Article abstract: Cellini is acknowledged as perhaps the finest goldsmith in Renaissance Italy. His sculpture, represented by his bronze Perseus, was also superb. He is, however, best known for his lively and spirited autobiography, which transmits his spirit and that of his age.
Benvenuto Cellini was born in Florence at the beginning of the Cinquecento. He was the son of Giovanni Cellini, an architect and engineer, who was also a passionate amateur musician, and of Elisabetta Granacci, the daughter of a neighbor. Cellini describes his parents’ marriage as a love match: Elisabetta married without a dowry. Benvenuto was born to them after some twenty years of marriage, during which time they had one daughter. Cellini’s father dearly wished him to become a musician, a flutist, while Benvenuto himself wished to study art. This struggle, a friendly one, continued between the two for many years. When Benvenuto reached the age of fifteen, he apprenticed himself, against his father’s will, as a goldsmith in the studio of Andrea di Sandro Marcone. He was not paid wages and so was not compelled to do much of the menial labor that fell to paid apprentices. He used his extra time to study drawing, a study he continued all of his life and one of the things that made him much more than a mere craftsman.
About a year into this apprenticeship, he became involved in a duel in support of his younger brother; the duel rapidly developed into a brawl. In this year, 1516, Benvenuto was banished from Florence for six months. He went to Siena and worked for a goldsmith there, until he was recalled to Florence by the Cardinal de’Medici at the elder Cellini’s request (the Cellinis were Medici adherents through all the changes in Florentine government; Benvenuto continued this tradition, although his vigorous sense of amour propre meant that his relations with the great were always rather testy). Benvenuto was then sent by his father to study music in Bologna, but the youth also worked with a goldsmith there. He returned to Florence after several months and eventually made peace with his father on the art or music question.
Leaving for Rome at about age sixteen, Benvenuto ended up in Pisa for a year. While in Pisa, he worked as a goldsmith and studied the local antiquities. Returning to Florence, he studied the work of Michelangelo, whom he regarded as the greatest modern sculptor. Finally, in 1519, he did travel to Rome but returned, after two years, to Florence, from where in 1523 he had to flee under sentence of death for fighting.
Benvenuto fled to Rome and soon began to receive important commissions from the Bishop of Salamanca, Sigismondo Chigi, from his wife, Porzia, and from Pope Clement VII. At this time, he was artistically mature; he began to work for himself and not for other goldsmiths and established a shop of his own in Rome. What would be the pattern of his life had taken shape: a peripatetic habit, often set in motion of necessity, because of his terrible temper and tendency to violence; many important commissions; a great reputation for his work coupled with frequent disputes with his patrons; and much trouble with the law.
In Rome, Cellini’s fine work in drawing, jewelry, and larger pieces such as serving plates and candelabras very soon caught the notice of rich and influential patrons. He was a musician, briefly, in Clement’s orchestra; he did many drawings in the style of Michelangelo and Raphael; he made jewelry and set and estimated the value of jewels; he made cast and carved plate and ornamental silver; and he designed and struck medals and coinage. He was also drawn to military life during this period and participated in the defense of Rome in 1527, during the invasion of Italy by the Holy Roman Empire. He claimed to have shot the Constable of Bourbon and the Prince of Orange during the defense, and there is some evidence that his claims could be true. At this time, his sculptor’s knowledge of structure and spatiality, translated into engineering, was useful in ordering the pope’s artillery. Later he would design fortifications in Florence. (It was common for sculptors in this period to be called on to use their engineering skills to design weapons, fortifications, and buildings for their cities of residence.)
While in Rome, Cellini was often distracted from his art by his music and also by romantic dalliance. His ambition to excel in all branches of goldsmithing, coinage, and sculpture also served to distract him from the relatively single-minded pursuit of one medium which was the norm then and now, for craftsmen. Most artists specialized in certain aspects of their art. Cellini was an endlessly ambitious and curious student of many arts and always was a leader in technical innovations in sculpture and goldsmithing.
After the invasion of Rome, Cellini left for Florence, intending to raise a company and become a captain under the famous condottiere Orazio Baglioni. On hearing this, Cellini’s father sent him to Mantua so that he would not be called on to fulfill his obligation to Baglioni. Cellini went to Mantua, executed some small works for the duke there, quarreled with him, and returned to Florence, where he discovered that his father and sister Cosa had died of the plague. His brother and another sister remaining, he stayed in Florence until Clement declared war on the city and requested Cellini’s presence in Rome.
In danger of being arrested as a traitor or spy because of these communications from Clement, Cellini traveled to Rome in 1529. He received at this time the commission from Clement for the famous morse (a clasp or button for a cope), now lost. Its design is recorded in three eighteenth century drawings in the British Museum: God the Father, in half relief is over a large diamond in the center of the morse, and the diamond is supported by three children. At this time also, Cellini began to make the steel dies for the pope’s coinage and was appointed maestro della stampe at the papal mint.
After Clement’s death in 1534, Cellini seized the opportunity of the resultant civic disorder to kill a rival goldsmith, Pompeo; he was absolved of this murder by the new pope Paul III, partly because of the support of influential friends such as Cardinal Francesco Cornaro and Cardinal Ippolito de’Medici, and partly because the new pope wished to retain him as master of the mint.
In 1536, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V arrived in Rome for his triumphal entry as conqueror of the city. Cellini had been commissioned by Paul to make the gifts for the emperor and empress: a crucifix in gold and a jeweled golden case for a richly illuminated Book of Hours. The works were not finished at the time of the arrival of the emperor (April 6, 1536), and the pope told Cellini to offer himself along with the gifts in order to see the work to its conclusion. By the time this was done, an enemy of Cellini (of which he always seemed to have a good...
(The entire section is 2888 words.)