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My name is Bernardino Mannellini. I am now working on my own trying to succeed as a sculptor here in Rome. I have found the job extremely difficult, but it was expected after my apprenticeship with the great sculptor, Benvenuto Cellini. He was not the most famous but was equally deserving as such great sculptors as Michel Agnolo Buonarroti. This is why I write to you today. Cellini produced one of the most beautiful works of this time in his masterpiece of Perseus. It was a remarkable feat whose story cannot go untold (Huntley 251).
Cellini and I had arrived in Florence from France for a short while. Although he was very successful in France under the encouragement of Majesty King Francis, Cellini wanted very much to revisit his birthplace of Florence. He quickly became known to the Duke and did a few works for him. First, the colossal bronze bust of his Excellency; secondly, a restoration of the Ganymede in marble which cost a great deal of difficulty; and thirdly, the Medusa head cast in bronze. Succeeding well with Medusa, Cellini wanted to start on a cast of Perseus holding the head of Medusa (Cellini 410).
Cellini made the wax model which came out beautifully, but I was questionable to whether it would come out in bronze as did the Medusa. Apparently the Duke agreed with me when Cellini went to speak to him of the project he was working on. His Excellency was struck by the beauty of the wax model but questioned how it would succeed in bronze with Perseus grasping the head of Medusa so high. The statue would stand ten and a half feet tall if completed with Perseus’s hand holding the head of Medusa high in front of him. It was clear why his Excellency was concerned for how Cellini would complete the bronze statue. I was standing aside from Cellini as he tried to assure the Duke that the statue would succeed. Cellini pleaded “My lord, I know how very little confidence you have in me; and I believe the reason of this is that your most illustrious Excellency lends too ready an ear to my calumniators, or else indeed that you do not understand my art.
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Abandoned to our own resources, we took new courage banishing any sad thoughts which occurred. Cellini often wept bitter tears for ever leaving France. Nevertheless, he revealed to me he was convinced that when Perseus was accomplished, all sadness would be overturned to glorious well-being. We then set out with strength and what little money still remained to order loads of pinewood from the forests of Serristori. The reason we ordered pinewood was because it was abundant and offered a slow fire as opposed to oak-wood. While the wood was on its way Cellini wrapped Perseus with clay he had prepared many months before to assure that it was justly dry. After completing the clay tunic and properly fencing it with iron beams we started to draw out the wax by melting it with a slow fire. The wax issued through numerous air-vents leaving a hollow mould with a slightly smaller solid model inside. After the wax was drawn, I helped Cellini with his construction of a funnel-shaped furnace around the Perseus mould. It was built of bricks well spaced to allow numerous openings for the fire to exhale. The furnace was then fed wood and stood burning for a couple of days until the mould was well-baked. We next started to dig a pit in which to sink the model. The mould was lifted by ropes and we carefully lowered it into the pit. After lowering it successfully, we surrounded the mould with the excavated dirt. During the digging of the pit several work-people had been working with us (Cellini 413).
Everything was now set, and Cellini had placed numerous pigs of copper and bronze resting one upon the other so that the flames could go freely through them. This would cause the metal to heat and liquefy sooner. Finally, the furnace could get going with the pinewood already in place. The furnace was lit and worked so well that Cellini rushed from end to end to keep it going. Keeping the furnace going was difficult labor because it was going to take a lot of heat to melt the metals. To add to the anxiety our workshop took fire and a storm of wind and rain blew outside obviously causing the furnace to cool somewhat (Cellini 414).
We battled the unfavorable circumstances for several hours when suddenly Cellini took ill with an intense fever. He was forced to his bed. He first told me that the metals would soon be fused and the mould would fill easily. He said he was so much in pain that he must surely die in a few hours. I did not understand why he was talking this way, but he left for bed. I was left there with the other workers to continue, but something went wrong. The metal was thickening and not flowing. We couldn’t get it to heat up. One of the workers went to tell Cellini that the statue had been spoiled when I suddenly heard a howl of fury. Cellini was rampaging towards the workshop hitting anything or anyone in his way. He entered the workshop and spoke: “Up with you! Attend to me! Since you have not been able or willing to obey the directions I gave you, obey me now that I am with you to conduct my work in person. Let no one contradict me, for in cases like this we need the aid of hand and hearing, not of advice.” He took a look at the furnace and then ordered the workers to fetch some oak-wood across the street that was offered to him previously. The oak-wood, which burns powerfully, took quick blaze and the furnace began to glow and sparkle. Meanwhile, there was violent rain outside and I was wondering what had happened to his fever (Cellini 416).
The metal was now about to melt and Cellini ordered a sixty-pound block of bronze to be tossed in the furnace. With this the metal was quickly beginning to liquefy. I grabbed an iron rod along with Cellini and started to stir the channels in which the metal would travel into the mould. All of a sudden an explosion took place with a tremendous flame, as if a thunderbolt had struck us. Everyone was in astonishment as the light finally went away. I then looked to the furnace and discovered the cap had blown off and the bronze was bubbling. A miracle had taken place as Cellini went to pull the plugs and allow the bronze to flow into the mould. At this time we were grabbing dishes, bowls , and any metal items and tossing them into the furnace. The bronze was in perfect liquefaction. All were now joyous in laughter as this miracle was being experienced. We had all doubted this man but were now proven wrong. But Cellini had forgotten all as we sat and drank together. Then he told us how weird it was that his fever was totally forgotten. It seemed some demon had enraged him and scared the illness away from this man who felt he was dying. We all departed now for rest about two hours before morning (Cellini 418).
Two days had passed for the statue to cool. Cellini and I began to uncover the statue slowly. The Medusa head came out beautifully just as Cellini predicted along with the rest of the statue. This was until he reached the right foot whose toes were not complete. This was great, however, because it was exactly what Cellini had predicted to the Duke (Cellini 419).
We finally headed to Pisa where the Duke was currently located. He had already received news of Perseus and greeted us graciously. He, however, deemed the accomplishment far more stupendous hearing it from the mouth of Cellini. He bade Cellini to complete Perseus as soon as possible for he would pay more for it than what it was worth (Cheney 49).
Cellini would go on to complete and sell Perseus. It was placed at the Piazza della Signoria in Florence by the Duke. Cellini never became a well-known sculptor in Italy, but I will always remember that remarkable day. I believe him to be one of the greatest sculptors of the time and now you have heard the tale of Benvenuto Cellini and Perseus (Rizzoli 153).
Cellini, Benvenuto. Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini. Random House, 1971.
Cheney, Sheldon W. Sculpture of the World. Viking, 1968.
Huntley, Haydn J. “Benvenuto Cellini” World Book. 1986ed. 251.
“Sculpture.” Rizzoli, 1986- . Multivolume work. A historical survey.