Celebrated the world over for dexterous works across the arts, Benvenuto Cellini struck a virtuoso performance through the skill of his hand and the intricate workings of his mind.
That ‘the devil is in the detail’ truly applies to Italian polymath Benvenuto Cellini (1500 – 1571). Just consider Perseus with the head of Medusa, a feat in bronze with entrails spiralling from the head that the founder of a dynasty fiercely wields. Cellini wrestled with the sculpture’s completion, returning to bronze casting on a monumental scale for the first time in half a century. The very act of pouring the liquid bronze into a mould was believed to imbue the finished piece with vivacity, much like how Aphrodite breathed life into Pygmallion’s beloved marble maiden. Erected for Cosimo I, Cellini’s patron, the work can be considered a crowning glory in terms of innovation.
At this point in the narrative, I’d like to remind us of Victoria C. Gardner’s entry, on Celinni, commenting on his autobiography in The Sixteenth Century Journal:
Throughout the Vita, Cellini goes to extravagant lengths to convince the reader that he is an important and unique individual, who deserves respect and even reverence because of his artistic ability. Cellini carefully presents his contradictory character traits in a way that makes his achievements all the more impressive. Virtue and vice, for example, are paired repeatedly. He exhibits both characteristics to an extraordinary degree, simultaneously showing elevated spirituality and delight in brutality throughout the course of the autobiography… Cellini’s role as an artist is crucial to this struggle, since his creative genius is what elevates him to this greatness.
Now, to a salt cellar. The purpose of these in Renaissance dining is entwined with the politics of wealth and status: here, each grain was a commodity, with a cellar filled with salt wielding considerable value in the Medieval and Renaissance social market. Salt itself has almost magical properties in the history of food, especially given its ability to pickle and preserve. You need only think of the existence of entire salt caravans labouring across deserts to get an idea of its trade value at the beginning of great civilisations. Salt, like the sugar currency wielded its own powerful value, something that can be appreciated today from the word “salary” which backdates to sale – the Latin word for salt. So much was it revered that, at the time of Cellini, rulers taxed salt and carefully governed who could afford to have it at their table.
Which brings us on to the spectacle of feasting in Medieval and Renaissance Europe:
Patronised in Paris by François I (who’d have had a vested interest in the politics of salt) from 1537 until 1545, Cellini was operating in courtly circles and would’ve been versed in the necessity of making a lavish statement at dinner. The decorative arts has such elitism to thank for the creation of fantastical tableware, with no less than five workmen helping Cellini turn out such famed examples of Mannerist goldsmithery. Housed today in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Cellini’s Saliera is essentially a sculptural group in miniature, appreciated as a work of art in and of itself.
At a glance, you might think that this cast from bronze, however, quite rightly for a wonder of the decorative arts and human craft, Cellini worked rolled gold with a hammer to achieve this sculptural effect. Measuring an impressive 10 inches in height by 13 inches in width, the golden marvel rests on a bed of ebony, its ivory bearings giving it the ability to be rolled down a table at a moment’s notice. So costly was the Saliera that, to get an idea of its worth, in a previous life the piece (then cast in wax) had been dismissed by Cardinal Ippolito d’Este of Ferrara on the basis of its sheer expense. By bringing salt to his guests in such an extortionate receptacle, Francis I was, in many ways, bringing them the world.
Evocative of treasures of the sea and those from the natural world, the work is encrusted with vitreous enamel which, on sight, are the perfect foil for precious jewels. Vitreous enamel, itself, is a curious, almost alchemical blend. Transmutation has captured the imagination throughout history – whether it’s the philosopher’s stone or discovering the coveted magic formula for making true hard-paste porcelain. Vitreous enamel, as an act of magic comes about when powdered glass is fused to gold through firing, the powder melting, flowing and reforming as a lustrous coating.
The Cellini salt cellar could, then, be called a work of harmony; one of many different transfusions. Indeed, the entirety of this piece playfully juxtaposes intermingling relationships between the land and sea; the object and what it represents; human activity and the rhythm behind the very act of dining itself. Reading the visual language of the salt cellar, we’re presented with a woman to one side and a man to the other. An allegory sung of Terra e Mare, land births a woman of the earth bound and tethered by a temple (a reminder of earthly possession), her hand planted firmly to the ground on which she sits and, from the sea, a man languidly reclines armed with a trident and flanked by horses who rear up from the ocean.
Together, we have a meeting between Tellus and Poseidon at our table, their legs, as the sea is to the land, intertwined. This conjunction could also be read erotically, as guests passed the receptacle along the table, mixing salt and pepper into their food to add to the flavour. On a practical level, the temple houses pepper while a ship brings offerings of salt from the sea itself. Both would be served, or rather dished out, by the man who held all the power down a hierarchy of guests according to their social or political worth. Indeed, the cellar itself was gifted to Francis from King Charles IX of Sweden through an act of diplomacy: Francis had stood in as proxy for Charles at a noble wedding to Elisabeth of Austria, so the salt cellar served as an elaborate apology – a peace ‘offering’ of salt, if you will.
And that, dear reader, is how, a salt cellar was capable of crossing oceans, bolstering ties and encompassing the world. I look forward to exploring the elaborate tableware of the Renaissance with you much, much further!