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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2888

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.

Early Life

Benvenuto Cellini was born in...

(The entire section contains 2888 words.)

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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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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 supply) had slandered him to the pope, who became angry at Cellini, underpaid him for his work, and refused to send him with the book to the emperor, who had requested his presence.

At this point, Cellini decided to travel to France (he left April 1, 1537). He met at this time Ippolito I, Cardinal d’Este of Ferrara, who commissioned a basin and a jug from him; this friendship later proved to be his entrée with the King of France, Francis I. Becoming ill, Cellini returned to Rome. He was soon recalled to France by Francis through the Cardinal d’Este but, before he could leave, he was arrested by the pope and imprisoned in the Castle Sant’Angelo for allegedly stealing the papal jewels, entrusted to him at the time of the invasion of Rome in 1527. Pier’ Luigi, the pope’s natural son, was apparently behind this plot; Cellini writes that Pier’ Luigi wanted to obtain Cellini’s property. Francis requested Cellini of the pope but was refused.

During Cellini’s long prison stay, which severely impaired his health, he survived poisoning attempts and political maneuvering; he was finally extracted from the papal clutches in 1539 by means of the deft diplomacy of the Cardinal d’Este, at the behest of Francis. Cellini brought out of prison a long poem he had composed there, which he reproduced in his autobiography, La vita di Benvenuto Cellini (The Life of Benvenuto Cellini, 1771), which was not published until 1728. The Cardinal d’Este brought Cellini back to France, where he arrived in 1540. Soon after his arrival, Cellini became dissatisfied with his treatment by the cardinal and tried to leave France on a pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre. This near loss made the cardinal more attentive and drew the attention of the king, who gave Cellini a large salary and a small castle in Paris in which to work. In 1542, Cellini was granted letters of naturalization by the king, and in 1543 he completed for the king the great saltcellar.

This saltcellar, one of Cellini’s most famous works, has two figures in gold: a male representing the sea who holds a small ship (which holds the salt) and a facing female figure representing the land. Her hand rests on a small temple (which holds the pepper). The legs of the figures are intertwined as they halfway recline on an oval base. The piece is beautifully ornamented and enameled, and can be seen in any illustrated collection of Cellini’s works. Cellini created many other works for Francis. Among these was a silver candlestick: a life-size figure of Jupiter, mounted on rollers, holding a (functioning) torch in one hand. Several pieces he did in France do survive: the Nymph of Fontainebleau (1545) and an accompanying satyr are among them. He began to make models for a monumental figure of Mars and accompanying smaller allegorical figures for a fountain at Fontainebleau, but this work never reached completion. Cellini had incurred the ire of the king’s mistress, Madame d’Étampes; he apparently did not realize the extent of her power, especially in the realm of art commissions. She resented Cellini’s obliviousness to her power and bitterly opposed his projects; her opposition was sufficient to prevent any new projects of his from coming to fruition.

Frustrated in his work, in 1545 Cellini asked leave to travel to Florence. The king denied him permission while the Cardinal d’Este told him he could leave; he left on what was meant to be a brief trip, but he never returned. In his autobiography, he often regrets his departure from France. In Florence, he visited Cosimo I de’Medici and described for him all that he had done for Francis. Cosimo asked Cellini to make, for the piazza of Florence, a statue of Perseus, symbolizing Cosimo’s own victory over the Gorgon of republicanism. The Perseus would be in grand company—Michelangelo’s David (1501- 1504) and Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes (1456- 1457) already stood in the piazza. This was Cellini’s chance to make his name as a sculptor in his home city, a city renowned for sculpture. He regarded the commission as an honor but received only about a third of the money he requested for the piece. The piece was finally finished and revealed fully to the public on April 27, 1554. It was greeted with great public acclaim; art criticism was a democratic activity in the Florence of those days. Cosimo, standing half-hidden at a window of the palace, heard the praise of the crowds. He apparently wanted to know the sentiments of the crowd before he expressed his own. The acclaim of the public allowed him to be equally pleased with the piece.

During his stay in Florence, Cellini had begun to work in marble. He restored an antique Ganymede for Cosimo and did a life-size Christ in white marble on a cross in black marble; this was to be for his own tomb (the piece is now in the Escorial). At this time, he induced Cosimo to have a competition among the Florentine sculptors for a beautiful block of marble, meant for a statue of Neptune, that had been quarried for Bandinelli (a hated rival of Cellini who had since died). Cellini did not get this commission, he thought, because of the opposition of Cosimo’s wife, who thought him too haughty. At the end of his autobiography, he portrays himself as involved in rather acrimonious negotiations with Cosimo for making the Neptune from a different block of marble. This task was never accomplished.

Soon afterward, Cellini left Cosimo’s service and established his own shop again, doing goldsmith’s work for many clients. His life is poorly documented after this time, because it is not included in his autobiography and because he had fewer dealings with influential people. The writing of his autobiography is his most important work of this period, during which he also wrote his treatises on sculpture and on goldsmithing, Trattati dell’oreficeria e della scultura (1568; The Treatises of Benvenuto Cellini on Goldsmithing and Sculpture, 1898), which he published himself much later.

In 1557, in Florence, Cellini was condemned to four years in prison for sodomy, though this sentence was reduced to four years of confinement in his own house. During this time, he dictated his autobiography to a fourteen-year-old boy, while working at projects in his studio. In 1559, a version of his autobiography was completed, and Cellini gave it to the famed Benedetto Varchi, a Florentine writer and scholar, for criticism. Varchi liked the colloquial style and told Cellini to retain it. Cellini continued work on his autobiography until 1562. He died in Florence in 1571.

Summary

Benvenuto Cellini’s life represents what is meant by the phrase Renaissance man. He was an immensely able, curious, and active practitioner of many civilized arts: drawing, music, sculpture, goldsmithing, swordplay, military strategy and architecture, conversation, and literature. His appearance was apparently pleasing, though no contemporary likenesses exist. He was social, well connected, and confident, and felt himself the equal of any by virtue of his skill. His directness and enthusiasm in The Life of Benvenuto Cellini seem to represent the spirit of his age.

As an artist, Cellini was both an excellent craftsman and a technically innovative and formally inventive sculptor. He could combine the Renaissance virtues of beautiful form and new technologies into works that can stand with the best of his day. It is unfortunate that, because of his temperament, the circumstances of his life, and the occasional uncooperativeness of patrons, his skill was not generally allowed the scope it needed. It is also unfortunate that, because many of his works were executed in precious metals, few of them survive, many having been melted down.

His greatest work, however, is not so much a work of art, perhaps, as of personality. His autobiography provides a most vivid picture of life in the Renaissance; it is undoubtedly tainted by exaggeration and boasting, but even these characteristics reveal aspects of an age of great energy. Cellini was an extremely subtle observer; through his description, figures that would otherwise be little more than names are revealed in detail. His own personality is revealed without caution and a thoroughly charming self-portrait of a fascinating man appears.

Bibliography

Avery, C. “Benvenuto Cellini’s Bust of Bindo Altoviti.” The Connoisseur 198 (May, 1978): 62-72. An unusual look at one of Cellini’s portrait bronzes. Not very penetrating, but it does give some account of a mode of work in which the sculptor excelled and for which he is little remembered.

Cellini, Benvenuto. The Life of Benvenuto Cellini. Translated with an introduction by John Addington Symonds. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1961. This is the standard English translation of Cellini’s autobiography. It is faulted on several counts, largely for its tendency to clean up and standardize Cellini’s vigorous and colloquial Italian, yet it is coherent and very readable. Includes footnotes that put into context the many characters in Cellini’s story.

Cellini, Benvenuto. The Treatises of Benvenuto Cellini on Goldsmithing and Sculpture. Translated by C. R. Ashby. London: E. Arnold, 1898. This work by Cellini describes his beliefs about the trades to which he devoted his life.

Pope-Hennessy, John. Cellini. New York: Abbeville Press, 1985. This magnificent work contains full photodocumentation of Cellini’s surviving works and drawings, and the casts of some that have been lost. Pope-Hennessy has written an absorbing and readable essay on Cellini’s life and works for the book. Contains much information not in Cellini’s autobiography. His descriptions of Cellini as an accountant, record-keeper, and litigant are especially fascinating, revealing Cellini’s nonswashbuckling side. The book is probably the best source on Cellini next to the autobiography and makes good use of many contemporary sources. Includes a good index, notes, and a bibliography.

Vasari, Giorgio. Lives of the Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. Translated with an introduction by William Gaunt. London: Dent, 1963. This four-volume work is a trove of biographical information on Renaissance artists, compiled and written by a fellow artist and contemporary. Although there is no separate entry on Cellini, he is mentioned in many of the other artists’ biographies. Includes an index.

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