Located in the Loggia dei Lanzi in Piazza della Signoria is the statue Head of Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini, and is one of my favourite sculptures in the Piazza. Commissioned by Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici in 1545, with an intention to relate to the other works already in the piazza, including Michelangelo’s David, Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus and Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes.
This typical Mannerist style sculpture is characterised by it’s enigmatic subject, its’ elegance, complexity, sophistication, gracefulness and the clear demonstration of Cellini’s skill as a craftsman.
The work depicts Perseus (a character from Greek and Roman mythology) with the head of Medusa, a hideous sorceress with snakes for hair, who had the power to turn anyone who looked at her to stone. But she wasn’t born this way, and was once a beautiful and seductive young woman. The story goes that she tried to seduce Zeus, and for revenge Zeus’s wife Hera put a curse on her, taking away all her beauty, and turning her into an evil creature. Perseus is the daring character in the myth, who goes off to defeat the monster. But before going into battle, Perseus was given a useful shiny shield from Athena, and a winged hat and sandals from the God Mercury or Hermes, which gave him the ability to fly.
So off Perseus went to defeat the monster, first he held up his shield to Medusa, forcing her to see her own reflection thus turning herself into stone, and when she was still distracted, Perseus cut off her head. Yet despite this, she still had the ability to turn men into stone, so Perseus puts her head in a bag for safe keeping and to use on other beasts later down the line.
Perseus is shown naked, except for a sash and his winged hat and sandals, standing triumphantly over the body of Medusa, with her snake haired head in his raised hand, blood cascading from her severed neck. In relationship to the other statues in the Piazza, it’s surrounded by stone marble statues of men, and it is said that Michelangelo’s David and Baccio Bandinelli’s Hercules are both looking right at the head of Medusa – has she in fact turned them to stone? Both marble statues were representations of the Republic of Florence, and both portray characters who were underdogs but came victorious with the help from God. In this context Medusa is the clear winner, and thus portraying that in fact the Medici have conquered the enemy once again?
Walk round the back of the sculpture and you’ll spot a self image of Cellini, on the back of Perseus’s helmet.