This masterpiece of the Florentine Renaissance depicts the myth recounted by Ovid in Book IV of the Metamorphoses.
Having killed Medusa, Perseus asks Atlas to shelter him, but the Titan refuses. Offended, Perseus "raised [...] the unkempt horror of Medusa's head. Atlas became a mountain just as large as the man had been. His head was now the mountain's summit" (lines 657-663).
Perseus continues his journey, flying over different parts of the world. He has winged sandals, the Helm of Hades which makes him invisible, the shield of Athena which gleams like a mirror, and the adamant sickle of Hermes. He eventually lands in Ethiopia.
Here, we see a young girl tied to a bare tree: "He would have thought that she'd been carved from stone were it not for the breeze that stirred her hair and for the warm tears flowing from her eyes" (lines 673-675). It is Andromeda, daughter of the Ethiopian king Cepheus, offered to a sea monster as a punishment for her mother's vanity.
The two figures embracing allude to the words that Perseus says to Andromeda: "These chains don't do you justice; the only chains that you should wear are those that ardent lovers put on in their passion" (lines 678-679).
"The sea erupted with the roar of a great beast who rose up as he breasted the wide water" (lines 687-690).
Andromeda's father Cepheus (wearing a white turban), her suitor Phineus (wearing an exotic gown of red feathers), and her mother Cassiopeia (wearing a blue cloak and covering her face in despair) all watch on helplessly.
Smitten with Andromeda, Perseus offers to free her in exchange for her hand in marriage. He lands on the monster, wounds it, and prepares to deliver the fatal blow.
"Applause reverberates along the shore and from the mansions of the gods above. Cepheus and Cassiope [...] rejoice in their new son-in-law, and hail him as prop and savior of their family" (lines 735-738). Perseus marries Andromeda. A group of revellers waves laurel branches, a symbol of the peace that he has brought them.
"and everywhere are lyres, flutes, and singers singing songs that make their argument for happiness" (lines 760-763). The black man is playing an unusual instrument consisting of a flute with three holes, the galoubet, and a stringed tambourine, typical of Gascony and the South of France.
Perseus builds three votive altars to the gods Mercury, Minerva and Jupiter, sacrificing a calf, a cow and a bull to them respectively.
Perseus rests Medusa's head on a bed of seaweed. As soon as it touches the blood of the Gorgon, the seaweed becomes petrified, turning to coral.
The painting originally hung in the bridal chamber of Filippo Strozzi the Younger. It then became part of the Medici Collections, and it was displayed in the Tribuna of the Uffizi in 1589. Various symbolic references to the Medici can be identified in the work.
Here we find the emblem of the Medici, a lopped laurel branch (or "broncone") which is still capable of regenerating, like the Phoenix. This is an allusion to the return of the Medici to the city in 1512 after their exile, a return which was supported by Filippo Strozzi, who had married a member of the Medici family in 1508.
In the middle of the bush, we can just make out Perseus' shield with its characteristic diamond tip. This was another emblem of the Medici at the time of Lorenzo the Magnificent, when it was accompanied by the motto "SEMPER".
"Piero never made a more lovely or more highly finished picture than this one" Giorgio Vasari
Project curated by the Department of Digital Communications of the Uffizi Galleries.
Thanks to Adriano Sangineto of the Antica Liuteria Sangineto for the information on musical instruments.