The Florentine Benvenuto Cellini—contemporary of Michelangelo, Titian, Tintoretto, and Jacopo Sansovino—was a completely natural man of his time. Utterly unselfconscious and uncritical, he presents himself through his Autobiography in the context of the Italian Renaissance, totally involved in its art, its politics, its religion, and its culture. His was the life engagée, and his Autobiography reflects what Italian Renaissance life was really like.
Characteristically, Cellini’s temper and temperament were, by later standards, a mixture of extremes. He loved and he hated; he concentrated intensely and he wasted time. In his lifetime, he killed several men, yet he was at the same time tender, compassionate, and concerned about both men and women when he was convinced they were in need of succor. His love affairs were equally extravagant. He loved many women, produced at least six offspring out of wedlock (some of whom were legitimated), but married only once, from which union issued two legitimate children. He frequently offended powerful men in high positions, and, as a consequence, he spent some time in prison and at other times was banished or exiled from his home, wherever it happened to be. At still other times, he was richly rewarded. He was obsessed with vengeance and honor. He killed his brother’s murderer and took revenge for other outrages. He insisted on maintaining his honor, regardless of how onerous the circumstances might be. In fact, honor and revenge were the key concepts in his life and, in turn, keys to the Renaissance mind.
This Renaissance fusion of apparent contradictions also delineates the versatility of the period. As a man of letters, Cellini wrote his autobiography (most of it dictated to a scribe), valuable treatises on goldsmithery and sculpture, and other discourses on art. Some of his letters and his petitions survive. He also produced some poetry, which has been largely ignored. He wrote in the lusty Tuscan dialect, more vital than other conventional modes of communication. Cellini is best known, deservedly, as a goldsmith and a sculptor, but he was also an adept swordsman and a diligent soldier, and his engineering skills—particularly in the martial sphere—should not be underrated. This range of accomplishments was typical of cultured men of Cellini’s time.
Despite his talents, Cellini was dependent on patronage and relied for his livelihood on commissions for artistic works from wealthy patrons. Hence, among other works, he executed vases and other vessels and plates as well as a variety of medals and jewelry for popes and prelates, royalty and nobles; busts and statuary for...
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