At the age of fifty-eight, Benvenuto Cellini begins to set down his memoirs. After relating a fictional version of the founding of Florence by his ancestors, he starts the story of his life. Benvenuto’s father plans for his son to be a musician, and as a boy Benvenuto is taught to play the flute and sing. His father’s lessons in music fail to interest him, however, and at the age of fifteen Cellini apprentices himself to a goldsmith. Cellini says of himself that he has a natural bent for the work and in a few months he has surpassed men long in the trade. As an apprentice and, later, as a journeyman goldsmith, Cellini travels through Italy doing fine work and acting the part of a bravo. He becomes an excellent swordsman and handler of the poniard, as he proves when he kills an enemy in a street brawl.
In 1527, the constable of Bourbon marches on Rome and besieges Pope Clement VII in his fortress. Cellini, then in Rome and in sympathy with the pope, serves the pontiff valiantly as an artillerist and as a goldsmith, having been commissioned by the besieged prelate to melt down jewelry and turn it into a more transportable form. Later, Cellini boasts that during the siege he killed the constable of Bourbon and wounded the prince of Orange.
After the siege is lifted and a truce declared, Cellini returns to Florence and kills the murderer of his brother. He later goes to Mantua. After falling ill with fever in that city, he returns to Florence. When Pope Clement declares war on Florence, however, Cellini leaves his shop and trade to enter the papal service. While in Rome, he makes a medallion of tremendous size for the papal cope, a work that is the beginning of his fortunes, for the splendid button greatly pleases the pontiff for whom he made it. From then on, during Clement’s life, Cellini does much work for the Papacy. His career under Pope Clement is nevertheless a stormy one. His fiery temper often causes him no end of trouble, as when he receives the commission of the papal mint and then loses it because of his foolhardy and unmannerly actions. He kills an enemy in a quarrel but is lucky enough to be pardoned by his patron.
Cellini’s greatest commission from Pope Clement is for a gold chalice. The chalice is never finished, for Clement dies. During the last years of his life, however, the chalice is a matter of contention between the pope and his goldsmith. Cellini tends to work too slowly to suit the pope, and the pope, according to Cellini’s account, often forgets that gold is needed to make the vessel.
Upon the accession of Cardinal Farnese as Pope Paul III, Cellini goes into his service for a time. He is away from Rome a great deal, however, at one time taking service with Cosimo de’ Medici, the duke of Florence. Upon his return to Rome, Cellini is imprisoned on a charge of homicide. The pope grants him safe conduct for a time, but eventually he is imprisoned. Only after many difficulties does he receive a pardon.
Cellini comes to the notice of Emperor Charles V when that monarch visits Rome and is presented by the pope with a book of hours bound into a gold cover encrusted with jewels, the work of Cellini. A short time later, Cellini is sent for by Francis I, the king of France, but before he can leave Rome he is accused of theft and thrown into prison by the pope’s bargello, or police force. Cellini clears himself of the charge, but he has made so many enemies that he is kept in prison for many months and suffers, at times, cruel punishment.
Action on Cellini’s behalf by King Francis only serves to make his lot harder. At last, Cellini manages to escape by using bedsheets to lower himself from the prison tower and over the prison walls. Having broken his leg in flight, he is recaptured. Released after a long period of confinement, he finds asylum with a French cardinal and, with the aid of Cardinal d’Este of Ferrara, makes his way to France.
In France, with King Francis as his patron, the goldsmith and artist...
(The entire section is 1,320 words.)