Little survives of the work completed by Benvenuto Cellini (1500-71) during his sojourn at the court of Francis I between 1540 and 1545, with the great exception of the famous salt cellar with confronted gold figures emblematic of Earth and Water (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna).
The King's most elaborate commission, conveyed to Cellini in person in January 1542, was for a group of colossal bronzes to adorn the Porte Dorée at Fontainebleau, a monumental doorway that was to become the principal ceremonial entrance to the chateau. This was Cellini's first venture in large-scale bronze sculpture (his Perseus in Florence dates from ten years later). The King's sole prescription, recorded in Cellini's autobiography, was that there should be a representation of the Source de Fontainebleau, a female native of the hunting forest, guardian of its spring. In the space of ten days, Cellini worked up a model of his design for the King's approval. The segmental head of the doorway would be filled by a relief of the reclining Source surrounded by forest creatures. Below, supporting this lunette on each side, in place of columns, Cellini designed two satyrs. One was 'fiery and menacing, instilling fear in the beholder': 'The other had the same posture of support; but I had varied his features and some other details; in his hand, for instance, he held a flail with three balls attached to chains. Though I call them satyrs, they showed nothing of the satyr except little horns and a goatish head; all the rest of their form was human.' The scheme was approved. The Source relief was cast in bronze in 1544 (Musée du Louvre, Paris) and the two satyrs were developed in plaster at full size, standing over 3 metres high. However, these models were left in Cellini's workshop in Paris on his final departure for Italy in June 1545 and the project was never realised. Aside from Cellini's description and a drawing representing one of the plaster models (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC), the present statuette and its counterpart (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles) are the only records of the intended appearance of the figures. Cellini was critical of the 'vicious French style' of the doorway, designed in 1528 by Gilles le Breton. He had sought to correct its proportions by placing his bronzes so as to conceal the existing architecture, but recent attempts at reconstructing the scheme on paper suggest that these difficulties may have proved insurmountable.
Opinion is divided on the precise role the two surviving small bronzes played in this story, but they seem to have been cast during the lifetime of the project. Their virtuosity, and especially the use of paired opposites - youth and age, beauty and ugliness, tranquillity and suffering, intelligence and brutality - and the evident indebtedness of the younger figure to Michelangelo's David, invite speculation as to the impact the doorway might have had on an artistic milieu accustomed hitherto, where large bronzes were concerned, to Primaticcio's pedestrian facsimiles of the Antique.
Image rights: © Royal Collection Trust / HM Queen Elizabeth II
Part of a commission by Francis I between 1540 and 1545 from Benvenuto Cellini (1500-71)