Throughout history, some artists used to try to pass their predecessors in mastery to gain visibility and prestige. Piazza della Signoria in Florence was one of the places where one of these challenges took place
Piazza della Signoria, appears today in our eyes as a casket full of treasures. Among the architectural magnificence there are Palazzo Vecchio, with its 700 years of history, and the Loggia della Signoria, which embellished the square for 600 years. In this splendid architectural scenery there are many sculptures which adorn this space with their beauty: Piazza della Signoria is today a spectacular open-air museum.
The challenge that took place in this square has its origins in the presence of Michelangelo’s David in front of Palazzo Vecchio. It was placed there in 1504 BC like symbol of the Republic of Florence, Republic ready to stand up in defense of its citizens as did the young David, who defended the people of the Israelites from the giant Golia. It is an artwork that left the sign and “took away the cry from all the ancient and modern statues”. Determined gaze, contracted muscles that show the veins in relief, anatomical perfection, perfect details: Michelangelo used all his skill to give life to what is now considered one of his greatest masterpieces. What we can admire in front of Palazzo Vecchio is just a perfect copy. The original, with its more than five meters high and its five tons weight, is today in the Museum complex of Gallerie dell’Accademia in Florence, where it stands in all its splendor. And to think that it was created from a block of marble “ruined” by other sculptors.
Fifty years after the placement of the David, Benvenuto Cellini, a Florentine artist expert in small-scale goldsmithing, decided that it was time to challenge his skills and create a large statue that could stand up to Michelangelo’s David. This desire was also accompanied by the desire to prove his worth to those artists, his contemporaries, who did not consider him capable of creating a great work. So he created, for Cosimo I de’Medici, the bronze statue of Perseo destined to be placed where we can still admire it today: under the Loggia della Signoria. Cellini, to achieve perfection, carried out a study on the techniques of bronze casting, a study that allowed him to highlight every detail of the artwork: from the musculature to the physiognomic features of the faces, from the hair of the young man to the snakes on the head of Medusa.
Perseo stands proud and triumphant on the decapitated body of Medusa, whose head is showed exactly by the young man who cut it off with his sword. Determined and threatening gaze, tense and well-rendered muscles, realistic pose: all this contributed to amaze the Florentines of the time and from that moment many artists were able to stand up to the great Michelangelo.
Why did Benvenuto Cellini choose Perseo as his subject? It was Cosimo I who commissioned him to create this specific figure. All the members of the de’Medici family, throughout the history of the Florentine Republic, have never left anything to chance. Probably the young Perseo was the personification of Cosimo I, who challenged anyone who dared to threaten his own power. In the same way, most likely, Cosimo I wanted to reverberate his own image in the fountain that was built around 1560 BC in Piazza della Signoria and whose protagonist is Nettuno.
Just as the King of the sea ruled the waters, Cosimo I ruled the city of Florence. The fountain was created by Bartolomeo Ammannati, a sculptor of the Medici court, who used the collaboration of other artists. The statue of Nettuno was made by Bartolomeo Ammannati himself, but it was not very successful among the Florentines. Compared to Michelangelo’s David, the King of the sea had “limp flesh and muscles” and lacked proportionality; for this reason it was since then called “il Biancone“, because the white color of the marble was the only thing that stood out from it.
Rival of David, howewer, is the Ratto della Sabina, made around 1580 BC by Jean de Boulogne, a Flemish sculptor who in Italy was called Giambologna. Three athletic figures, muscular and intertwined in a spiral of bodies, are the protagonists of the artwork. Giambologna, like Cellini, was not considered capable of creating a masterpiece of this size, so he decided to show that he was able to “make naked figures, showing old age, youth and womanly delicacy“, to be able to let the age of the sculpted characters shine through the cold marble.
The work is now admirable under the Loggia della Signoria, where it is worthy of being compared with the masterpieces of other artists. A scared old man, in the lower part of the sculptural group, seems to want to repair himself from the kidnapping of a young woman who, surrounded by an athletic man, tries to free herself.
Despair can be read on the face of the Sabine woman, desperation heightened by a bas-relief placed on the base of the sculpture. In the bas-relief there are figurated Roman men intent on kidnapping Sabine women to allow the birth of the city of Rome founded by Romulus.