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Thursday, January 24, 2013

FireSides #1 - Part 1: Cellini's Rave

FireSides is a repository of histories, legends, and anecdotes. Many of these stories are based in fact, while others are only rumored to be true. Like the flickering campfire, these tales aim to briefly illuminate life's mysteries, fueling the flame of curiosity.


Here's what we know for sure:

While virtually all other Italian city-states had since adopted some form of monarchy, the Republican Commune of Florence remained a bastion of civil liberties. It's people took massive amounts of pride in knowing that no matter what station of society they were born into anyone could rise to the top. But this golden hippie paradise was perched atop a tenuous thread. Ambitions from within and without were constantly threatening to destabilize this brotherhood. When they weren't stringing people up in la piazza, power mongers in Florence were commissioning massive art projects in order to sway public opinion into their favor.

The art scene in 16th century Florence was nothing short of LEGENDARY. You see, back in the day, provincial rulers used to think their power was directly proportional to the perceived quality of their art (sounds like paradise to this guy).  The most powerful family in Florence at that time couldn't have been a more perfect example of this. In the North, a family called the Medici discovered that you could amass a huge amount of wealth from buying and selling money (YES, buying and selling: MONEY). In 1434,  Cosimo the elder started the Medici Bank, the most successful economic enterprise since the beginning of time.

But the Medici weren't about to walk away with the keys to the city. In 1504 a 27 year old Michelangelo took a massively damaged piece of marble (dubbed 'the Giant') and turned it into the single most recognizable sculpture of all time. The Statue of David was more than just a monumentally exquisite piece of sculpting, to the people of Florence, David was a cultural legacy. He stood defiant, eyes turned toward the giant that was Rome, warning any foreign threat that the people of Florence were not to be trifled with. If the Medici wanted to rule Florence(and they did), they would have their hands full....full of paint...and marble dust.

Over the course of the next century, a massive pissing contest ensued that would one day be referred to as "the High Renaissance".

Cosimo I de' Medici (with chain) - Bartolommeo Bandinelli
So when the dust finally settled, and the tempera paint had dried, everything had changed. Florence was no longer a Republic. Out of the rubble emerged an extraordinary 17 year old: Cosimo I de Medici. He was the gra-gra-great nephew of Cosimo the elder, and he wasn't fucking around. As it happened, Cosimo's Uncle twice removed, the Duke of Florence, had just been assassinated, and now it was time for Cosimo to take the throne of Dukedom (sort of like a king except he pays a tax to the emperor/pope every year).

The French were pretty happy about this, so they thought they'd take a stroll through Tuscany with a couple of thousand troops. Cosimo didn't like that. He killed them all for trespassing and hung their bodies from la piazza. But apparently that didn't get the message across, cause there were a few guys back at home that thought Cosimo was too young to rule, that maybe he needed a team of proxies to do the big boy work. Cosimo didn't like that either. All those guys mysteriously retired on the same day and were never heard from again. Cosimo wasn't just a cutthroat tactician, in fact he spent most of his time studying classic Greek and Roman Art, analyzing Plato's Republic, and practicing Alchemy (that's how he made the chain). 

Like the brilliant politician, Cosimo knew that in order to rule, you needed to win the heart and spirit of the people.

Cosimo had enemies in every corner of the city. The republicans that hadn't been killed already were constantly trying to get him thrown out of the country. But one day Cosimo realized what the problem was. You see throughout the city were statues dedicated to the bygone days of the Florentine Republic. How could he expect the people of Florence to embrace his Duchy(Duke-dom?) if every time they went out to the piazza they had to walk past the Statue of David, or Donatello's Judith and Holofernes? Time after time it seemed that this art would be the death of him and his family. But Cosimo couldn't just get rid of the sculptures. He needed to win the people over with something truly earth-shattering.

Here's where Cellini comes into the picture. My man was a Goldsmith. He gained considerable notoriety by casting statues for the pope. But everyone knew that if you wanted to be a player, you had to do it in Florence. That's exactly what he did. He impressed Cosimo so greatly that Cosimo hired Cellini to fashion him the greatest sculpture ever made.

The subject matter of the sculpture was a closely guarded secret. Cellini slaved away at this statue for 9 years. Multiple times people attempted to steal pieces of Cellini's work, or simply catch a glimpse of the unfinished statue. The anticipation for this monumental statue was so great Cosimo demanded that Cellini unveil it ahead of schedule. Cellini knew the statue was not ready, and even though it could mean his head hanging from la piazza, he refused.

Cellini's statue was to be cast from bronze, but nothing in the history of metal working had been done on such a grand scale. Despite a number of warnings, Cellini refused to split his mold into more manageable pieces. All the master metallurgists laughed at him. His clay would be ruined, and the last 9 years of his life will have been wasted. He would be left with nothing, not even his name. Again, Cellini refused. But there was another problem. His statue far exceeded the size of the original model and they discovered that there would not be enough bronze to complete the casting. For weeks his apprentices pillaged the city for anything made of bronze. He stole platters, suits of armor, candlesticks, door knobs, anything he could get his hands on.

Finally the day came to pour his statue. Everything was ready. His apprentices began to pour the fiery liquid, but the bronze began to clot! He was about to lose his dream in a blazing inferno! But sure enough, Cellini came to the rescue and saved the casting. When the bronze cooled, the clay was removed and Cellini laid his eyes on the beast.

It was everything he had dreamed.

April 27th, 1554

The crowd had been gathering since late the night before. The soldiers had been called to keep the peace as a number of brawls broke out between rival political parties. The tension was palpable. Cellini stood on the balcony of the nearby Uffizi Gallery while Cosimo went down to introduce the statue. If ever people doubted Cosimo as a leader, this speech is what changed their mind. Here's how it went:

Cosimo wasn't one to mince words. He didn't deny the obvious schism that ran the breadth of his city. Instead, he spoke to the city's civic pride. Cosimo roused the city, daring the politically divided people to end their impotent rivalries, to stand up together with one voice "we will not go quietly!". The world would forever know Florence as the city on a hill, the city where enlightened men invented the modern era. That when the snakes of Rome and France tried to run their greedy fingers through her streets, Florence would take up the sword like brave Perseus, cutting them down and turning their relics to stone and dust. The crowd was electrified. They didn't know whether to scream his name or tear him to shreds. But then he gave them what they wanted.

The curtain fell and a new era began:

Perseus with the head of Medusa - Benvenuto Cellini

In every applicable sense of the word, the crowd was obliterated. This was the sculpture they had all been waiting for. At once a symbol of ferocious national unity, and in the same moment a touchstone of treacherous, classical beauty. The fuse had been lit, and there was no undoing what had been done. Like a wild fire, a sprawling riot broke out in all the city's four quadrants. Each of the major guilds were claiming Perseus as their patron demigod. Poets composed sonnets praising the statue's beauty and eulogies for the death of city's crippling partisanship. Perseus was surrounded by the marble monoliths of Donatello and Michelangelo, but one author noted that "just as these hollow forms stand frozen, so too am I transfixed in stone by Medusa's bronze gaze".

It's a strange world we live in. There's a thing inside of all of us that requires us to be a participant in this life. It compels us to stand up and express ourselves emphatically, defiantly, and sometimes violently. We create our own universe and pick which stories we wish to inhabit. If a world once existed in which people were thus moved by a work of art, wouldn't you want that to be your story? One where art is not consumed, rather it is viscerally experienced through active participation and collaboration. When will you get up and dance? When will you be inspired again?

Are you still sitting there?

-David Applebee

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