Benvenuto Cellini, Perseus with the Head of Medusa

Benvenuto Cellini, Perseus with the Head of Medusa, c. 1554, bronze (Loggia dei Lanzi, Piazza della Signoria, Florence)

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Dr. Beth Harris: [0:00] Let’s talk about Mannerist sculpture.

Dr. David Drogin: [0:00] When we’re talking about Mannerist sculpture, one thing to keep in mind is that it shares the same basic characteristics as Mannerist painting that we’ve already discussed.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] Elegance, complexity.

Dr. Drogin: [0:00] The more enigmatic and puzzling it is, the better. Complicated, extreme sense of sophistication and gracefulness and a demonstration of the artist’s skill.

[0:00] A great example of that is Benvenuto Cellini’s bronze sculpture of Perseus from about 1545 to 1554. It is located in its original location where it was made for, the Piazza della Signoria, the Loggia, just to the right of the town hall if you’re facing its entrance.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] That’s an important location.

Dr. Drogin: [0:00] It’s very important location and its location is [a] very important part of its meaning, which we’ll talk about.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] Who commissioned this?

Dr. Drogin: [0:29] This is for Duke Cosimo I, Cosimo de’ Medici, who was the first really great, powerful, Medici dukes, who rules 16th-century Florence. He comes to power in the 1530s and rules up and towards the end of the century.

[0:00] The first thing we should talk about is what the subject matter is. We’ll come back to it again, but generally, this is a sculpture of Perseus. Perseus is a figure from Greek and Roman mythology. He is the hero. In a way, a regular guy, who defeats the Gorgon monster, Medusa.

[0:00] Medusa is the terrible sorceress who’s so ugly and has snakes for hair, that when you look at her, you turn to stone because she’s so terrible-looking. This was not the way she was born. She was originally very beautiful and seductive, but she tried to seduce Zeus. Zeus’ wife, Hera, puts this curse on…

Dr. Harris: [0:00] Uh-oh.

Dr. Drogin: [1:59] …her that makes her so ugly, that if anyone looks at her, they turn to stone. Athena gives him a shield that’s very, very highly polished, like a mirror. The god Mercury, or Hermes, gave him his winged hat and winged sandals that allow him to fly. When he goes to fight Medusa, he holds the shield up, she looks at her own reflection, she turns to stone.

[2:05] Still, while he’s not looking at her, he reaches out with the sword and slices her head off. He beheads her, but he quickly puts her head in a bag because even when she’s dead, she can turn people to stone.

[2:10] Then, he flies off to fight another monster, and he pulls Medusa’s head out of the bag and defeats that other beast as well. We see all of these things in the sculpture. We’ll come back to them again.

Dr. Harris: [2:19] Perseus is really blessed by the gods.

Dr. Drogin: [2:21] He’s helped by the gods. He’s got the winged sandals here, he’s got the winged helmet here. This, of course, is Medusa’s decapitated head. Here is her body, spurting blood.

[2:30] The story of this particular sculpture is that Cellini had been working in France for King Francis I, but then he comes back to his hometown of Florence, where Cosimo de’ Medici is the duke.

[2:41] There are several different versions of the story. The story is that Cellini approaches the duke and says, “I have a great project that you’re going to want to fund and have me make.” He shows the duke sketches and models made out of clay and wax of this figure.

[2:58] The duke likes the subject matter a lot, but the duke thinks of himself as an artistic connoisseur. He says to Cellini, “I like this idea, but it’s never going to work. It’s going to topple over.”

[3:09] More importantly, the duke says, is that the bronze casting is never going to be successful because essentially, the way that bronze is made is that you have an inner mold of clay, an outer mold of clay, and then what’s in between there is wax in the design of what you want your finished sculpture to be.

[3:27] Then what you do is you pour hot, molten bronze and everywhere the wax was, which floods out, the bronze then goes. After the bronze cools off, you then break the outer mold. There, essentially, is your bronze sculpture.

[3:41] When the duke looks at Cellini’s designs, he said, “This is never going to work because you have so many things sticking out in different directions — the arm, the sword, the hands, the feet — that the bronze is not going to flow fast enough to all of these places that it needs to fill. When you break open the mold, you’re going to find that the cast is incomplete.”

[4:02] Cellini listens to these arguments. He says, essentially, to the duke, “I am such an expert, I’m such a good sculptor, I can pull it off. You just need to trust me.” The duke says, “Okay, you can go ahead. But I’m warning you, you’re going to humiliate yourself.”

[4:14] Cellini gets to work. He prepares the mold. He prepares everything the way it needs to be done and he starts pouring the molten bronze into the mold. He quickly realizes that, in fact, the duke was right. The bronze is not flowing fast enough to fill up the whole mold. It needs to be hotter.

[4:31] What he does is he instructs all of his assistants and servants to break all of the wood furniture in his house and throw it on the fire so that the fire will burn hotter and the bronze will run smoother and faster. They do that and that works, but it’s still not fast enough.

[4:45] They throw in some silverware and other kinds of pewter things that he has lying around the house because if you add that to the bronze mixture, that also makes it more liquidy. Then they wait with bated breath for the whole thing to cool off. They break it open and there is the whole sculpture complete.

Dr. Harris: [5:00] He did it.

Dr. Drogin: [5:01] It’s a miracle that he was able to cast it without any flaws, he claims. No missing parts like the duke had said would happen. Then it needs to be finished off. Then, also, once it’s installed on the pedestal it does, in fact, stand very firmly without toppling over.

Dr. Harris: [5:13] Bronze casting had been a lost art for the whole Middle Ages and this…

Dr. Drogin: [5:17] Things of this complexity, certainly. Without thinking about what the subject matter is, without thinking about how it relates to its surroundings, part of the meaning of this work of art is…

Dr. Harris: [0:00] That he could do it.

Dr. Drogin: [5:28] Cellini was a great sculptor. In other words, that’s practically the subject matter, is that he was able to accomplish what was said to be impossible.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] Impossible.

Dr. Drogin: [5:34] This makes it Mannerist. It is a statement of the artist’s skill at taking on an artistic challenge.

Dr. Harris: [5:38] An amazing virtuosity and…

Dr. Drogin: [5:40] And that virtuosity is not just in the casting but it’s also in the finishing of this surface, which is incredibly well polished and has a tremendous amount of detail.

[5:48] Of course, it’s also Mannerist because of the rather lithe, elegant, athletic, slim form that corresponds to the dominant aesthetic of the time. Again, it’s this issue of the artist’s skill that’s foregrounded that makes this in part so important.

[6:03] Another part of this sculpture that’s so important is how it relates to its setting. Like I said, this is in front of the town hall in front of the Palazzo della Signoria, where at the time there were already several other sculptures, as we can see in this photo, which is taken from the point of view of where the Perseus is located. In other words, this seems to be what Perseus…

Dr. Harris: [0:00] Perseus is seeing.

Dr. Drogin: [6:25] …is looking at, exactly. One of the things that stood there is…

Dr. Harris: [0:00] Michelangelo’s “David.”

Dr. Drogin: [6:32] …Michelangelo’s “David,” where a replica stands in the original location. Michelangelo’s “David” here, and then also this figure of Hercules that was installed some years later. Both of these figures — Michelangelo’s “David” and this figure of Hercules by Bandinelli — were symbols of the Republic of Florence.

[6:47] David, who defeats the stronger beast, Goliath, was seen as a symbol of the Republic from even the beginning of the 1400s because it was a symbol of how the good and the weak can defeat the strong if God is on their side.

[6:59] Hercules too, in some ways, functioned in that role because Hercules was also a symbol of the Republic. The hero who with the help of God is able to defeat stronger enemies.

Dr. Harris: [7:09] These are both symbols of Florence as a democracy whose power is in the hands of the citizens of Florence.

Dr. Drogin: [7:16] We need to understand the Perseus figure and its commission in this location in that kind of historical context. Because, when we think of the Perseus standing here, holding up that head of Medusa, what, of course, does it look like has happened here?

Dr. Harris: [7:30] It looks like it’s turned David to stone. It’s turned this symbol of the Republic to stone.

Dr. Drogin: [7:36] Exactly. It looks as if, especially Michelangelo’s “David,” is looking right at Cellini’s Perseus and the head of Medusa. There’s a suggestion that Hercules is as well and that because they’re looking at this head of Medusa that’s being held up by the triumphant hero, that they have turned to stone.

[8:01] The tricky, almost humorous but very sophisticated — and hence typically Mannerist — illusion is that the Medici with their sculpture of Perseus have turned these figures representing the Republic into stone and have defeated their enemies once again.

Dr. Harris: [8:10] It’s funny because I think we tend to look at these sculptures as images of beautiful figures during the Renaissance, and we forget this political meaning behind them.

Dr. Drogin: [8:18] Absolutely. We need to understand their historical context, their locations. All of this helps us understand what they are, but in the end, they still are also very beautiful objects, and that’s another way to understand why these viewers, Hercules and David, have turned to stone.

[8:34] Because it was a rather common rhetoric to say that an object could be so beautiful that it takes your breath away. It stops you in your tracks. It petrifies the viewer. The viewer can be slain by beauty, and so maybe that’s another meaning of these figures turning to stone. They’re so astonished by his skill and his mastery as an artist that they are turned to stone in astonishment.

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Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. David Drogin, "Benvenuto Cellini, Perseus with the Head of Medusa," in Smarthistory, December 15, 2015, accessed April 17, 2024,