Frau Professorin Berichtet

According to news reports, the thief who stole Benvenuto Cellini’s saltcellar from a museum in Vienna – recently rediscovered thanks to clever police work -- didn’t know what he had in his possession until he heard about it on the news. Little wonder, since this strange work of art has been a mystery to viewers throughout much of its nearly 500-year history. The complex meanings embedded in the work by its creator have always been overshadowed by its luxurious materials. A few scant decades after its creation, the identities of its figures were no longer recognized by its royal owners; not only that, but even the artist’s identity had been forgotten.

In the early 1540s, Benvenuto Cellini, a sculptor and swashbuckler who left Italy to serve the court of the French king Francis I, created the golden object for the royal table. Cellini had originally made a design for it for an Italian cardinal, but only Francis gave him the time and resources to carry out his plan. It was a perfect match for the aesthetic and political tastes of its time; the French court adored complex symbolism and erotic subtexts. It also fit in well with the monarchy’s political agenda of promoting France as a land of overwhelming natural abundance.

A golden saltcellar: the phrase itself suggests a kind of luxury vastly out of proportion with its humble function of holding salt and pepper for the dinner table. But in the Renaissance, this function was not so humble. Salt was one of France’s great natural resources; the salt tax was one of the largest sources of revenue for the king. Pepper was a necessary spice that alluded to trade with the east and also carried aphrodisiac connotations.

The two figures atop the object represent the god of the sea (representing the production of salt) and the goddess of the earth (representing pepper), each surrounded by creatures belonging to their respective domains. Their intertwined legs suggest sexual involvement, and the goddess’s gesture – squeezing her breast – is a subtle allusion to other depictions of nature goddesses whose breasts flow with nourishment for all the creatures of the earth. Cellini used a very esoteric name for her in his own description of the object: he called her "Berecynthia." More commonly, she was known as Cybele, or sometimes the more prosaic Terra. Because sixteenth-century French royal propaganda emphasized the agricultural wealth of France, the earth goddess was a favorite figure in political imagery of the time.

But none of this complex symbolism was apparent to casual viewers or even its princely owners a generation after Cellini’s departure from France – despite the fact that the sculptor was one of the most colorful artistic personalities of the century. It was listed in a royal inventory as a “golden Triton and his wife” and then, in 1570, given away in the course of marriage negotiations with the Habsburgs of Austria. Nothing in the documentation of the gift suggest that any of the parties had any knowledge of the saltcellar’s symbolism or of the identity of its creator. It took two hundred years for some Enlightenment-era detective work to put the object together with Cellini’s description of it in his lengthy autobiography. The first to mention the connection was one Johann Primisser, in 1788; his discovery was itself overshadowed by that of the more famous Goethe, who, ten years later, visited the castle in Innsbruck where the saltcellar was held.

Perhaps the French were inclined to forget about Cellini because, with his infamously abrasive manner, he made few friends at court. Accused of heinous crimes, having taxed the king’s patience and offended his mistress, the sculptor eventually rode out of France without taking leave of the king. The brazen theft of the object, in fact, would not be out of place in Cellini’s own biography; along with other feats of derring-do, he made a bold escape from the pope’s fortress when imprisoned there.

Art world speculation about the theft has revolved around the idea of a rich collector who desired the saltcellar just for the pleasure of knowing he or she had it: someone well aware of its fame, who also knew, for that very reason, that it would be impossible to sell. But how much more appropriate it is to the object’s history that it was taken by someone who, like the French monarchs who gave it away, had no idea what he had.


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