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Florence, Cellini, and Medici

Perseus with the Head of Medusa is a bronze sculpture completed in 1554 for the Palazzo della Signoria in Florence, Italy. The sculptor was Benvenuto Cellini. That’s not a very familiar name. But I bet his patron’s name will ring a bell. He was Duke Cosimo de Medici. The unimaginable Medic wealth funded a lot of the art from that era. It eventually enabled them to dominate Florence, too. Most see this sculpture as a symbol of that financial and political triumph. In keeping with our dark Halloween theme, it’s fairly graphic and doesn’t spare the gore. Maybe that was meant to be a comment on the Medici or the bloody corpse of the republic they subdued and came to rule.

When Medici first looked at the prototype he was flummoxed. Cellini wanted to make it a single cast. Bronze casting is an insanely demanding process. You have to sculpt an inner and outer clay mold then fill the cavity between them with wax. You then pour hot bronze into that cavity and the wax melts and floods out leaving the bronze to harden in its place. This piece was such a complex design that Medici thought the bronze would clot before it ever filled the mold out. Couldn’t Cellini do the piece in sections then join those finished pieces to solve the complexity problem? Donatello had done that with a piece right there in the same plaza. Cellini rebuffed that suggestion. He said his expertise was such that he could pull it off exactly as planned.

They were both somewhat right, it turns out. The bronze curdled several times and ruined several attempts as the work progressed. Cellini blamed it on the fire not being hot enough and the melted bronze not being liquefied enough. He bet quite a bit on this hunch: to stoke the fire hotter he threw his own wood furniture on the fire. To make the bronze runnier, he melted down several of his own pewter pieces to blend with the bronze. It all paid off, obviously. And he wasn’t shy about basking in the accomplishment. “I could now prove to the Duke how well I knew my business,” is how he put it a while later. He took it to more lofty levels than that, actually, comparing himself to Jesus in how he brought the dead work to new life.

I guess we can overlook his smugness because he achieved something pretty amazing, after all. In any event, it’s a great sculpture that tells three great stories. We can look at it and see a great myth, think about a great republic falling under the spell of one impossibly rich and powerful family, or remember the efforts of one very determined artist.

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