Perseus with the Head of Medusa

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Perseus with the head of Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini

Benvenuto Cellini’s 1545 bronze sculpture of Perseus with the head of Medusa on a square base with bronze relief panels is located in the Loggia dei Lanzi of the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, Italy. Also, below the main sculptural event a small relief of the story of Perseus and Andromeda resides, similar to a predella on an altarpiece.[1] The second Florentine duke, Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, commissioned the work with specific political connections to the other sculptural works in the piazza. When the piece was revealed to the public on 27 April 1554, Michelangelo’s David, Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus, and Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes were already erected in the piazza.[2]

The subject matter of the work is the mythological story of Perseus beheading Medusa, a hideous woman-faced Gorgon whose hair was turned to snakes and anyone that looked at her was turned to stone. Perseus stands naked except for a sash and winged sandals, triumphant on top of the body of Medusa with her snakey head in his raised hand. The body of Medusa spews blood from her severed neck. The bronze sculpture and Medusa’s head turns men to stone and is appropriately surrounded by three huge marble statues of men: Hercules, David and later Neptune.[3] Cellini breathed new life into the piazza visitor through his new use of bronze in Perseus and the head of Medusa and the motifs he used to respond to the previous sculpture in the piazza.

The sculpture is thought to be the first statue since classical times where the base included figurative sculpture forming an integral part of the work.

Background[edit]

External video
Smarthistory - Cellini's Perseus[4]

Cellini was the first to integrate narrative relief into the sculpture of the piazza.[5] As the Perseus was installed in the Loggia, it dominated the dimensions of later pedestals of other sculptural works within the Loggia, like Giambologna’s The Rape of the Sabine.[6] Perseus added to the cast of Olympian gods protecting the Medici.[7] Weil-Garris also focuses on the pedestal beneath the sculpture in the round. However, it may not have been Cellini’s original intent, as the relief was still being worked on and installed when the bronze sculpture above had already been revealed.[8] The Medici still dominated the theme of the pedestal as Perseus in the pedestal acts as an allegory to Duke Francesco Medici.[9]

The base of the sculpture, Perseus' feet on the slain Medusa.

The politics of the Medici and Florence dominate the Piazza della Signoria, specifically referencing the first three Florentine dukes. Duke Alessandro I was the first Florentine duke and Hercules and Cacus was revealed during his time and met with terrible reception by the public in 1534.[10] The next sculpture to be revealed was Cellini’s Perseus and Cosimo I was very cautious about the public’s reaction to the piece.[11] Thankfully, the public received the sculpture well as Cosimo watched the reception from a window in the Palazzo Vecchio.[12] The third duke is directly related to the sculpture’s relief panel on the base as the Perseus can be seen as an allegory to Duke Francesco and Andromeda as his Hapsburg bride, Giovanna.[13] Similarly, Andromeda acts as an allegory to Florence, while Perseus is the collective Medici swooping down to save Florence.[14] Cellini chose to represent the sad side of the story of Andromeda; however he drew focus to the Medici as Perseus saving the somber Andromeda.[15] Every sculpture within the piazza responds politically or artistically to each other and the Medici.

The work[edit]

At the time of creating the sculpture bronze had not been used in almost half a century for a monumental work of art. Cellini made the conscious decision to work in this medium because pouring molten metal into his cast, he was vivifying the sculpture with life-giving blood.[16] The most difficult part would be completing the entire cast all at once. Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes was already placed within the Loggia dei Lanzi in the westernmost arch.[17] While it was made out of bronze, Judith had been casted in several sections.[18] Cellini was competing against monumental works, like Michelangelo’s David and wanted to make a statement for himself and the patron, Cosimo I.

Michael Cole specifically draws attention to the process of casting the Perseus. Citing Cellini’s Vita, Cole notes how Cellini’s assistants let the metal clot and had Cellini not been present the work would have been destroyed.[19] Cole then asserts that Cellini goes beyond reviving the work, but raised the dead, in which he means that Cellini’s salvation was remelting the bronze.[20] Cellini also invokes Christ and by doing so he breathes life into the sculpture.[21] Casting the Perseus was more than meeting the demand of Cosimo I; Cellini was proving himself to Florence in a newly refurbished medium.

Cellini’s crowning work was Perseus. Cellini completed it with two different ideals in mind. He wanted to respond to the sculpture already placed within the piazza, which he did with the subject matter of Medusa reducing men to stone. Secondly, the Medici were represented by Perseus and the subject matter achieved that in the round sculpture and the relief below. Moreover in that respect, Cellini also made a statement for himself in the actual casting of Perseus. Cellini gave life with his new sculpture in his use of bronze and asserted the Medician control over the Florentine people through the Perseus motif.


Depictions by other artists[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Shearman, “Art or Politics,”.
  2. ^ Shearman, p. 28.
  3. ^ Shearman, p. 28.
  4. ^ "Cellini's Perseus". Smarthistory at Khan Academy. Retrieved December 20, 2012. 
  5. ^ Weil-Garris, “On Pedestals,” p. 411.
  6. ^ Weil-Garris, p. 413.
  7. ^ Weil-Garris, p. 409.
  8. ^ Weil-Garris, p. 411.
  9. ^ Mandel, “Perseus and the Medici,” 175.
  10. ^ Mandel, p. 168.
  11. ^ Mandel, p. 168.
  12. ^ Weil-Garris, “On Pedestals,” p. 411.
  13. ^ Mandel, “Perseus and the Medici,” p. 175.
  14. ^ Mandel, p. 175.
  15. ^ Burne-Jones, “‘Andromeda’,” 211.
  16. ^ Cole, “Cellini’s Blood,” 221.
  17. ^ Cole, p. 217.
  18. ^ Cole, 220.
  19. ^ Cole, p. 221.
  20. ^ Cole, p. 221
  21. ^ Cole, p. 222.

References[edit]

  • Burne-Jones, Edward. “ ‘Andromeda’: Transformation of Historical and Mythological Soucres.” Artibus et Historiae 25, no. 49 (2004): 197-227.
  • Cole, Michael. "Cellini's Blood." The Art Bulletin 81, no. 2 (1999): 215-235.
  • Mandel, C. "Perseus and the Medici." Storia Dell Arte no. 87 (1996): 168-187.
  • Shearman, John. "Art Or Politics in the Piazza?" Benvenuto Cellini; Kunst Und Kunsttheorie Im 16. Jahrhundert (2003): 19-36.
  • Weil-Garris, Kathleen. "On Pedestals: Michelangelo's David, Bandinelli's Hercules and Cacus and the Sculpture of the Piazza Della Signoria." Roemisches Jahrbuch Fuer Kunstgeschichte 20, (1983): 377-415.

External links[edit]