Standing in Loggia dei Lanzi of the famous Piazza della Signoria in Florence, Italy, ‘Perseus with the Head of Medusa’ is one of sculptor Benvenuto Cellini’s most famous works. It depicts the dark and foreboding bronze of the Greek hero Perseus holding up the severed and bloody head of the gorgon Medusa, which gazes at the other statues around it as if she has turned them to stone.
Commissioned by Duke Cosimo I de Medici and unveiled in 1554, it is one of the most significant examples of Italian Mannerist sculpture in existence and is rich in symbolism. However, since it is located near other Renaissance masterpieces such as Michelangelo’s David, Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus and Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes, it is often overlooked.
Nonetheless, it is still recognised by many as a masterpiece. Charlie Chaplin once remarked, “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.”
Here’s the history of Cellini’s masterpiece.
Who sculpted Perseus with the Head of Medusa?
Benvenuto Cellini, who sculpted Perseus with the Head of Medusa, boasts a reputation as a troubled genius. He had many brushes with the law in his lifetime and has been variously described as vain and wild.
Born in Florence in 1500, Cellini was banished aged 16 for taking part in an affray (public fighting). In 1548, he was accused by a woman of having committed sodomy with her son. He subsequently fled to Venice. In total, he was accused of sodomy once with a woman and at least three times with men during his lifetime, and was once sentenced to pay 12 staia of flour.
He also confesses to three murders in The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, stating that he stabbed his brother’s murderer to death, killed a rival goldsmith and shot an innkeeper dead.
His life was as notable as his sculptures: one critic wrote, “other goldsmiths have done finer work, but Benvenuto Cellini is the author of the most delightful autobiography ever written.”
Where is Perseus with the Head of Medusa located?
Benvenuto Cellini sculpted Perseus with the Head of Medusa between 1545 and 1554. It was commissioned by the Duke of Florence Cosimo I, who was a significant patron and advocate for the arts, learning and philosophy.
The statue was placed in the city’s central Piazza della Signoria, under the Loggia dei Lanzi, which was and continues to be a centre of political focus in the city. The location was and still is home to other statues, all politically or artistically related to each other and the Medici.
What does Perseus with the Head of Medusa symbolise?
The beheaded Medusa underneath Perseus’ feet represents the Republic that the Medici faction overthrew in 1434 under Cosimo, while the snakes coming out of the gorgon’s body symbolise the disagreements in the city which threatened democracy.
Most symbolic is Perseus himself, who, a domineering figure, celebrates the control of the Medici over the Florentine people entirely.
The sculpture’s relief panel also pays tribute to other Medici family members. Perseus on the relief represents Duke Francesco while Andromeda represents his Hapsburg wife, Giovanna. Similarly, Andromeda is an allegory for Florence, while Perseus represents the Medici dynasty swooping down to save the city.
Moreover, Perseus with the Head of Medusa is surrounded by three huge marble statues of Hercules, David and later Neptune. Cellini breathes further life into his creation by suggesting that his mighty Medusa turned the other sculptors’ creations to stone. Finally, as a nod to the creator, Cellini depicts himself in a self-portrait on the back of Perseus’ helmet.
How was Perseus with the Head of Medusa made?
At the time Cellini’s sculpture was created, bronze had not been used for a monumental work of art for almost half a century. Cellini was keen to be regarded as highly as other famous Renaissance sculptors such as Michelangelo, so decided to complete the entire cast all at once, rather than in separate parts.
The story goes that as the bronze was being cast in Cellini’s workshop, the incapacitated sculptor lay dying on his sickbed. A storm broke at night, and his assistants failed to notice that the metal was beginning to clot as it cooled. Cellini jumped from his bed and ordered that everything be thrown into the fire to raise the heat. It worked, and the sculpture was saved.
Cellini likened this revival to raising the dead, both because he saved a great work of art but also because he himself was raised from his deathbed.
Once the sculpture was cooled, a long polishing process which started in 1549 was required. It was finally completed in 1554 and then presented in the square to great acclaim.