ARTIST STATEMENT: In the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, between two rough pieces of parchment, and fastened with straps of the same material, are 519 pages of a volume in folio, erratically numbered, and with an inscription on the back of the first covering reading â€œDe' libri d' Andrea de' Lorenzo Cavalcanti.â€ On the right of the first page is written the following: â€œThis most precious book was ever held in the highest esteem by the good, and, to me, always dear, Signor Andrea Cavalcanti, my father, who would permit no-one to copy it; resisting even the repeated solicitations made to him by his most serene and reverend highness the Prince Cardinal Leopold of Tuscany, &c., because -
â€œSol negli Arabi regni una Fenice
Vive a se stess, e genetrice e prole
Onde del' mondo e in pregio, a rai del sole,
E vil quel che d'avere a ciascun liee.â€
Which I translate thusly:
â€œLone in its happy realms one Phoenix dwells,
Lives to itself, parent and offspring both-
So by the world is held dear- rare worth is loth
To courtly applause- what's each one rankly smells.â€
By virtue of the correctly performing the Italian rituals of purification, which involve putting stamps on pieces of paper, rousing somnolent officials in back rooms, and leaving behind one at all times a trail of smudged, xeroxed, and variously amended forms, I was able to find myself, for one long and gloriously musty afternoon, at the center of my labyrinth with this volume in folio, the contents of which have been published as the Memoirs of Benvenuto Cellini, Written by Himself. Familiar with the text in its published form, I found little of great interest in the manuscript itself, which I soon found was faithfully transcribed. However, in the Addenda which accompanied the folio, a large box containing a jumble of various letters, requests for payments, and irritable missives to his assistants, I found something fascinating. There are a total of five letters to an assistant whose name appears nowhere in the published memoirs, whom Cellini addresses as â€œHronitoâ€. In the letters, Cellini seems to delight in calling him a â€œcrippled bastard barbarianâ€, and extorts him to make better progress in the manufacture and processing of a material he refers to as â€œeleatinoâ€. Again: nowhere in the published text, or even in the handwritten manuscript could I find any reference to either the assistant, or the mysterious material that Cellini seemed so anxious to acquire. By the tone of the letters, it seems that attempts to work with the material were largely unsuccessful, except for a few fluke results, which the (â€œwitless northern whore-sonâ€) assistant Hronito was unable to replicate in any satisfactory manner. If the experimentations were ultimately failures, it would make sense that Cellini would self-edit, and remove any reference to the stubborn material from his memoirs: telling people that he failed to figure out how to work a material would be bad press for the illustrious Cellini, who was marked by destiny at the tender age of five, when, by his account, the mythological salamander appeared before him, to dance in the flames and mark him for greatness.
The following is a description of eleatino that I have compiled and inferred from various comments, instructions, and insults in those five letters. Eleatino is an extremely malleable substance, bendable and easily molded at relatively low temperatures. An attempt to work it at higher temperatures results in what Cellini calls â€œthe smell of urine and burnt hairâ€, adding that he believed the smell, at first, to be coming from Hronito. The material is variously described as being clear, like liquid crystal, or milky, like the finest opalescent marble, with a sheen as if it were given many layers of wax and beautifully buffed. In the attempts that appear to be the worst failures, the substance is described as being black and tarry, with a smell â€œlike satanic excrementâ€, which Cellini, with great consistency, considers attributing to the simple presence of Hronito. Apparently the assistant was not fond of bathing, or Cellini was fond of insults. Both scenarios are possibly true.
What becomes clear in the letters is that is is Cellini's great desire, and ultimately great frustration, to consistently work this material, and discover how to bond it with gold in order to to create, â€œthe richest works the world has seen, designs so exquisite in both material and execution that one glance at it will suffice to fill patrons with desire and drive my rivals mad with envyâ€. However, Hronito consistently refuses to reveal the recipe for creating the substance to Cellini, only occasionally sending him workable pieces which are, due to the uncertain nature of the process, of varying quality. Cellini, frustrated, finally explodes at Hronito, and refuses to have anything more to do with him, his â€œfoolishly bubbling apparatusesâ€, and his â€œswamp-like stenchâ€. There is no further mention of Hronito after this point in Cellini's notes. I can only infer that Cellini must have kept him jealously guarded from the public eye, and that once he removed his patronage and protection, Hronito either became destitute and perished. It is also possible that he was dispatched by Cellini himself in order to ensure that no other craftsman would be able to procure the material that showed so much promise.
From the description of eleatino that I have managed to piece together, were I to call it by its modern english name, I would say â€œPlasticâ€. The description matches, and the bubbling apparatuses and swamp like stench that Cellini describes may be familiar to anyone who has attempted to make plastic by reducing and combining oils. It is evident that while Hronito understood some of the basics of the process, his methods were such that he produced unstable plastics of varying quality, tantalizing for Cellini, but ultimately unsuited to the high standards of his practice. Yet another problem was that Cellini, in attempting to work the material, used methods which indicate that he considered it to be a metal, and not an organic compound. He truly believed that eleatino was a new form of, or a subset of, gold, and as such could be securely bonded and intertwined with gold, given the right technique.
The fact that Cellini, encountering plastic for the first time, mistook it for a precious metal, a new form of gold, is truly intriguing. His perception of the reality in this situation speaks to a greater truth, acknowledging that the quintessence of one material may be found within another material altogether. Alchemists saw gold in that basest of elements, lead, but lead is a naturally occurring element. What is tremendously exciting in the case of eleatin/plastic, is that Cellini is seeing that purest and most poetic of elements in a material that he knows is entirely synthetic.
Alchemy is an order which is not imposed, but inherent. It does not predict, but rather reveals. Let us consider the interaction between iron and water. Seen through the lens of science, we know that it is the result of oxidization: one element reacting with another to form a separate compound. Seen through the lens of alchemy, the interaction reveals a characteristic of each material which has until then remained hidden: the brittleness of water, the red hues of iron. Alchemy tells us that Proteus lurks in everything, and that we, like Menelaus, must approach him unawares. We must grab and hold him, and watch wonderingly as he twists and changes into a thousand forms in a bid to escape our scrutiny. And finally, as he tires of struggling, we must become attentive to him, and listen closely to what he reveals before slipping back into the sea.
In science, a relationship between two things is a reaction which creates a separate entity. In alchemy, a relationship between two things reveals mutual truths: inherent qualities made manifest by a chance happening. The nature of science is one of experimentation and observation in order to predict, the nature of alchemy is one of experimentation and observation in order to observe. John Cage, whose happenings were a peculiar type of alchemy, phrased it thus: â€œA happening should be like a net to catch a fish the nature of which one does not know.â€
Saussureâ€™s semiological system postulates a triangular relationship between two terms, a signifier and a signified, and a third, the sign, which is the associative total of signifier and signified. â€œRustâ€ (signifier) denotes the material iron oxide (signified), and one possible associative total is decay (sign). Barthes refers to myth as a â€œsecond order semiological systemâ€ in which the associative total of signifier and signified, sign, becomes a signifier in the next tier of triangular relationships. For example, in Neil Youngâ€™s 1979 album â€œRust Never Sleepsâ€, the word â€œRustâ€ does not signify iron oxide, it signifies decay, and the associative total is a sign that functions as a â€œmemento moriâ€. Language becomes rich with meaning by building upon itself in these groups of three. The apex, or sign, of a first tier triangle, which is the associative total of its base points (signifier and signified), becomes a signifier for a triangle of second tier, and so on, constructing increasing complex and difficult to unpack examples of linguistic architecture. Vision, however, is informed by a material dialectic. Eschewing the ordinary triangular means by which we construct meaning with language, and drawing instead on a dualism: a direct relationship between two signified. In this way, the objects are mutually transmuted to reveal an inherent transcendence, illuminated by the chance encounter at the crossroads.
In the picaresque that is alchemy, plastic is the free-wheeler through nature, the trickster at the crossroads, the traveler from a far-off place. Charting a course that leaves it saturated with wonder, it is more the trace of movement than an object, and sublimated as movement, it barely exists as substance. Its reality is negative: while density is a subset of movement, plastic contents itself with a neutral substantive attribute, resistance, which is simply an absence of yielding. While unyielding in substance, plastic acquiesces to a humble lot in the pantheon of poetic matter; it is the first magical substance that consents to be prosaic. It is refreshing for artifice to aim at something common rather than rare.
Gold is the alchemically unattainable, the quintessence of inertia, pure surface and mass. It is the material analog to the metaphysical constant, and occupies the untarnished pole position in the hierarchy of poetic matter. When we consider the dichotomy of gold and plastic, we are faced with the what I believe is the clearest distinction between the two types of devotional image: the image of ascent, and the image of descent. The image of ascent is the transfiguration of material, the image of descent is the receptiveness of matter.
In mistaking plastic for gold, Cellini saw beyond the surface of the material to its poetry, to the inversion of itself that it contained. His perception of it, while detrimental to his ability to work the material, indicates that in any material which occupies a diametrically opposed polar position to its materially inverted counterpart, we can see the reflection of that counterpart. Cellini looked at plastic and saw gold. Michelangelo look at marble and saw flesh. Both Morandi and Wallace Stevens looked at jars and saw landscape. Pollock looked at paint and saw noise. Pablo Neruda looked into the eyes of his dog, and he saw God. To truly look at a thing is to see its other, to see how it contains what it is not. In Molloy, Beckett writes "To restore silence is the role of objects...there could be no things but nameless things, no names but thingless names." We must join with the likes of Morandi, Neruda, Stevens in affirming that the poetic constant is an ever shifting protean inversion, and is nowhere to be so directly and clearly seen as in the dialectics of pure, wordless, material.