Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus and the Head of Medusa is a sculpture that is commonly overlooked. In fact it could be the most regularly overlooked work of art in the world.
Standing in Florence’s Loggia dei Lanzi of the famous Piazza della Signoria in Florence, rich with some of the world’s most famous sculptures by Renaissance masters, including Michelangelo’s David, Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus, and Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes.
It stands opposite David (now a copy, with the original standing in the nearby Galleria dell’Accademia), as the millions of selfie-stick wielding tourists snap themselves with the famous crack-shot shepherd, if only they’d turn around and look. For behind them stands the dark, foreboding and bloody bronze of the Greek hero Perseus, carrying the severed head of the gorgon Medusa. Though once you get to know a little of Cellini, you realise its position opposite David is paramount. It’s all part of Cellini’s shadow play, and just one example of the multi-layered story of this amazing sculpture and the man who made it.
Who Was Benvenuto Cellini?
Whilst it’s the much later Caravaggio who is often cited (and lorded) as the troubled bad-boy genius, known for drunkenness, fighting and accused of murder, Benvenuto Cellini – who was born in Florence in 1500 – was an equally wild, vain and troubled character.
Cellini is considered the greatest goldsmith of the Renaissance, in fact the great Michelangelo described him as “the greatest goldsmith of whom we have ever heard“. For Cellini, though, this was not enough, he wanted to be treated on the same level as Michelangelo. Although Cellini was prolific in periods and his genius was clear, what also characterised Cellini was his run-ins with the law. He was repeatedly prosecuted for sodomy, theft, and even murder.
Perseus with the head of Medusa, now regarded as one of the masterpieces of 16th-century Florentine art, has all the hallmarks not just of a great work of art, but that of a fantastic and uniquely Florentine story, too.
Perseus and Medusa
In true Renaissance style, Cellini takes us on a trip back to ancient Greece and the story of how the hero Perseus, shown by Cellini complete with winged sandals gifted from Hermes, satchel (in which he stored the gruesome head) gifted by Athena, met and slayed (without directly facing) the famous gorgon, Medusa. Cellini presents his bronze in all its macabre glory, complete with gushing blood from the severed head he holds, and from the writhing body on which he stands.
“The Bronze Is Starting to Clot!”
Central to the story of the statue is the daring feat and technique Cellini employed, casting the whole sculpture from a single piece of bronze, something rarely done, particularly with a sculpture of such complexity. Though Cellini was competing against monumental works like Michelangelo’s David, he wanted to set himself apart and win his place in Florentine greatness.
The story goes that as the bronze was being cast in Cellini’s workshop, a now elderly and ill Cellini lay incapacitated on his sickbed. A storm broke and in the cool of the night, Cellini’s assistants failed to keep on top of things and the metal began to clot as it cooled. Cellini jumped from his near deathbed, shouting and ordering everything possible to be slung into the fire to raise the heat. Just in time, the heat started to rise and the sculpture was saved. Cellini likened this revival to raising the dead, not only meaning the saving of the great work of art but also the salvation of Cellini himself.
Florentine Politics and Cellini’s Place in Piazza della Signoria
As with much art of the Renaissance, Perseus with the head of Medusa is surrounded by politics and symbology. It was commissioned by the great Cosimo I de’ Medici in 1545, a great artistic patron and advocate of the arts, learning and philosophy. “The statue had a political meaning and represented the power of the Duke who had ‘cut off the head’ of the Republic. Medusa symbolises the Republican experiment and the snakes coming out of her body are the discords that have always affected democracy” (visittuscany.com). All very symbolic and political, celebrating the control of the Medici over the Florentine people through the hero, Perseus.
Though perhaps the most interesting part is the interplay Cellini mastered between his new statue and those of the great masters surrounding it. Presented in the square in 1554, Cellini’s masterstroke was Perseus holding up the head of the gorgon, which in mythology turned unfortunate viewers to stone. And who was it that stood opposite, sculpted in stone? The famous David, of course. Cellini’s Medusa had even reduced the greatest sculptor’s work, giving life to his own in bronze.
See it for Free!
Unlike much of Florence’s great masterpieces, tucked away in the manicured halls of the Uffizi or Accademia, Cellini’s work is out in the open for all to admire. It’s a true privilege and a spine-tingling experience to enter the Piazza della Signoria and explore the statue, revealing itself to you as you walk around it, each angle showing something new, asking a new question of the viewer. Each time you feel you’ve seen it, its essence once again escapes you, leaving only more questions. To me, it is one of the most enigmatic and greatest works of art of the Renaissance, not only for its endless beauty and intrigue but also because of its truly Florentine story of politics, danger, symbology and of course, great beauty.