In August 1545 Cellini was commissioned to make a bronze Perseus. Perseus, a demigod, was considered the founder of the Medici family. The beheading of Medusa can easily be compared to the way Duke Cosimo eliminated his opponents. The regime under this Duke was extremely strict and many heads rolled, including those of members of important families. For Benvenuto Cellini, this assignment was an excellent opportunity. He could now compete with the greatest sculptors of quattrocento and cinquecento: Donatello and Michelangelo. He was also able to show that his contemporary Bandinelli with his Hercules and Cacus was far below his level. At the time Cellini was commissioned by Perseus, the Judit and Holofernes of Donatello stood near the western arch of the Loggia dei Lanzi. Michelangelo’s David was left of the entrance on the ringhiera (raised stage that was later demolished) and to its right, also on the stage, was the Hercules and Cacus. The Marzocco from the thirteenth century stood on the far left on the ringhiera.
Cellini versus Bandinelli
The relationship between Benvenuto Cellini and Baccio Bandinelli was not very friendly. In his autobiography, Cellini speaks eagerly and extensively about every event in which Bandinelli had to suffer a defeat. When Benvenuto returned to Florence in 1545, he discovered that Baccio had become the sculptor of Florence. Cellini will of course become the great challenger and competitor of Bandinelli. Benvenuto: ‘I have reached a level where only one is better than I am.’ This was of course Michelangelo Buonarroti. Benvenuto calls Baccio a big dummy. In his book, Cellini, when working on his Perseus for the Duke Cosimo, writes about Bandinelli: ‘However, out of raging envy Bandinelli spoke to his highness all day long of stories that I could cast some statues separately, but that I would never manage to assemble the group [Perseus and Medusa] because I was a newcomer in that profession; his highness had to be careful not to throw his money away.’
Cellini also depicted himself on the back of Perseus head. Bandinelli’s whisperings did impress Cosimo, because ‘the duke who had often come to see the Medusa was terrified that I would not succeed in casting it and therefore wanted me to hire a professional to cast the statue for me.’ (Cellini 278). Of course Benvenuto did not leave himself indifferent when it came to the artist Baccio Bandinelli as we can read in his autobiography:
“And so I said: You must know, my monarch, that the block from which Bandinelli made his Hercules and Cacus was carved for the divine Michelangelo Buonarroti who had designed a model for a Samson, a group of four figures, which would have become the most beautiful work of art in the whole world. That Bandinelli of yours only carved two figures out of it, and moreover, they are of poor craftsmanship; the indignation of our school [Florentine] about the great injustice done to the beautiful marble has not yet been eased’ […] ‘The talented artists of our Florentine school say that, if one shaved Hercules’ hair, there would not be enough skull left to contain his brain.” Translated from: Benvenuto Cellini, ‘Het leven van Benvenuto Cellini’, Querido, Amsterdam 1969 (eerste publicatie 1728, written end 16th century) blz. 397 en 354
At that time, Donatello’s Judith was in the Loggia dei Lanzi in the spot where now the Sabine Virgin robbery of Giambologna can be seen. Perseus was designed to fit into the arches of the Loggia dei Lanzi.
Two models of the Perseus
We have already looked at two models in the Bargello, one of wax and the other of bronze, which Cellini made for his Perseus. The wax model shows that Cellini’s design by Perseus is clearly based on the Judit and Holofernes by Donatello. Both heroes stand with raised arm and the victim below them, although the pillow is not yet visible in the wax model. This wax model convinced Cosimo and, after seeing this model, he commissioned Cellini to make a bronze statue of Perseus. The Duke spoke: ‘My dear Benvenuto, if you can translate this small model to a larger scale, it will be the most beautiful statue of the square.” (Cellini 340)
The Perseus was admired by contemporaries. Benvenuto himself writes the following about it: ‘But what gave me the greatest satisfaction and hope for the Duke’s favour was that artists, sculptors as well as painters, competed to see who would pay the highest praise to my work.’ (Cellini 40)
Afterwards, this Cellini made a full-size Perseus plaster model, but the artist decided not to use it, because it was far too cumbersome and would take too much time. Then, (Medusa and Perseus are cast separately) he started ‘with the figure of the Medusa and made an iron fitting for it; I modelled the figure on it in clay and when I finished doing so, I baked this model. The only help I had were a few apprentices, one of whom, a son of a prostitute, called La Gambetta, was very beautiful. I also used that little boy as a model, because Nature is the only book from which we can learn art.’ (Cellini 334)
Casting Perseus: an extremely risky business
At that time, Perseus was the most complex sculpture ever cast. Donatello had cast his Louis of Toulouse in no less than eleven parts. It was for good reason that the client, Duke Cosimo, recommended Benvenuto to hire a professional. During casting, the bronze would cool down so that the bronze would not penetrate into the lower parts such as the legs or feet. Cellini told the sovereign that he would succeed, but that there might be a problem at Perseus’ feet. Don’t forget that at that time the temperature of bronze could not yet be raised to such a high level that coagulation was almost non-existent. Cellini used the direct (or lost wax) method for casting. This goes as follows:
1. First, the inner core (the model) is made slightly smaller than the statue. The composition of this core could change, and could consist of clay, mixed with pieces of dust, fabrics, hair, urine and horse manure. It’s important to note that this core does not crack or tear while it dries and yet is easy to model. In addition, the core must be porous enough to absorb the gases released during the melting of the metal.
2. A layer of wax is placed over the inner core, exactly as thick as the statue should be. In his book, Benvenuto speaks of half a finger thick. The wax layer is finely modelled. This layer melts when casting the bronze.
3. The third and outer layer is of very fine clay, almost liquid, and gets layered on the wax layer and ‘brushed in’ as it were, layer after layer so that this last layer becomes thicker and rougher. Then, several thin sticks or twigs are inserted through the outer mantle into the inner core to prevent anything from sliding during casting and the outer mantle from sliding against the inner one.
4. Finally, thin air ducts are made for the discharge of gas and warm air, but also to let the wax flow away. The top gets the casting head in which the glowing and liquid bronze is poured. The outer mantle is heated so that the wax melts slowly. A too rapid heating of wax causes fire, which would make the details disappear. The bronze, a mixture of copper, tin, lead and some zinc is then poured into the hot mould via a casting head. When the outer mantle is removed, the sculpture looks rather rough. The casting head and the air ducts must first be removed and then the rough casting model still needs some serious work. This is evident when looking at a statue (56 cm) of a horse rider from the seventeenth century by the Dutch sculptor Martin van den Bogaert (also known as Desjardins).
In his book, Benvenuto Cellini extensively discusses the casting of Perseus, where initially everything seemed to go wrong. In the night after the bronze was poured into the mould and he went to sleep, Cellini was roughly awakened to the sound of:
“[…] Your work is corrupted and there is no mortal in the world who can save it. Hardly had I heard the words of that wretched man, or I cried so loudly that they could have been heard in the heaven of fire. I flew out of bed, took my clothes, and began to dress myself; to my girls, my servant, and everyone who came near me, I dealt out flurries of my fist, crying out lamentably: jealous traitors! This is an angry betrayal, but I swear to God that I will discover the culprits and before I die I will give the world such a sample of my ability that many will be amazed’ […] ‘I went straight to the furnace and saw that the metal had solidified into what in technical terms is called a lump. I sent two servants to the other side, to the house of the butcher Capretta, to get a young oak wood that had been drying for more than a year and that Madonna Ginevra, Capretta’s wife, had offered me. As soon as the first armful arrived I threw it in the ash-pit; under the grid of the oven. This kind of wood gives a hotter fire than any other wood and so, contrarily, alder or pine wood is used for the casting of artillery, since it needs a soft fire. Oh how the lump began to glow and smoulder. In the meantime I had some workers prepare the drainage channels [this allows the wax layer to drain away]; others I sent up the roof to extinguish the fire that had been rekindled by the greater heat of the fire, while I nailed planks to the garden side and hung up carpets and rags to keep out the rain.” Translated from: Benvenuto Cellini, ‘Het leven van Benvenuto Cellini’, Querido, Amsterdam 1969 (eerste publicatie 1728, written end 16th century) blz. 362 – 363
And yes, according to Cellini the lump did indeed begin to melt, but unfortunately the bronze alloy was no good and:
Head of Perseus Back of Perseus head
“Suddenly we heard a loud bang and saw an enormous flame of fire, as if lightning had struck our midst. Everyone was shocked by this unusual and terrifying phenomenon and I was even more shocked than the others. Only when the heavy noise was over and the luminous flames disappeared did we look at each other again. I saw that the lid of the furnace had been popped open and flown upwards with the result that the bronze started to overflow, so I immediately opened the mouths of my mould and at the same time bumped away two plugs.I noticed, however, that the metal did not flow down as fast as usual and that the cause of this might have been that the alloy had been consumed by the heavy fire. That’s why I had all my tin plates, saucers and dishes, about two hundred pieces, fetched and some of them I tossed straight into the drainage channels, and another part in the furnace. Since everyone saw that the entire bronze mass had melted excellently and my mould began to fill up, all my employees helped and obeyed me with zeal and joy.” Translated from: Benvenuto Cellini, ‘Het leven van Benvenuto Cellini’, Querido, Amsterdam 1969 (eerste publicatie 1728, written end 16th century) blz. 364
The figure Perseus came out almost entirely except for a part of the right foot.
Perseus: a statue with an infinite number of sides?
According to Pope-Hennessy, there is a widespread misconception that Perseus is a kinetic work of art ( Pope-Hennessy 133). The statue allegedly has an infinite number of facial angles, each of which is equally fantastic. This seems to be confirmed by a poem by Benvenuto in which he writes about a statue with a thousand angles of view. Yet Cellini sees this very differently. For example, in a letter from 1549 he writes that: ‘[…] the art of sculpting is seven times as great as any other art that depends on a design, because a sculpture must have eight angles of vision and they must all be equally beautiful.’ Cellini himself also writes about the multiple sides of a sculpture. When Cosimo I is confronted with the model of the Neptune Fountain, he mentions in his book: ‘walked around it, and remained standing towards the four points of view, just as a highly experienced art connoisseur would have done.’ (Cellini). Just like the Judith of Donatello, Perseus is also standing on a square base: the pillow, and so there are four angles of vision.
The pedestal of Perseus
For each of the four recesses of the high pedestal, Cellini made figures that had a lot to do with the legend of Perseus: Jupiter the father of Perseus and Athena, Mercury who protected Perseus during his search for Medusa and Danaë the mother of Perseus and Minerva. We have already looked at the original statues for the recesses of the pedestal in the Bargello.
Cellini manages to place these statues in the recesses of the pedestal. He did this when Eleonora was away from Florence for a while. The Duchess Eleonora was so impressed by the statues that she wanted to put them in her palace.
Perseus, the body of Medusa and the figures in the recesses of the pedestal are well attuned to each other.
The relief on the front shows, once again, the hero Perseus. He dives down from the sky at full speed with a raised sword to save the poor princess Andromeda. She is in danger of being devoured by a nasty sea monster.
We now look at the statue on the far right in the Loggia dei Lanzi of a sculptor from Flanders who would become a successful artist in Italy. We have already looked at the model of this Fleming in the Accademia.