The Nymph of Fontainebleau

Benvenuto Cellini

Benvenuto Cellini visited the French court of Francis I a second time from 1540 to 1545. The king commissioned him to decorate the main entrance (Porte Dorée) to the Château of Fontainebleau. The artist designed this immense semicircular bronze relief representing the Nymph of Fontainebleau for the tympanum. Cellini left France in 1545, after relations between the sovereign and the sculptor deteriorated. The king died in 1547 and the work was never installed. Philibert Delorme eventually put it above the entrance to the Château of Anet, built for Diane de Poitiers, King Henry II's mistress. The work marks Cellini's decisive move towards sculpture. On his return to Florence, he executed his monumental bronze Perseus Holding the Head of the Medusa (Bargello, Florence).
The Nymph was the artist's first large-scale bronze. He used the cire perdue, or lost-wax, process, casting the sculpture in several parts, which he then assembled. He related in great detail the eventful stages of the work's casting, which very nearly ended in disaster. He entrusted the necessary repairs and chasing to a team of French sculptors that included Pierre Bontemps. But in the facial features, Cellini's characteristic style is easily recognizable: the mouth accentuated by a clear line below it, the lower lip curved in the middle, the dilated pupils, the manner in which the eyelids are drawn, and the tiny stripes indicating the hairs of the eyebrows.
The relief borrows its imagery from a fresco by Rosso Fiorentino (now destroyed but known through engravings) in the middle of the Francis I Gallery. It depicted the legend after which Fontainebleau was named: while out hunting, one of the royal hounds, called Bliaud, discovered a spring-hence the "fountain of Bliaud." As in Greco-Roman art, the spring was personified by a nymph leaning against an urn. Cellini enriched the composition with numerous woodland animals. The nymph has her arm around the neck of a stag, one of Francis I's emblems, thus indicating the pleasure experienced by the domain in welcoming the monarch. Because of the composition's synergetic theme, at Anet the nymph readily became Diana, goddess of the hunt, a poetic model for the mistress of the château. During the French Revolution, the stag, seen as a symbol of the feudal right of hunting, was mutilated.
Cellini carved a firm, slender, supple body, in accordance with the Mannerist canon. Its extreme elongation was a decorative device adapted to the semicircular space of the tympanum. The austere beauty of the face recalls antique sculpture, yet this stylized nude is redolent of sensuality. Tight parallel folds of drapery and volutes representing water set off the smooth modeling of the flesh. It forms a stark contrast with the animals' coats. In contrast to his idealized view of the female body, the sculptor treats the animals in a naturalistic manner, showing the shaggy bristles of the wild boars, the shorthaired coats of the deer and individualized portraits of the hounds.


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