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  • Gavin Whitehead

The Herculean Labor of Sculpting the Perseus

The Perseus of Benvenuto Cellini is justly considered a masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture. Believe it or not, this statue almost never existed. From start to finish, sculpting the Perseus proved a Herculean labor, as dogged oppostion from Cellini's own patron, life-threatening illness, and the sheer enormity of the artist's ambitions conspired against him. Full transcript below.

Above: A replica of the Perseus, now in the PIazza della Signoria.



Welcome to part 2 of the “Rabbit Hole” series. As I mentioned last time, I’m releasing two bite-sized episodes this month to tide you over until season 3 of The Art of Crime kicks off in early January. In each of these “Rabbit Holes,” I’m sharing a wild story I came across while researching the podcast but had to cut from the final product. Today, I want to tell you the remarkable story of the Perseus, the sixteenth-century bronze sculpture by Renaissance man (and devil-may-care murderer) Benvenuto Cellini. We talked about the Perseus in passing, earlier this season, but there was a lot more to say about the trials Cellini endured as he conceived and finally sculpted this monument. Before you listen to the rest of this episode, I strongly recommend that you check out a picture of the Perseus. You can find one on the Art of Crime website—just look in the show notes for the episode about Cellini, titled “The Life and Crimes of a Casual Necromancer.” The Perseus is justly considered one of the masterworks of Renaissance sculpture, and believe it or not, it almost never existed.

Our story unfolds in Cellini’s birthplace, Florence. In 1545, he returned to that city after smithing in the court of King François I of France. Cellini went home to Florence largely because he wanted to support his impoverished sister and brother-in-law. By this point, the married couple had pawned most of their worldly goods to raise their six young daughters.

To provide financial aid, Cellini would need a commission. So he wasted no time in seeking out the Duke of Florence, Cosimo I de’ Medici. At their first meeting, the Duke charged Cellini with what would become the artist’s most significant creation: a bronze statue of the Greco-Roman hero Perseus, mythical killer of Medusa. In a clear indication of the prestige of this assignment, Cosimo planned to locate the Perseus in the city’s most important public square, the Piazza de la Signoria. This bustling plaza was home not only to a Ducal palace, the Palazzo Vecchio, but also to some of Florence’s most celebrated sculptures, including Michelangelo’s David and Donatello’s Judith Beheading Holofernes. Cellini would be joining this most august company.

For Cosimo, the statue would glorify him and the house of the Medicis. In recent years, Cosimo’s predecessor, Alessandro de’ Medici, had helped transform the republic of Florence into a dictatorship. In the process, Alessandro forged a connection between the image of Perseus slaying Medusa and the Medici clan. Etched on medals and displayed around the city, this emblem belonged to a larger body of propaganda that championed Alessandro’s bloodthirsty pursuit of military victory and his eminence as protector of Florence. By commissioning the sculpture, Cosimo drew on these ties between Perseus and the might of the Medici dynasty.

Cellini had little to no interest in glorifying his patron or his patron’s family. Cellini was more interested in glorifying himself. At this point in his career, Cellini had worked for both the pope and the king of France. And yet he had never undertaken a project as meaningful as the Perseus. Part of this had to do with location. This sculpture would become the first public work that he had created in his birthplace. But there was more to it than that. Cellini primarily worked as a goldsmith, and in that capacity, he usually produced smaller objects—rings, necklaces, cups, furnishings, and so forth—often worn by a single individual or exhibited in the patron’s private residence. Partly for these reasons, the output of goldsmiths was considered less prestigious than that of painters and sculptors. In contrast to Cellini’s earlier creations, the Perseus would stand prominently in the city, visible to both Florentines and foreign visitors alike. If Cellini delivered the goods, he could ascend to the heights of Donatello or Michelangelo.

First, he needed Cosimo’s approval on a design. In what would become a recurring pattern throughout this long and agonizing process, patron and artist had divergent ideas about the artwork. Cosimo imagined a statue of Perseus standing alone. Cellini, by contrast, envisioned a more dramatic spectacle. In his design, Perseus would exult over the decapitated corpse of Medusa, a blade in one hand and the Gorgon’s severed head in the other.

Impressed by the proposal, Cosimo gave the go-ahead. As soon became plain, Cellini’s genius would not come cheap. To realize his vision, Cellini required a new house that could accommodate a workshop, a monthly stipend, and additional funding to pay for assistants and equipment. Upon completion of the Perseus, Cellini also expected a final lump-sum payment. Cosimo nodded his head and made every assurance that he would cover these costs. These straightforward negotiations could not have prepared Cellini for the hell that awaited him—a hell in which his own patron became one of his most formidable obstacles.

Cosimo talked a big game about funding the project but soon proved capricious, neglectful, and miserly in the extreme. To make a bronze monument of the size and complexity of the Perseus, Cellin required a large workshop. After much searching, he located a house with an adjacent orchard. The artist reckoned that he could live inside the dwelling and build a workshop on the land next to it after uprooting the trees and cutting away the grapevines. Cellini petitioned the Duke to buy the property. But this expense gave rise to others. The property abutted an orchard, and hired hands would have to fell those trees. On top of that, the artist needed building materials to repurpose the house as a workshop. To the artist’s dismay, Cosimo farmed out these requests to his hideous paymaster, Lattanzio Gorini, “a little wimp of a man,” Cellini writes, “with his spidery hands, a tiny little voice like a mosquito and the rapidity of a snail.” This feckless laggard took his sweet time in acquiring the all-important house and then presented Cellini with wildly inadequate construction materials—“stones, sand, and lime that would have sufficed only with great difficulty for erecting a pigeon coop.” As for the orchard, Gorini failed to hire even a single laborer for the task of uprooting it. Cellini was forced to pay out of his own pocket. Before long, he doubted whether he could count on the monthly stipend Cosimo had promised.

In his autobiography, Cellini gripes endlessly about Cosimo’s stinginess, which delayed his project by years. This was just one of the problems he had with the Duke. Others arose because of Cellini’s bitter enemy, the sculptor Baccio Bandinelli, a competitor for Cosimo’s patronage who never missed a chance to badmouth Cellini. Due to Bandinelli’s constant backbiting, the Duke doubted Cellini. The Duke’s recurring crises of confidence led to cuts in Cellini’s funding. Annoyingly, moreover, Cosimo fancied himself an expert in bronze sculpture and considered it necessary to micromanage Cellini at every step of the process. He would barge into his workshop whenever he wanted mostly just to question the basic competence of the artist. In 1547, Cellini cast the headless body of Medusa—he had always planned to cast the rest of the monument separately. Before Cellini carried out this task, however, Cosimo insultingly suggested that he hire a more skilled artisan for the job. Even after the Medusa came out to the Duke’s satisfaction, Cosimo continued to doubt whether Cellini could finish the sculpture.

Two years later, as Cellini prepared to cast the remainder of the sculpture, the Duke inflicted his opinions on Cellini yet again. Despite having okayed the intended designs years earlier, the Duke was now 100% certain that due to the composition of the piece, Medusa’s head would come out in better condition than that of Perseus. “‘Benvenuto,’” the Duke explained, “‘this figure cannot come out in bronze, since the rules of this craft do not permit it.’ His Excellency’s words greatly offended me,” Cellini continues, “and I replied, ‘My Lord, I know that Your Most Illustrious Excellency has little faith in me; and this, I believe, comes about either because Your Most Illustrious Excellency far too easily believes those people who speak so much evil of me [that is, Bandinelli], or because you do not understand the matter.” Cosimo was outraged. As a patron of the arts, he knew what it took to cast a bronze. Delicately yet devastatingly, Cellini told Cosimo that actually the Duke knew how to pay someone else to cast in bronze: “Yes, you do [know about this process], but as a nobleman and not a craftsman.”

Amid the ongoing conflicts with his patron, other setbacks conspired to stall Cellini. His brother-in-law passed away, making him the guardian of his sister and six nieces. The goldsmith suffered a bout of debilitating backpain. Cosimo’s wife, Eleanor of Toledo, kept asking him to make jewelry, and of course Cellini could hardly refuse a duchess. At one point, she even suggested that he quiet-quit the Perseus until her husband forgot about the project. Then there was the hindrance of his own ambitions: it took time to figure out how to cast a visionary sculpture of this size. For example, Cellini invented a new kind of furnace for the task, which burnt through months of trial and error.

Finally, nine full years after embarking on this enterprise, Cellini was ready to cast the figure of Perseus. The end product would represent the crowning achievement—or the greatest disaster—of his career.

In the weeks leading up to the casting, Cellini toiled around the clock. He traveled to the countryside to cut down pine trees that would fuel the fire of his experimental furnace, hauling the lumber back to Florence. He assembled a team of assistants to aid him in his Herculean labor. AT last, all was in place, and then, just as Cellini commenced the casting, he came down with an all-consuming fever. On the brink of physical collapse, he had no choice but to rest. He instructed his team on how to complete the process and staggered upstairs to bed.

Violently ill, Cellini despaired, afraid that he would die. Acting as his nurse, his long-suffering housekeeper assured him that he would survive and gently scolded him for making matters worse by worrying himself. As Cellini slept a fitful, febrile sleep, he suddenly saw a strange-looking man by his bedside, probably a figment of his fevered imagination. “His body seemed to be as twisted as a capital S; and he began to speak in a particular tone of sorrow and affliction, like men who give comfort to those who are condemned to death. And he said, ‘Oh, Benvenuto, your work is ruined, and there’s no way out of it at all!’” Terrified, Cellini sat bolt-upright in bed and let out a scream that you could hear from outer space, to paraphrase the goldsmith.

Cellini pulled on some clothes and stumbled downstairs, entering his workshop to discover that his helpers had bungled the job. As we discussed in “The Life and Crimes of a Casual Necromancer,” casting in bronze requires you to pour the molten metal into a mold in the shape of the intended figure. To simplify a bit, Cellini’s assistants had botched this procedure, and now the molten bronze was hardening before it was supposed to, placing the entire sculpture in jeopardy. Shoving his way forward, Cellini went into damage-control mode, his life-threatening fever entirely forgotten. Of paramount importance was to reheat the bronze so that it wouldn’t coagulate. To that end, the artist sent two employees across the street to the home of a butcher, who kept a stash of extremely combustible, bone-dry oakwood. As multiple assistants heaped the new fuel source into the furnace, the fire raged with renewed ferocity. To Cellini’s relief, the intense heat prevented the bronze from prematurely hardening. Within minutes, however, the action that had saved the Perseus threatened to destroy it. The blaze was growing too hot, and Cellini watched in horror as cracks appeared in his furnace. Soon, parts of the apparatus were melting.

The worst was yet to come. Cellini recalls, “All of a sudden, we heard a noise accompanied by an enormous flash of fire, as if a thunderbolt had been produced there in our very presence. The extraordinary and terrifying fear that this brought about dismayed everyone, and I more than others. When this enormous noise and brightness had passed we began to look one another in the face again; and when we saw that the cover of the furnace had exploded and been lifted in such a way that the bronze had overflowed, I immediately had the mouths of my mould opened, and at the same time drove in two plugs.” Somehow keeping his wits about him, Cellini thought up a way of compensating for the bronze he had lost. The sculptor ordered his servants to fetch every piece of pewter in the house—platters, plates, cups, everything. In an all-out frenzy, he melted down 200 pounds of pewter, allowing it to drip down into the mold. Cellini kept it up until an hour or two before dawn. Then, all he could do was wait for the metal to cool so that he could see how the statue came out. The next few hours would feel interminable.

By a small miracle, the Perseus emerged in nearly perfect condition. The only exception were a few blemishes on one of the feet, which Cellini could remedy easily enough. He sent word to his most excellent and obnoxious patron, Duke Cosimo, all too ready to garner praise after years of doubt. Cellini had the sculpture erected in his garden, where Cosimo viewed it. It was a masterwork—anybody could see that—and yet the Duke was unwilling to say so. He thought it was good, sure, but he couldn’t know if it was really good until the people of Florence had issued a verdict. Only their approval could confirm its greatness. Reading the autobiography, it’s hard not to think, “Excuse me? Just twenty pages ago, you were Duke-splaining the art of metalwork to Cellini. Shouldn’t you, a connoisseur, know what will and will not succeed?”

His lack of critical judgment notwithstanding, Cosimo did have some reason to fret over the reception of the Perseus. As both Cosimo and Cellini would have known, the unveiling of a new public monument in Florence could spell disaster for both artist and patron. Cellini relates with relish that his adversary, Bandinelli, learned this the hard way. Several years earlier, Bandinelli introduced a marble sculpture of Hercules in the Piazza de la Signoria, the very same square where the Perseus would debut. In keeping with tradition, the walls of the square served the same purpose as the comments section of a YouTube video. If a new artwork was a hit, admirers wrote sonnets in rhapsodic praise of it, posting them on a wall nearby. But if a new statue bombed, well… Just ask Bandinelli what happened then. His Hercules was so god-awful that his detractors hung reams of trash-talking sonnets next to it, tearing apart its every flaw. The Florentines had strong opinions about art, and they were not about to keep them to themselves.

It was for this reason that Cosimo made another asinine proposal. He ordered what can only be referred to as a soft-launch for the Perseus. Rather than a grand revelation, Cosimo proposed that Cellini leave the sculpture only partially exposed to viewers. This teaser-trailer, Cosimo reasoned, would allow him and Cellini to gauge the public’s reaction. The sculptor thoroughly hated the idea, but as often happens, the patron prevailed. The statue was transferred to the Piazza, where the people of Florence were treated to a peak at one side of the Perseus. Despite the absurd method of presentation, it was clear how the public felt: they loved it. The full unveiling was an even greater success. The Perseus was showered in laudatory sonnets, in Italian, Latin, and Greek, many of them penned by students on vacation from the University of Pisa. Cellini appended copies of some of these poems in his treatise on goldsmithing, written after his autobiography. Fellow artist Bronzino had this to say: “You have portrayed Perseus / And the work appears to our eyes divine / Since it combines the good with the beautiful / It is the supreme glory of your sweet sufferings.”

Cellini had suffered to create the Perseus, and there wasn’t much sweet about it. Still, his sufferings yielded a masterpiece so enduring that it ensured his fame centuries after his death—and will likely do so for centuries to come.


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