat conflicting background, how exactly could Cellini interpret the myth of Perseus in a piece of statuary?
What could have been his models, and did the duke have in mind something specific? It seems that this subject had never been attempted before by Renaissance artists, surely not on such a grand scale. And Cellini could hardly find inspiration in classical art. In ancient art Medusa is always shown as a monster. She has a large Moon-like face, the tongue outstretched, few, if any, feminine attributes. Such images are far away from anything that a Renaissance artist would consider as a proper subject for his art.
It seems therefore that Cellini did not have a specific model to follow, so he could invent the statuary group more or less as he saw fit. A lot of freedom for an artist, but also too much freedom sometimes causes problems. Cellini was under many respects a genius, but he could not create a major piece of work from nothing, he had to get at least some inspiration from previous art. So, the general layout of the composition does not come from ancient Perseus/Medusa images, but from a line of art pieces that was well known, the victor/vanquished couple. Here, it seems that Cellini’s inspiration came from Etruscan statuary. He may have also inspired, or at least challenged, by Michelangelo’s David, which was a piece the Perseus had to compete with. And he had to be careful to avoid the mistakes that others had done, for instance a few years before Baccio Bandinelli had sculpted his “Hercules and Cacus” group. It was another piece meant to compete with Michelangelo’s David, but one where Bandinelli had succeeded only in making a fool of himself, as you can realize looking at it still today. To avoid the disaster that the “Hercules and Cacus” had been Cellini modeled the bodies of Perseus and Medusa from real life models. For Perseus he tells us in his “life” that his model was “the son of Gambetta, the prostitute”, a boy whom he later calls “Cencio”. For Medusa we find in a letter to Benedetto Varchi that the model was a 16 years old Florentine girl named Dorotea. Obviously, these two young Florentines did not pose for the faces of Perseus and Medusa, which are both idealized. Perseus’s face is actually almost identical to that of Donatello’s marble David, an evident indication that Cellini here was following a canonical Renaissance way to see the concept of a beautiful face. The head of Medusa, as we already said, is almost the same as that of Perseus.
Given this mix of sources of inspiration, what came out by their getting together was perhaps not exactly what Cellini had intended. The creative process of an artist is something that can hardly be controlled, and we may imagine that Cellini was somewhat carried away by his intention to make a great masterpiece. In any case, he seems to have forgotten the political aims of his work, or anyway not to have placed on them sufficient care. Eventually, Cellini’s Perseus turned out as something very different from what the Duke had in mind. The statue that we can still see today is hardly the representation of the triumph of dictatorship over democracy or, at least, if it is a triumph it is a cruel and brutal triumph. This Perseus has nothing of the moral righteousness that pervades Donatello’s Judith. It is, instead, the image of a murder. There is no heroism in Perseus having surprised and beheaded a sleeping woman. There is no glory in pinning her body to the ground as she withers in death’s pains. If we look at the faces, we may think we are seeing demi-gods engaged in a mythical battle. But if we look at the bodies we see real human bodies, and we are seeing Cencio killing Dorotea with a butcher’s knife. And, even as a demigod, Perseus does not seem to be so proud of what he has done: he is looking pensive, somewhat subdued, or maybe he is even ashamed. And the face of Medusa is so similar to his face that we can only conclude that they must be relatives. In killing Medusa, Perseus has not only killed a helpless woman, but he also betrayed and killed one of his own kin. Just as the Florentine Republic had been betrayed by those who had promised to defend it. And if Perseus is Duke Cosimo, then Duke Cosimo, too, is a murderer and, worse, a traitor.
When the Duke saw the statue for the first time, Cellini tells us that he was enthusiastic. But as he kept looking at it something changed. The description of the effect of the unveiling of the Perseus is better left to Cellini’s own words in the “life” (translation by Anne MacDonnel, Everyman Library Ed. 1968):
Now, as it pleased my glorious Lord, the immortal God, I brought the thing at last to its end, and one Thursday morning I showed it openly to the whole city. No sooner I had removed the screen, though the sun was barely risen, than a great multitude of people gathered round -–it would be impossible to say how many – and all with one voice strove who should laud it highest. The Duke stood at one of the lower windows of the Palace, just above the door; and there, half hidden in the embrasure, he heard every word that was said about the statue.
Even though Cellini reports us that afterwards the Duke was still very pleased, we can’t avoid to think that these several hours of listening to comments on the statue changed something. And indeed, the about-face of the Duke with Cellini was abrupt and definitive. There had been ups and downs in their relation, despots are known to be capricious indeed, but always the Duke had appreciated Cellini’s work. But from then on Cellini was cut off with all contacts with the court and never made anything again for the Duke. Not much remained of the Duke initial promise, “that Cellini could have asked him anything he wanted”. Cellini had to content himself with a modest sum, paid in installments (and not always in time). The Duke never said explicitly what he had found wrong with the Perseus and, to his credit, he must have recognized that it was still a masterpiece, even though perhaps not so good as a piece of propaganda, so he left it where it was, and where we can still admire it.
Messer Benvenuto lived to a relatively old age and died in 1571 at 71 in Florence. He never had a chance again to make anything comparable to the Perseus. Duke Cosimo died at 55, three years after Cellini. With the Perseus, the Duke may not have been able to erase completely the Democratic dreams of his subjects, but for sure he didn’t give them any chance to put them into practice. The Duchy of Tuscany, later to become Grand-Duchy, was to last until 1861, when it peacefully merged with the newly created Italian state.
Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus crowns an age and in some ways ends it. In the turmoil of 16th Century, Florence, Tuscany, and all Europe were in the midst of a profound transformation. The discovery of new worlds beyond the Atlantic ocean had changed everything for the Italian states, which were rapidly catapulted from the center stage to the periphery of Europe, not anymore players in continental politics but a battleground for France and Spain to fight out their dreams of domination. Eventually Spain emerged as the winner in Italy, but it took a century of struggle, and in this struggle something perished: it was the intellectual freedom of the Renaissance. Things such as democracy and free speech were lost, and not only these: the great human achievements of Renaissance in all fields of art and science had to wither and disappear. Today we see these events as an unavoidable progression, but the people of the time were fighting their personal battles, some uphill, some downhill, most of them could not see as clearly as we do that an age was closing with them. Some tried to resist, some fought back, some let themselves be carried by the events. In the end it didn’t matter, it was a battle that could not be won.
But against this dark background some figures stand out in their struggle. Many left us poignant stories of their times, one of them is, no doubt, Benvenuto Cellini, master goldsmith and, around the end of his career, sculptor of talent, perhaps the last one who had a chance, a rare chance in his times, to prove himself a sculptor on a par with Michelangelo. And he did prove that. But he didn’t just leave to us a beautiful statue. He also sent us a message of freedom, a message in which he said that human genius and creativity could still fight and win against dictatorship and tyranny, a message which we may still heed after almost half a millennium.