Hard to imagine a salt and pepper pot could excite much interest. After all, you get them for around €3.50 from Ikea. If you have something more than €50 million spare, though, you could try and purchase the Saliera…
- Fabulous golden salt cellar from the mid-16th century
- Originally created by Benvenuto Cellini for King Francis I of France
- Once thought lost after an art theft
- Entered Habsburg hands as a gift to Archduke Ferdinand II
- See also: Kunsthistorisches Museum tickets & visitor info | Best art exhibits
The Cellini salt cellar
The Saliera occupies pride of place in the Kunstkammer Chamber of Wonders at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum (better known as the KHM).
The Kunstkammer bursts with amazing items and sits proudly in my top 10 places to visit. But the Saliera towers over everything. Ostensibly, it’s a piece of tableware to hold salt and pepper. And two receptacles (a ship and temple) do indeed serve that purpose.
But it’s so much more than that.
Taking a pinch of salt or pepper from the Saliera is an act of submission, an acknowledgement that you are mere dirt on the shoe of the owner’s prestige and power.
(Salt cellar (Saliera) Benvenuto Cellini 1540-1543, Paris, gold, enamel, ebony, ivory 26.3 cm x 28.5 cm x 21.5 cm © Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien)
Inside the gallery it calls home, the Saliera rests on its own in a free-standing glass cabinet, spotlights creating a pool of light in a low-lit room. Two figures rest on its surface, legs intertwined. A man (“Sea”) holds a trident and sits back almost lasciviously, six-pack to the fore. Opposite him, a woman (“Land”) reclines with one hand pinching a breast.
Elsewhere, a few glass display cases hold other French treasures. For example, some 16th-century cameos, a pendant of gold and enamel, or 16th-century painted enamel tableware from Limoges. These are just window dressing in the presence of the Saliera.
Gold is the piece’s dominant theme, urged into place by the hands of Benvenuto Cellini, an Italian goldsmith, sculptor and all-round creative genius. Few of his works have survived, but the Saliera is one of them.
(Ferdinand II of Tyrol, one-time owner of the Saliera
Image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum)
Cellini completed his salt cellar in 1543 as a commission for Francis I, King of France. A later king, Charles IX, made a gift of it to Archduke Ferdinand II of Tyrol, architect of the enormous Schloss Ambros collection that later passed into the ownership of the KHM.
The Saliera’s story does not end there, though. The salt cellar fell victim to an opportunistic theft in 2003. Fortunately, a contrite thief led police to its whereabouts just under three years later.
How to get to the Saliera
Once you’ve found the KHM, enter the main entrance hall with its glorious dome; the stairs to the left take you up into the Kunstkammer.
Once inside the Kunstkammer, go straight on through the galleries until you can’t go any further and have to turn left or right. On the left is Gallery 24 (Saal XXIV) and inside is the Saliera.
Address: Burgring 7, 1010 Vienna