Riding the wave


Perseus is a hero of origin Argive, son of Zeus and Danae, he is among the direct ancestors of Heracles. The story of Perseus began in the sea because Acrisius, father of Danae, threw the baby a few months old and the mother in an ark of wood into the sea.

This was because an oracle had told Acrisius that a son of Danae, when adult, would kill him; so he had locked his daughter in an inaccessible room made of bronze. But Zeus, in the form of golden rain, went into the room through a crack and joined Danae, thus giving bith to Perseus. Acrisius then decided to get rid of the grandson taking him to the beach with his mother.

Sarcophagus with the myth of Danaids Sarcophagus with the myth of Danaids, the fourth century, from Tuscania, Rome, National Museum of Villa Giulia

The ark was pushed by the waves on the shore of the island of Serifos, in the Cyclades, where the two were rescued and hosted by Dictys, brother of King Polydectes. The latter, when Perseus was grown, ordered him to cut and bring him the head of Medusa (the only one, of the three Gorgons, that was deadly) as a gift for his wedding with Danae, to whom he aspired.

Bronze statue of Benvenuto Cellini Bronze statue of Benvenuto Cellini in the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence

The young man, with the help of Athena and Hermes, succeeded in the challenge: first he went to the Graie sisters - the "old women" that were never young, - he deprived them of the single eye and single tooth they had in common, extorting to them the secret of where the Nymphs inhabited.

They gave him the winged sandals, the hood (or, in another version, a helmet) that made him invisible, and a bag where to put the head of Medusa.

Perseus flew up in the sky thanks to the winged sandals and, with the help of Athena, holding above Medusa a polished bronze shield, which served as a mirror, beheaded the monster.

While from the neck of the decapitated Medusa sprang Pegasus , the winged horse and the giant Chrysaor, Perseus put her head in the bag and left, chased by two other Gorgons, to no avail because the hood received from the Nymphs had made him invisible.

On the way back, in the land of the Ethiopians he rescued Andromeda, the daughter of King Cepheus , who had been exposed on a rock to be devoured by a sea monster: this had been ordered by Poseidon , angry for an injury received by the wife of Cepheus.

Perseus, now in flight on the winged horse, killed the monster and, after winning a duel with the suitor of Andromeda, married her and brought her with him.

Perseus and Andromeda Perseus and Andromeda, wall painting from Pompeii, first century. Naples, National Archeological Museum
Hermes with the winged hat Hermes, with the winged hat and the caduceus in an Etruscan mirror of the fourth century Bc, Rome, National Museum of Villa Giulia

Arriving at Serifos, he retaliated Polydectes, who had attempted to use violence to Danae, and petrified the king and his friends by showing them the head of Medusa. Then returned to Hermes the sandals, the bag and the mantle, that the god gave back to the Nymphs, their owners, while Athena placed Medusa's head in the middle of her shield.

He returned with his mother and Andromeda to Argos, to rejoin his grandfather, but did not find him, because Acrisius had fled to the country of the Pelasgians, always fearing the fulfillment of the oracle. He went there to persuade him to return to Argos, but by participating to the games organized by the King of Larissa, he hit the grandfather with a disc during a competition, so the prophecy came true because Acrisius died.

Full of pain, Perseus did not dare to return to Argos to ask for the kingdom of whom he had killed and exchanged Argos with Tiryns, where his cousin Megapenthes was the king, and Mycenae and Tiryns with Mideia were the seat of his kingdom until his death.

Perseus was represented by Greek art as a young man with winged sandals, often with the Gorgon's head in his hand or in the bag, and so appears in vase paintings, reliefs in marble or clay, in Etruscan mirrors and Pompeian paintings. In the modern age it is remarkable the great bronze statue of Benvenuto Cellini in the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence, commissioned in 1545 to the artist by Cosimo I.

The Loggia dei Lanzi is on the right corner of Palazzo Vecchio, and it was built between 1376 and 1382 to house the assemblies of the people and public ceremonies, such as those for setting up the Gonfalonieri and the Priori. His first name was indeed Loggia della Signoria or "dell'Orcagna", named after the artist who designed it, while the construction was carried out by Benci di Cione and Simone Talenti. During the reign of Cosimo I it was used to house the mercenary troops of the duke, the Landsknecht, and it still bears their name.