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Plank, R. (1957). On "Seeing the Salamander". Psychoanal. St. Child, 12:379-398.

(1957). Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 12:379-398

Applied Psychoanalysis

On "Seeing the Salamander"

Robert Plank


One of the few specific childhood memories that Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571) relates in his autobiography is this:

When I was about five years old, my father happened to be in our basement … where a good fire of oaken logs was burning. He had a viola in his hand and was playing and singing all alone by the fire. It was very cold. As he gazed into the fire, he chanced to see in the middle of the hottest flames a little creature like a lizard which was sporting about in the strongest flame. He instantly perceived what it was, had my sister and me called, pointed it out to us children and gave me a violent box on the ear which immediately made me cry. He comforted me kindly. "Sonny," he said, "I did not hit you for any wrong you did, my darling, but only to make you remember that this lizard which you saw in the fire is a salamander, a creature which has never been seen by anyone else of whom we have a true report." And so he kissed me and gave me some pennies.

What did Giovanni Cellini and his children see? Obviously not a specimen of the real animal which is now called salamander—or of any real animal, for that matter. What they thought they saw was a being of much nobler lineage than the lowly amphibian: a creature well known to fable and myth, though a total stranger to zoology.

Giovanni Cellini projected. The similar projections that we encounter today are usually solicited and attenuated. A Rorschach subject may well see a salamander in Card VIII, but will say that the blot "looks like" salamanders.

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