by Barbara Palladino
Charlie Chaplin once told the story of when he saw one of the most amazing wonders in his life: “One night, with the square all lit up, I was drawn to the David by Michelangelo. But as soon as I saw Perseus, everything else faded away. I was charmed by the extraordinary balance in his magnificent proportions. Perseus, holding up the head of Medusa with her pathetic body twisted at his feet, is the epitome of sadness. It made me think of Oscar Wilde’s mystical verse, ‘Yet each man kills the thing he loves’. In the fight against that eternal mystery, good and evil, he had reached his goal.”
Chaplin was describing the Perseus with Head of Medusa, sculpted between 1545 and 1554 by Benvenuto Cellini, one of the greatest sculptors and goldsmiths of his time. It was ordered by Cosimo I after he became Duke of Florence, and placed in the city’s central Piazza della Signoria, under the Loggia dei Lanzi. It is one of the highest examples of mannerism, which was popular at the time, but also had a political meaning: the beheaded Medusa represents the Republican experiment, which Cosimo I clearly did away with, while the snakes coming out of the Gorgon’s body symbolize the disagreements in the city, which threatened democracy.
The statue is famous for the long and complex melting process required to complete it: a feat even Cellini himself described as “almost epic” in his autobiography, “La Vita”. The task was carried out during a storm. The artist was exhausted by work and weakened by a fever, probably caused by the metal fumes, and was forced to delegate the final stages of the project to his assistants. The furnace became so hot that the roof of the workshop started burning, and the rain pouring in put out the fire in the furnace. Cellini was called by his helpers, and though completely drained he tried to fix the furnace – which exploded. At that point, the artist put in it all the tin dishes he owned – a total of two hundred pieces. The metal liquefied again and finally the melting was completed.
This story and its many plot twists went down in history as much as the masterpiece it resulted in: a wonderful work of art and obvious proof of the author’s skills. Indeed, the sculpture is so rich of details that only a goldsmith could design it in such small scale and then make it as large as it is.
Placed on a pedestal decorated with wonderful small bronze statues of the gods connected to the legend of Perseus, the statue was meant to look down at the person looking at it. On the back of the Greek hero’s head is a sorrowful self-portrait of Cellini himself.
It is believed that Perseus with the Head of Medusa is the only statue now in the Loggia dei Lanzi to have been design exactly for that location.
Perseus with the Head of Medusa
Piazza della Signoria