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Benvenuto Cellini’s Salt-Cellar

A woman sitting back, just mildly curious
To hear a man’s contrived, seductive patter,
Waiting to see what fabrications spurious
He’s dreamt up now. It doesn’t really matter—

She has no interest in him beyond this:
The day is long, his chitchat passes time;
In half an hour he’ll move in for a kiss
Which she’ll adroitly dodge with her sublime

Smile of polite refusal that disowning
Passion, still says “I’m not at all straitlaced.”
He’ll go back to his monologue-ish droning,
Regretting the miscalculated haste.

She understands men, and this bearded fool
Is even denser than the average male—
So she relaxes, and maintains her cool,
Letting him go on with his bogus tale.

The Earth and Sea in conference divine,
The prelude to a sacred, mystic love?
That’s what dull iconographers opine—
Cellini would corroborate the above.

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Hic Est Calix…

Benvenuto, I am certainly sorry to come back from the Pope
with such commands as I have received; you must either
produce the chalice on the instant, or look to your affairs.

—Words of the Governor or Rome, Gregorio Magalotti,
to Benvenuto Cellini concerning a long-delayed
chalice ordered by Pope Clement VII.

from The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini
I, 52 (trans. J.A. Symonds)

To please the disaffected, angry Pope
Cellini cunningly devised and wrought
Two centaurs twisting on a chalice-stem
(Meanwhile the Dons dragged home from Yucatan
Great barbaric wheels of beaten gold).
My lord the Cardinal, back from Fiesole
(Doter on antiquities, he keeps
A sinuous Venus in his privy chamber)
Would have the cup; offers three hundred ducats
By messenger. The rabid Florentine
Was in some fit—had almost killed his whore—
And flung a pewter tankard at the page
Who dropped down senseless, like a poleaxed ox.

Take this chalice to my lord the Cardinal
To make his water in, not God’s pure blood!

The boy reviving, brings word back. My lord
Starts, but smiles, and sends a thousand ducats.
Still in the Duomo, there at Fiesole,
Sacerdotal fingers raise the cup
And round its stem, that holds the living God,
The playful centaurs toss their heads and laugh.

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Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine Trinacria and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.


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17 Responses

  1. Paul A. Freeman

    The humour in these poems makes them universally accessible, even for someone as un-classically trained as myself.

    I found myself imagining a loud braggart in a bar in the first poem, oblivious to what those who he wishes to impress actually think about him.

    I hope that comes across as the compliment it’s supposed to be.

    Reply
  2. C.B. Anderson

    The first poem contains several delicious metrical substitutions and at least one (in the very last line) metrically determined elision.

    Thank you for showing us how these things are properly and felicitously done.

    Reply
  3. Joseph S. Salemi

    Mr. Freeman, many thanks. I’m glad the poems are accessible and enjoyable.

    Kip, I thought deeply about that final elision. It’s tough to use a word like “corroborate” in iambic fives, but I wanted it. It would have been intolerable to write it out as “corrob’rate” or some similar fake eighteenth-century absurdity.

    Reply
  4. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Joe S., I love the playful nature of these beautifully crafted poems. In fact, I will admit to laughing out loud at this delicious line from Hic Est Calix… “Who dropped down senseless, like a poleaxed ox” – poleaxed coupled with ox is a linguistic union made in aural heaven.

    “Benvenuto Cellini’s Salt-Cellar” is my favorite, and could teach every pompous art critic that the true interpretation of any creation is indelibly stamped on the soul of the artist… not rising from the lips of windbags.

    Thank you for making my grey day shine.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Susan, no better description could be given than “the lips of windbags” for what we endure from most modern art critics. Even in academia (their normal habitat) they are considered a bad joke.

      It’s great to hear from you again!

      Reply
      • Peter Hartley

        “Most modern art critics” are a particular hobby-horse of mine. They seem to survive in a totally symbiotic relationship with the artists they represent, so that one would be out of business if the other disappeared. The very few that I have met are enormously passionate about their own tiny restricted spheres but have no comprehensive overview of art or even of what I have called the oxymoron of fine art today. I ventured against my better judgment into the Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart once to find a curator earnestly declaiming the virtues of a painting, that consisted of a uniform layer of black paint, to a small gaggle of schoolchildren. As far as I can see it had only one good point, if you could call it that (and then only perceived with the passing of the years and for all the wrong reasons): it was memorable. The painting, by the way, was called Black Painting. I was lucky to be able to retire soon enough not to have to work on a great deal of this kind of visual crud.

  5. Joseph S. Salemi

    Read Sally Cook’s satirical essay “Portrait of a Millennial Art Student,” published here at the SCP in October of last year. You can find it by clicking on Essays at the top of the main page.

    That jackass at the Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart is just a biopsy slide of the countercultural idiocy and degeneracy that infects art education today. We can only hope that some of those German schoolchildren have enough native intelligence to know that a canvas slathered with black paint is nothing more than a canvas slathered with black paint. As for the curator, well… he’s a lost cause.

    Reply
  6. Jeff Eardley

    Mr Salemi, these are great fun and it is always good to have the subject on the same page as the text. That is one hell of a salt-cellar. I wondered if the lady was twiddling some hidden volume control and the gentleman’s big fork looks ready for a big toasting bread slice. I am intrigued by the Wheels of beaten Gold dragged from Yucatan. Educational, entertaining and most enjoyable stuff. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      I mentioned the wheels of barbaric gold as an allusion to the fact that a great deal of gold used in Renaissance Europe was brought in from those spectacular and brilliant Spanish conquests in the New World.

      Reply
  7. Benjamen Grinberg

    Just wow. The statue is subline yet leaves room for some wit. Is that correct? But I see no wit in the statue. Just classical beauty. But i suppose there is room for wit in that.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      The salt-cellar has no wit or humor in itself. That is true. I merely used it as a prop to write a poem about an imagined conversation between a man and a woman. The wit or humor is contained in the details of that conversation, along with my final dismissive comment on art critics (“iconographers”).

      Reply
  8. Margaret Coats

    The Cellini salt cellar poem reminds me, Joseph, of your poem “On Antonello da Messina’s ‘The Annunciation.'” We hear your voice as quirky interpreter of artwork, and in both of your works, you show a flair for original narrative. You might be an amusing companion in a museum, but you would compete with the art. And thus I am not sure Cellini would corroborate your story about this masterpiece of his. If you didn’t find him in a good mood, you might be in for some Tuscan pejorative describing a Sicilian art critic.

    As for the chalices by you and Cellini, sanguis pretiosissime, salva nos! And that is a serious reflection comprehending more of us than you chalice-crafters who evoke it.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      It was always dangerous to find Benvenuto Cellini in a bad mood. A more interesting story than mine is the real one about how Cellini killed two men in connection with this magnificent work of art. Here goes:

      Cellini was commissioned to make the salt-cellar by the King of France, who directed his treasurer to give the artist two bags of old gold coins from the royal thesaurus in Paris for that purpose. Cellini took the two heavy leather bags of coins, and went walking home to his atelier in that city. It was dark, and he was accosted by a pair of would-be robbers who demanded that he surrender what he was carrying to them.

      They “picked the wrong guy,” as we say here in Noo Yawk. Maestro Cellini swung one of the leather bags so hard that he split open the skull of one of the men. The other took off in a panic, but Cellini — I love this about the man! — RAN AFTER HIM, caught up with the creep, and stabbed him to death with his short sword. Then Cellini calmly continued home, where he began work the next day on melting down the gold coins to make the salt-cellar.

      That’s how we got this magnificent work of art. It wasn’t just from Cellini’s
      great skill as a craftsman and a goldsmith. It was also due to his guts and his savagery.

      We need more men (and artists) like that! And the only poet I ever knew who had that kind of violent testicular fortitude was Leo Yankevich. Leo left a lot of scumbags bloody and crippled.

      Reply
  9. James A. Tweedie

    It is a joy and a pleasure to be educated, entertained, and edified by the poems, the art they address, and the comments they have thus far inspired.

    So little of Cellini’s work remains with us. The Salt Cellar is, perhaps, his greatest legacy.

    It is so easy to be stuffy about such things. I enjoyed Joseph’s interpretive spin immensely and, as I read the poem, I dare say that out of the corner of my eye, I saw the man (who I identify as Poseidon but who was not named as such by Cellini) turn his head just a tad and wink at me.

    Reply

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