Cellini’s Perseus (1545-54)

Cellini’s bronze sculpture of Perseus Beheading the Medusa was the defining masterpiece of the Florentine sculptor’s career. Much has been written about it but, of particular interest, is Michael Cole’s 1999 article, “Cellini’s Blood”, in which he relates how this was the first major bronze sculpture cast in Florence for half a century.1 The story goes that as Perseus slit the Medusa’s neck, the winged horse Pegasus sprang from her blood and flew up to Zeus in the heavens, thus becoming a symbol for poetic inspiration. In that sense the gushing blood, a notably new element in Cellini’s conception, symbolizes creation and the creative process

Using this insight Cole explains how the blood pouring from the Gorgon’s head can be compared to the hot molten bronze used to cast the sculpture itself. Cellini even suggests in his Autobiography that, by pouring molten metal into his cast, he was vivifying the sculpture with life-giving blood. Cole then cautiously suggests that “the act of pouring that Cellini insisted was at the center of his profession” can be seen in Perseus’ gesture.2 In other words, as Perseus extends his arm while holding the blood-dripping head, the hero is mimicking the gesture of the artist pouring molten metal into the sculptural cast. It is an early example, independently discovered, of how an artist transforms an art-making pose in the studio into a work of art.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Cellini, Perseus Beheading the Medusa (1545-54) Bronze. Piazza della Signoria, Florence.

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In support of Cole I should note a pun of great significance to our understanding of Italian art though I have never seen it mentioned by any art historian. A masterpiece in Italian is capolavoro (literally, head-work) which is what Perseus the artist holds: his very own capolavoro.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Cellini, Perseus Beheading the Medusa (1545-54)

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In addition Perseus as the artist has executed the Gorgon's head and his "work of art" which he now holds up for all to see. Rembrandt and many other artists did likewise. Once the puns are recognized, the resemblance between the faces of Perseus and the Gorgon become significant too: the artist has sculpted himself. And, just as Michelangelo identified with the Virgin as sculptor in his Vatican Pieta by signing his name on the strap across her breast, so Cellini did likewise on the strap across Perseus'. 

Captions for image(s) above:

Cellini, Perseus Beheading the Medusa (1545-54)

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More Works by Cellini

Notes:

1. Michael Cole, "Cellini's Blood", The Art Bulletin 81, June 1999, pp. 215-35

2. ibid. pp. 226-7

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 21 Oct 2010. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.