The goldsmith and sculptor Benvenuto Cellini: a turbulent and artistic soul

Born on the 3rd of November 1500 in Florence, Benvenuto Cellini was a son of Giovanni Cellini and Maria Lisabetta Granacci.  As his father and mother were a musician and a creator of musical instruments, Benvenuto’s father wanted his son to become a musician.  At the age of 15, Giovanni grudgingly let his son become an apprentice of the Florentine goldsmith Antonio di Sandro.  Starting from his adolescence, Cellini was inclined to a scandalous lifestyle and extreme self-indulgence.  At 16, he was banished from Florence on the ground of his participation in an affray with his youthful companions to Siena.  Then he journeyed to Boulogne and Pisa, where he worked for other goldsmiths and also became a professional cornett and flute player.

Self-Portrait of Benvenuto Cellini, paper and graphite, c 1540-43
Medallion with Leda and the Swan by Benvenuto Cellini

Not hurrying to return to his native city, Cellini went to Rome, where his career progressed substantially.  One of his first works in Rome were a beautiful silver casket, silver candlesticks, and a vase for the Bishop of Salamanca, who recommended him to Pope Clement VII.  Cellini created the gold medallion of ‘Leda and the Swan’ for the Florentine Gonfaloniere Gabbriello Cesarino.  Thanks to his talent with the cornett (a Renaissance and early Baroque wind musical instrument popular from 1500 to 1650), Cellini was appointed one of the papal court musicians.  During the Sack of Rome of 1527 by the Imperial forces commanded by Charles III, Duke de Bourbon and the former Constable of France, Cellini warned the Pope about the attack on Rome, and according to some sources, he shot and killed Charles de Bourbon.

Soon Cellini came back to Florence, priding himself on his bravery during the Sack of Rome.  Now a more experienced goldsmith, Cellini got many commissions from local aristocrats and focused on crafting medals.  The most famous of them included: ‘Hercules and the Nemean Lion’ in gold repoussé work, and ‘Atlas supporting the Sphere’ in chased gold.  A restless man by nature, Cellini soon traveled to Mantua and worked for the Gonzaga ducal family.  He then headed to Rome where he received orders for medals and for the papal mint.  Despite having an artistic soul, Cellini was an intemperate and ruthless man: for example, in 1529, Benvenuto killed his older brother’s murderer in revenge and fled to Naples.  Later, Benvenuto murdered in rage his rival goldsmith Pompeo of Milan.  In spite of his violence, the artist managed to gain favor of the new Pope Paul III who succeeded Pope Clement VII, so he was pardoned.

The Nymph of Fontainebleau, by Benevenuto Cellini, now in the Louvre (1542)

Cellini was then invited to France by the art-loving King François I of France.  In 1536, he created a portrait medal of the French monarch.  When he returned to Rome in 1537, the artist was arrested and imprisoned on the charges of embezzlement, and Cardinal d’Este of Ferrara, one of his clients, assisted him in being released.  In 1539, Cellini again went to France and lived at the Valois court for several years, where he had a mistresses and even several bastards.  He executed a saltcellar in gold for the king, which was his only fully authenticated work in precious metal.  Pleased with his work, the Valois ruler gave Cellini letters of naturalization and commissioned 12 silver candlesticks decorated with figures from mythology.  A pleased Cellini designed one of them with decorations of the Roman goddess Juno (a daughter of Saturn and the wife of Jupiter) – it is now kept in the Louvre, Paris.  One of Cellini’s most famed works is a large bronze lunette of the Nymph of Fontainebleau for the entrance to the palace, as well as the project of a colossal figure of Mars for a projected fountain at Fontainebleau, which was lost.

Despite his love for France, Cellini returned to Florence, where the young and art-loving Cosimo de’ Medici (later 1st Grand Duke of Tuscany) became his new patron.  The artist produced his most illustrious sculptural work – the bronze ‘Perseus with the Head of Medusa’ in Florence’s Loggia dei Lanzi, where it still stands.  Cellini also executed a large bust of Cosimo de’ Medici.  Due to his participation in public scandals, he was again compelled to flee to Venice in 1546, where he created several marble figures, including that of Apollo and Hyacinth (1546) and that of Narcissus (1546-47).  Upon his return to Florence, Cellini completed the work ‘The Escorial Crucifix’ (1556), which showed and proved the superiority of his art to the works of his competitors – Bartolommeo Ammannati and Baccio Bandinelli.  At least, this time Cellini did not kill them!  Many of his works for Cosimo and for his other patron – the banker Bindo Altoviti – are now kept in the Palazzo del Bargello, or Museo Nazionale del Bargello, in Florence.

Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini

Despite his contradictory personality, Benvenuto Cellini was one of the most interesting and famed artists of Mannerism and High Renaissance.  He is notable for his skills as a goldsmith and a sculptor, as well as his autobiography where he wrote about his life rich for adventures and accomplishments.  Both of his famous patrons – François I of France and Cosimo de’ Medici – admired his talents.  Cellini finished his autobiography in 1562, and in 1565, he started writing his treatises about goldsmiths’ work and sculpture – ‘the Trattato dell’oreficeria and the Trattato della scultura.’  At the beginning of his biography, Benvenuto Cellini wrote:

“All men of whatsoever quality they be, who have done anything of excellence, or which may properly resemble excellence, ought, if they are persons of truth and honesty, to describe their life with their own hand; but they ought not to attempt so fine an enterprise till they have passed the age of forty. This duty occurs to my own mind now that I am travelling beyond the term of fifty-eight years, and am in Florence, the city of my birth. Many untoward things can I remember, such as happen to all who live upon our earth; and from those adversities I am now more free than at any previous period of my career-nay, it seems to me that I enjoy greater content of soul and health of body than ever I did in bygone years. I can also bring to mind some pleasant goods and some inestimable evils, which, when I turn my thoughts backward, strike terror in me, and astonishment that I should have reached this age of fifty-eight, wherein, thanks be to God, I am still travelling prosperously forward.” 

Bust of Cosimo de’ Medici by Benvenuto Cellini

First printed in Italy in 1728, Cellini’s autobiography was translated into English in 1771, German in 1796, and French in 1822.  Because of the book’s surprising, sometimes scandalous, frankness and its superb authenticity, it quickly gained such wide popularity in Europe, which it contributed to the development of the Romantic movement in the 18th-century culture.

After briefly attempting a clerical career, in 1562, Cellini married a servant – young Piera Parigi, with whom he claimed to have 5 children, of whom only a son and 2 daughters survived.  The artist must have been quite a healthy man to sire children on his spouse at such an advance age, for Cellini was already 62 at the time of his wedding.  Cellini was also a member of the Academy of the Arts of Drawing of Florence (Accademia delle Arti del Disegno) founded by the Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici in 1563.  The artist passed away on the 13th of February 1571 and was interred with pomp in the church of the Florentine Santissima Annunziata.

All images are in the public domain.

Text © 2020 Olivia Longueville