Perseus holding the head of Medusa is a bronze sculpture by Benvenuto Cellini, inaugurated in 1554 under the Loggia dei Lanzi1, in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. It is considered one of the masterpieces of the artistic Renaissance.
The commission of Perseus with the Head of Medusa
In 1545, Cellini left the court of Francis I to return to Florence. Duke Cosimo I of Tuscany took him into his service and commissioned a statue to add to the masterpieces, including Michelangelo's David, that already adorned the Piazza della Signoria. The subject chosen was the myth of Perseus.
This myth is rich in themes (the exploits of a hero, the inevitable destiny, the curse, the triumph over monstrosity, etc.) that Cosimo I, wishing to leave a strong imprint on Florence, wanted to exploit. The hero Perseus, in fact, fears no adversary and triumphs over all trials.
Cosimo I asked that the head of Medusa be brandished in the air by Perseus, illustrating the triumph of good over evil and symbolizing the victory of the Medici over the republicans of Florence who had expelled them from the city in 1494.
Conception of the work Perseus with the Head of Medusa
Because the elements were too fragile (the wings of the sandals and helmet, the sword with its curved blade, the outstretched arm holding Medusa's head, etc.) to be sculpted in marble, Cellini decided to use art bronze, despite the projected height of six meters.
To facilitate the realization, as well as for aesthetic reasons (the proportions of a six-meter statue would have seemed too excessive), he cut the total height of the statue in two. From the right foot of Perseus to the head of Medusa, the height retained is 3.20 meters, the rest being dedicated to a 3 meter base for the sculpture.
Cellini also set himself the very ambitious challenge of casting the statue in a single block, despite its considerable size, to avoid the pitfalls encountered by Donatello with his sculpture of Judith and Holofernes.
The eleven sections that were cast separately and then welded together did indeed reveal defects (non-uniform color of the alloys, visible welds, varying thickness of the bronze from one section to another, etc.) that Cellini considered unacceptable for his project.
Moreover, since the statue was to be placed under an archway, and not with its back to a wall, he had to ensure that the statue was harmonious from all possible points of view. Finally, he wanted to enrich the theme of Perseus by adding bas-reliefs to the base that would recall different aspects of the myth.
The stages for Perseus with the Head of Medusa
Cellini first tackled Medusa, then Perseus itself, and finally the marble base and the bronze additions that would adorn it.
The challenge is considerable, since the technique of casting a bronze statue of this height has been lost since antiquity. To cast the statue in one piece, Cellini used the lost wax technique. The sculpture is shaped in wax on a hollow earthen mold.
The wax is then covered with a clay cover. The wax is then melted (lost). The bronze is then poured into the gap between the two layers of clay. Once the bronze has cooled, the outer clay shell is split to reveal the statue.
Before attacking the casting of Medusa, Cellini carried out experiments, in particular with the clay that would be used for the molds. He produced a bust of Julius Caesar which confirmed his choices. Then, in order to further ensure his technique and to remain in the good graces of the Duke, he produced a bust of Cosimo I.
Reassured about the quality of the clay, he undertook the casting of Medusa. Since he had to fit Medusa's body on a narrow base, he chose to place it on a shield and a cushion. The cushion recalls the bed where Medusa was surprised by Perseus in her sleep.
The shield evokes the one Athena had given to Perseus to allow him to approach Medusa without being petrified. The body has its legs bent at an unusual angle, its left arm clutched to an ankle and the other falling inertly along the base. From the decapitated neck a stream of blood escapes, a striking sight for the time.
Despite the tension and the fear of failure, Cellini started the realization of Perseus. Because of its size, the statue must be empty, otherwise the weight of the bronze would make it impossible to move. To do this, a special mold is needed.
Cellini first built a framework of iron bars that would solidify the mold and support the metal lattice that would draw the first contours of the statue. He then prepares the clay that will cover the lattice. This earth, from the area around Florence, was carefully chosen and first prepared with cloth stuffing. After mixing it to a smooth paste, Cellini watered and kneaded it for several months. The cloth stuffing eventually rots and gives the mixture a smooth, soft texture that is easy to work with. The clay obtained in this way will dry uniformly, without risk of causing imperfections in the casting. When Cellini considers it ready, he applies the clay to the framework and shapes it for several hours to form the clay core of the mold. The core must be completely dry before it can be covered with wax. The mold dries first in the open air, without cracking. Then it is heated over a fire to remove any moisture that could cause the core to burst when the bronze is poured.
The next step is to cover the clay core with a layer of wax to the thickness of the metal desired for the sculpture. The malleable wax is also used to shape all the details of the statue (facial features, musculature, visible veins, etc.) that will be fixed by the bronze. The wax itself is the object of care and meticulous preparation. It must be smooth and malleable at the time of application. It must then dry solidly to be able to support the clay covering that will cover it. No mistake is allowed, because the final result depends in large part on this shaping of the wax.
Once this work is done, which already reveals the final appearance of the work, it is necessary to cover the core and the wax with an envelope of earth. At this stage, it is important to provide a system of tubes through which the molten metal will flow down into all areas of the mold, while allowing air to escape. These pipes are also made of wax, before being covered with earth.
In order not to damage the wax, and therefore damage the sculpture, it is first covered with a protective mixture of calcined sheep horn marrow, plaster, ground Tripoli rock, iron filings and water filtered through a sieve of horse dung. The resulting preparation is applied with a brush made of pig bristles. The operation is repeated several days in a row, layer by very thin layer, which is left to dry between each application. This protective layer can then receive successive coatings of earth, while preserving the design of the wax, thus protected.
Now the wax trapped between the core and the outer layer must be removed. It is this gap that will then be filled by the bronze at the time of casting. A first drying with fire takes place. Then, a four-meter high furnace is built around the mold to complete the drying process. The wax flows out through the tubes created by the wax sticks. The mold is finally ready to receive the bronze.
The casting of bronze
Before casting, it is necessary to bury the mold. As it is very high and as the molten metal must be poured from above so that it reaches the lower parts of the statue by gravity, there is no other solution than to bury the mold at the foot of the furnace where the metal will be melted.
Moreover, this protects the mold from bursting when two tons of metal are poured in. This solution also offers a better guarantee that the metal will not cool down too quickly, as the mold is uniformly insulated. This improves the chances of the metal reaching the farthest reaches.
It took six months to bury the mold and build the huge furnace where the metal would melt. The pit for the mold is dug with a pick and shovel to a depth of nearly four meters. The mold was then lowered with the help of a winch and an imposing scaffold.
It was necessary to avoid any shock to the mold, because the slightest crack would have obliged to start all over again. After several attempts, Cellini, with his workers and with the help of powerful ropes, managed to position the mold in the bottom of the pit.
The furnace itself was made with great care, taking into account the choice of bricks, their arrangement, the general shape of the furnace, the sufficient volume to receive all the necessary metal, the openings for pouring and burning the metal, and the orifice for pouring the metal into the mold.
Five years had already passed since Cosimo I had commissioned Cellini for the Perseus. The tension was sharp with the duke. Cellini was the object of a cabal in front of this project that all qualified of insane and unrealizable. In spite of everything, Cellini persists, his glory and his honor being in stake. In case of failure, he would be banished from Florence and could no longer practice his profession.
On the day of the casting, the mold is buried with a mixture of earth and sand. The openings in the mold are extended with sandstone pipes so that they are not blocked by the earth and thus allow the evacuation of gas and air. It is important to cast as soon as possible before moisture attacks the mold. The ingots of copper, brass and tin (two tons in total) are placed in the furnace. Cellini's entire team is at work.
The fire is lit and the metal begins to melt and fuse. But the furnace was so hot that the thatch on the roof began to burn. The rain, which had begun to fall, helped to contain the fire; however, it threatened to penetrate the mould, which had to be avoided at all costs. A battle of wits ensued. After several hours of hard work and a moment of exhaustion for Cellini, the molten bronze began to coagulate, making it impossible to cast.
On the verge of a crisis in the face of the threat of an abysmal failure, Cellini threw oak logs into the furnace, which gave off more heat. He succeeded in breaking the crust that had formed on the surface, but the lid of the overheated furnace burst and rekindled the risk of fire.
The casting must be done as soon as possible. But the metal is still too thick and does not flow fast enough. Cellini adds more tin and the mold finally begins to fill. All the metal in the furnace is used. The mold is completely filled. The casting is finished.
After two days of cooling, the mold is dug up and taken out of the pit with the same winch that was used to lower it. Cellini proceeds to break the mold to reveal the statue. As Cellini had foreseen, only the right foot of Perseus - the area furthest from the opening - had not received enough metal. The following months were devoted to completing the foot, casting the sword and the wings of the helmet and sandals, attaching them to the statue, chiseling the details damaged by the casting and polishing the surface (3.20 m high).
The base of Perseus with the Head of Medusa
Cellini had planned to complete his work with a majestic marble base three meters high. He created four niches of about one meter on each side of the rectangular block. In the niches, he installed statues of Mercury, Minerva, Jupiter and Danae with her son Perseus.
The block itself is carved with garlands, ram heads, shells and busts of goddesses. Finally, a bronze bas-relief illustrating the liberation of Andromeda by Perseus is installed on the base of the pedestal.
The unveiling of Perseus with the Head of Medusa
It took another five years to complete the plinth and install it in the arcade of the Loggia dei Lanzi. The transportation of the three heavy sections, Medusa, Perseus and the plinth, is delicate and arduous. It attracts moreover the curiosity. Cellini resisted pressure to reveal the work until the assembly was complete.
The tarpaulin covering the work was finally removed on April 27, 1554, nine years after the commission. Without ceremony, Perseus appeared to the crowd of onlookers right in front of the David, giving the impression that the head of the Medusa had petrified Michelangelo's work.
The reception was triumphant. Even Cosimo I expressed his satisfaction to Cellini. The settlement of the work, however, rekindled the animosity between the two men, due to poorly conducted negotiations. Cellini will never receive any more important orders.
Today, the Perseus is considered an authentic masterpiece and a technical feat, and still stands in its original location. The work was restored in 2000, on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of Cellini's birth.