“His whole high, broad form, seemed made of solid bronze, and shaped in an unalterable mould, like Cellini’s cast Perseus.”

Benvenuto Cellini (1500 – 1571) was an Italian sculptor and a key figure in the period of European art known as Mannerism, characterized by elongated proportions and partially described as anticlassical, despite the fact that the artistic subjects of this period were usually Greek, Roman, or biblical in nature. One of Cellini’s and Mannerism’s most notable pieces is the bronze-cast statue Perseus with the Head of Medusa from 1545. In Greek mythology, Perseus was the son of Zeus and the imprisoned mortal Danaë, whose father locked her in a tower of bronze (how fitting!) after an oracle told him that his daughter’s son (not yet conceived, but Perseus) would kill him. Later Perseus was sent on a quest by a man who wanted him dead to retrieve the head of Medusa, the Gorgon, who turns men into stone with her gaze. With the help of the gods, Perseus took down the beast.

Cellini's Perseus (1545–54), wearing the Cap o...

Cellini’s Perseus (1545–54), wearing the Cap of Invisibility and carrying the head of Medusa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Both the statue and the character of Perseus bear commonalities with the hardened Captain Ahab. After slaying Medusa, Perseus takes on the task of slaying a sea monster; he uses the head of Medusa to turn the monster to stone, which act parallels Ahab’s quest to slay the monster of seas, Moby Dick. Indeed, in Ishmael’s view the sea monster slayed by Perseus is none other than a whale, and in Chapter 82 of Moby-Dick, “The Honor and Glory in Whaling,” he alludes to Perseus again, this time as “the first whaleman,” ignoring the use of Medusa’s head altogether and describing the demigod as having speared Leviathan and killed it in one shot, saving the daughter of a king tied to the rocks on the sea-coast. Previously, in Chapter 28, “Ahab,” Ishmael describes the captain by comparing his commanding stature on deck of the Pequod to that of “Cellini’s cast Perseus,” particularly noted as “bronze,” “solid,” and “unalterable.” Being a sailor, Ahab’s skin would naturally be tanned, or “bronzed” if you will—additionally, his past experience with the great white whale has hardened him.

Melville could have easily described Ahab as Michelangelo’s David, the statue that Benvenuto wished to compete with his Perseus, so why did he choose the latter? Cellini’s Perseus seems to be much more heroically posed; he is strong and warrior-like, standing on the body of the beast he slew, holding aloft its decapitated head as his prize. Ahab’s prize, of course, would be Moby Dick, but [spoiler alert] it is Moby Dick who conquers Ahab in the end. Still, Ishmael perceives his captain, at least initially, in this statuesque, heroic likeness.

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