Salt and pepper: experts discuss art’s essential ingredients

Housed at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Benvenuto Cellini’s famous Saliera salt cellar is one of the most eminent artworks in the world. Its spectacular theft and return to the museum some years ago made headlines across the globe. Petra Schäpers, Managing Director at Dorotheum Düsseldorf and specialist in contemporary art, and Maria Cristina Paoluzzi, Managing Director at Dorotheum Rome and specialist in Old Masters, sat down to discuss Cellini’s Saliera and the ingredients of art in general.

Salt, pepper…what are the essential ingredients of art?

SaltSalt, pepper, oil and vinegar … (Laughs) No, seriously: the essential ingredients of art? I’ll give a pragmatic answer: it’s oil and canvas, pencil and paper. I know that’s a very traditional view. Describing contemporary art is an art of its own; the techniques are becoming more elaborate and the materials more and more sophisticated, whereas traditional materials like water tempera and acrylic seem almost ordinary.

PepperWater and soil – the combination of different elements becomes visible in the use of different materials and means of expression. Metaphorically speaking, art is the perfect balance between the “salt” of tradition and the “spicy” essence of pepper. Let me give you an example: to me, Picasso is like salt, Caravaggio like pepper. It’s the balance that makes art unique, though sometimes also the lack of it.

Cellini had a strong personality. What impact does an artist’s personality have on the art world, on his own pieces, and in general?

SaltCellini was a daredevil, very much like Caravaggio. I do think the personality of the artist plays an important role. After all, their art is their brainchild. And of course the artist’s image is essential as well. Van Gogh’s publicity is not least attributable to his cut-off ear, to name a well-known example. Or think of Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys, artist personalities who not only represent their work but actually personify it.

Personality is fundamental and makes all the difference: think of how Michelangelo or Pontormo are seen by historians. Raphael and the Court, on the other hand, or Parmigianino or modernists like Degas or Klimt were attributed quite different personalities. Art is the expression of a personality, a personality that varies greatly – just think of Cattelan, Kiefer, Burri, and other names from the latest generation.

Reception of antiquity – is it timeless or old news?


PepperTimeless, for sure. In my opinion, the discovery of the past and the reception of antiquity has been a leitmotif of art through the ages. In medieval times, the popes referenced antiquity to restore the ancient basilicas. In the Renaissance, the resurrection of classical antiquity included the rediscovery of Vitruvius, Alberti, Leonardo, and the Domus Aurea. In the Baroque age, the idea was once again to change everything: Bernini used the language of classical form to reinvent art. He brought marble to life as if in a meta-morphosis. Then came Canova, Neoclassicism and Impressionism as an inevitable countermovement to the past. In the Early Modern Age, there was a continuous balance between the past and present … Today the past both breathes life into and nourishes artistic expression.

SaltI agree, the reception of antiquity is timeless. Pompeian wall painting, for example, resurfaced in the Renaissance and it does again in modern-day painting, both in terms of form language and in terms of themes, which range from daily life to mythology. In his paintings, Cy Twombly famously translated aspects of mythology into graphic characters. The themes and motifs may be more wide-ranging today, but antiquity is still frequently referenced. While Venus was a common motif in antiquity, artists have always been fascinated with female beauty and nudity. This is equally true for Titian, Velázquez and Modigliani as it is for Jeff Koons, who not only transfigured “Cicciolina” into a provocative “modern-day goddess” but has recently produced copies of antique sculptures. Hans-Peter Feldmann redefined Michelangelo’s
“David” by adding loud colours. There are numerous examples of how antiquity is still reinterpreted as a subject today.

The theft of the Saliera – does the history of an artwork influence the art object itself
or its value?

SaltTo be honest, I’d almost forgotten it was ever stolen. The Saliera has always been a masterpiece of extreme art-historical importance, both b efore and after its theft.

PepperThe Saliera is one of the most extraordinary pieces of art in the world, the work of a genius; it combines both perfection and contrast. If anything, the theft made it even more famous – that is to say, beyond the world of specialists. I do believe that the history of an artwork is important. Let me give you an example: if Caravaggio’s “Nativity” should ever reappear, what would be its value today?

What influence did commissioners have on pieces of art, and what role do they play today?

SaltObviously patronage has played a major role in art for centuries. Cardinals and popes, aristocrats and collectors have influenced artists. But the relationship between commissioner and artist is not always an easy one: Michelangelo had his arguments with Pope Julius II, the Habsburgs had to cope with Titian’s strong personality, Lorenzo de’ Medici struggled with Botticelli, and Leonardo with the Sforza in Milan. Today, the great support of international patrons is making it possible to restore art all over the world, and major museums still hone their collections through private support.


PepperI think patrons in those days had a greater influence on court artists than they do today; think of Titian, Van Dyck … Things are different now: patronage is less important, there are no more court artists, and the art market is a global one. Are there really so many collectors who commission works? I don’t think so. At least not as many as there used to be. Still, many more collectors nowadays support artists, which makes them modern patrons, I guess.


Petra Schäpers is a specialist in modern and contemporary art and representative of Dorotheum in Düsseldorf
Maria Cristina Paoluzzi is a specialist in Old Master paintings and representative of Dorotheum in Rome

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