Cold Marble, Hot Memories

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Antonio Canova. Perseus with the Head of Medusa, 1804–06.

            It was a much later piece, though, that changed my life: Antonio Canova’s early 19th-century Perseus with the Head of Medusa.  At the time, this statue loomed on a landing at the top of a mammoth staircase, its placement making the space around it feel like an altar. I knew nothing of the neoclassical Italian sculptor, but I had read about Perseus the monster slayer and the snake-headed Gorgon Medusa, whose stare could turn people to stone. Who wouldn’t want a gift like that? Even cut from her body, the eyes in that head were fearful weapons.

            Shy then, bookish, easily bullied, and living in the shadow of an older brother who seemed to get all the attention I craved, I relished the Perseus, would have gulped it down if it were a drink. Easily three times my size, Perseus was all graceful, cool triumph as he held Medusa’s grotesque head at arm’s length. His strength, his beauty, and yes, his perfect nude body, filled me with longing not just to be him, but to create something, anything.

            I returned to him on each visit, engrossed, inspired.

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Lev Raphael, a pioneer in queer Jewish writing and author of 27 books, mentors and edits writers at writewithoutborders.com.

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