”See what you think when you come down the Strada dei Fiorentini of Florence and spot the Perseus in the corner of the Loggia. If you’ve read Benvenuto Cellini’s book, you must admit you didn´t expect THAT—you didn´t know it was going to be so good, though Cellini swore it was. Of course how could you take his word for anything—such a liar, such a divine liar—such a glorious fairy tale, his book.”
Gold and silver are more precious, but many-colored bronze has given its name to an entire age and its enduring qualities to five millenniums of masterpieces. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin. In the course of five thousand years small quantities of other metals have been mixed into it either deliberately or by accident, but copper and tin combined are bronze, and nine parts copper to one part tin is the common proportion.
Where and by what chance, that one part of tin was first added to copper will never be known. Utensils and sculpture were made of smeltered copper in Sumeria and in Egypt before bronze was invented; and even before smelting was practiced, men had used soft native copper, beaten into shape, for ornaments and tools. True bronze came into use early in the third millennium B.C. ; and when Homer, two thousand years later, described how Hephaestus, the smith-god, smelted the metals for the armor of Achilles, he called the bronze ”unwearying”. it was not weary then, nor is it now. To Homer the vault of heaven itself was solid bronze, and Hesiod, in his ”Theogony”, tells us that Day and Night meet and greet each other upon a bronze threshold.
There is in this metal a deep magic which is not explained by its practicality, by the fact that it pours molten more easily than copper and is harder when it cools, or that its color moves mysteriously from red-gold to deep-green or azure as time handles it; it is not that bronze served all practical purposes before iron slowly replaced it for common implements and this elevated it to metallic aristocracy; it is not even that much of the world’s greatest sculpture has been made in bronze. Not being a precious metal, it does not prompt greed before admiration. It prompts love and it has inspired myth.
Wax, from which the wings of Icarus were made, is an essential factor in bronze casting. The melting of Icarus’s wings from the heat of the sun is a legend that may have come from the lost wax process, which is still the method generally used for casting sculpture in bronze. As a technique it was mastered in the third millennium B.C. somewhere between the Black Sea and the Persian Gulf, where copper and tin ores are found together.More complex processes have been discovered for casting large sculptures, but for the casting of small bronzes from wax little has changed in thirty-five centuries save the method of heating the crucible. Charcoal, made at its best from ash wood, was the ancient fuel. Hard coke is the modern substitute.
Benvenuto Cellini, was really the first to perfect the single pour technique; despite the insistence of onlookers like the Duke Cosimo that the bronze could not be cast satisfactorily given the violent contractions of bronze in the cooling process, exaggerated by interruptions in the flow into the mold. His bronze melting experience read like a trip to Dante’s inferno:
”Perseus was the biggest statue Benvenuto ever tried in Florence and it almost did him in. And wouldn´t his enemies have liked THAT? They smirked and grinned when they heard his claims and said he was a little-figure man, not a sculptor. How was that little goldsmith going to model a figure twice as big as life and cast it too? Always the bigtime with Benvenuto. What he had was a big mouth. But like all the Renaissance greats, Cellini trusted in himself. Let the experts cast his giant figure? Not on your life—he would do it himself. He´d get a handful of boys to help him and cast the darn thing in his house. He was sick of experts.
You pay a price for doing things your own way. And at the last minute everything went wrong and Benvenuto collapsed from the strain. He left the boys with his statue while the cauldron was a-bubble and ran off to bed, pale as death. While he was gone the boys lost control, the roof caught fire and the liquid bronze caked in the crucible. “All is lost, Master,” one of them came to tell him. But a ghost or a hallucination warned Benvenuto, told him to hurry back to the workshop—there was time to save the Perseus. Up he sprang and in a twinkle was there shouting orders—Make for the pile of old oakwood by the shed! Gather all the pewter in the house and throw it into the crucible of clotting bronze! Get moving, boys—we´re going to save her!
And the miracle happened. The oakwood fire melted the bronze again and all the pewter Benvenuto had added. Would it be enough to fill the mold? It was a one-shot job. With a cry he ordered the boys to tip the crucible. And the red-hot bronze poured in—all of it, down to the last fiery drop. And when everything had cooled down and the bronze had hardened in the mold, Benvenuto began with great suspense to dig up his statue (for it was buried in the ground) and to knock away the burnt clay jacket that enveloped it.”
Incredibly, the masterpiece emerged complete save for the toes of one foot. he himself attributed his success to the unusual heat of the metal and the hasty inclusion of all his pewter cups and plates. Duke Cosimo was confounded. Cellini had cast a larger-than-life figure in a single pour.
An element of pure sixteenth century vainglory had much to do with his attempting it. Once the techniques for casting monumental bronzes had been rediscovered during the Renaissance, nothing would content the craftsmen but to do it the hardest possible way. In 1699, when the largest single casting in the world up to that time was poured, Diderot was so struck by the event that he gave much space to it in the celebrated ”Encyclopedie” . The statue in question was Girardon’s huge equestrian portrait of Louis XIV which stood in the Place Louis-le-Grand, now Vendome, in Paris until it was melted down during the Revolution.
The art of the bronze sculpture declined somewhat after the death of Bernini in 1680, but its unquenchable vitality was reaffirmed by Auguste Rodin in the late nineteenth century. His overpowering Balzac was like nothing seen before; refused by the society that had commissioned it, it remained uncast for many years and did not find a permanent site until 1939, twenty-two years after the sculptor’s death. But the revival started by Rodin continued into the modern era. Among the indelible images are the attenuated figures of Alberto Giacometti, whose Man Pointing was typical of his post WWII work. Equally memorable are the equestrian bronzes of Marino Marini, who did not use them to glorify generals and condottieri but to express the joys and fears of ordinary men in the twentieth century.