Benvenuto Cellini’s Saliera

The Saliera, or salt-cellar, is the only extant work of goldsmithery that can be ascribed with certainty to Benvenuto Cellini. He made it in the early 1540s in Paris, as a present from Cardinal Ippolito d’Este to Francis I of France. In his autobiography, he describes his concept as follows:

I first laid down an oval framework, considerably longer than half a cubit—almost two-thirds, in fact; and upon this ground, wishing to suggest the interminglement of land and ocean, I modelled two figures, considerably taller than a palm in height, which were seated with their legs interlaced, suggesting those lengthier branches of the sea which run up into the continents. The sea was a man, and in his hand I placed a ship, elaborately wrought in all its details, and well adapted to hold a quantity of salt. Beneath him I grouped the four sea-horses, and in his right hand he held his trident. The earth I fashioned like a woman, with all the beauty of form, the grace, and charm of which my art was capable. She had a richly decorated temple firmly based upon the ground at one side; and here her hand rested. This I intended to receive the pepper. In her other hand I put a cornucopia, overflowing with all the natural treasures I could think of. Below this goddess, in the part which represented earth, I collected the fairest animals that haunt our globe. In the quarter presided over by the deity of ocean, I fashioned such choice kinds of fishes and shells as could be properly displayed in that small space. What remained of the oval I filled in with luxuriant ornamentation.

In 1570, Charles IX gave it to Archduke Ferdinand II of Tyrol. It was kept on Schloß Ambras till it was moved to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in the 19th century, where it is now on permanent exhibition.

In May 2003, when the museum was covered by a scaffolding due to reconstruction works, it was stolen. The thief later tried to blackmail the insurance company out of ten million via an SMS from a card phone, else he would destroy the masterpiece, which is insured for fifty million. He finally turned himself in in January 2006, the Saliera was recovered with only minor damage.

The photograph was taken by Jerzy Strzelecki in 1994.

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