Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571): Goldsmith & sculptor

The Renaissance, also known as the Age of Humanism, was one of the most astonishingly productive and creative epochs of European History. For the first time ever, individual artists took centre-stage by the sheer dint of their personalities and genius, and opened up whole new vistas of painting, sculpture and architecture. The significant events of the period – and there were plenty of those in terms of political disorder, conflicts, epidemics, etc. – had surprisingly little adverse affect on these artists, and in fact, often courted and welcomed by both warring factions, they moved about with flamboyant impunity.

One such talented, celebrated figure was that of Benvenuto Cellini, a Florentine goldsmith and sculptor, who became one of the leading artisans under the Medici Rulers of the Middle and Late Renaissance. A larger-than-life character, whose highly engaging memoirs recreate a notable portrait of the ideological and social times of the sixteenth century Italian city-states, he apparently never had a dull moment in all his remarkable years. His travels took him from Florence to France, with many detours and stops in between, having extraordinary escapades and witnessing first-hand some of the most turbulent events in Europe.

Born in Florence, on November 3, 1500, to the musician and engineer Giovanni Cellini, who nurtured career aspirations as a Flautist for his son, Benvenuto rebelled and, at the age of 15, apprenticed himself instead as a goldsmith. He studied by turns under Michel Agnolo (Pinzi di Monte), Marcone (Florence), Francesco Castoro (Siena), Ercole del Piffero (Bologna), Scipione Cavalletti (Bologna), Ulivieri della Chiostra (Pisa), Firenzuola (Rome), Pagalo Arsago (Rome), Francesco Salimbene (Florence), and Santi (Rome), and was immensely inspired by the artists of the day like Michelangelo Buonarroti, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Francesco Lippi, Fillipo Lippi, and Fra Lippi. Displaying an innate, irrefutable skill, he soon acquired illustrious patrons like Pope Clement VII, the Bishop of Salamanca, Cardinal Cibo, Cardinal Cornaro, Ridolfi and Salviati of the Holy College, Signor Gabriello Ceserino who was the Gonfalconier of Rome, and this enabled him shortly to set up a goldsmith shop for himself. However, possessing a restless, strong-willed and wild temperament, Cellini was very rarely able to maintain an even keel in both his business and personal transactions. In 1519, he had been expelled from Florence for dueling and had gone to Rome only to get caught up in the Plague epidemic that claimed thousands of lives and in the city’s futile resistance against the Spaniards in 1527. Here – according to his own account – he played a prominent part, slaying both the Constable of Bourbon and the Prince of Orange, becoming an Artillery soldier, and coming under the personal notice of the beleaguered Pope. After the articles of peace were signed, Cellini obtained permission to return to his father in Florence and remained there briefly. The notable artworks of this early period were candelabras and vases for the Bishop of Salamanca, and an engraved gold medal of ‘Leda with her swans’ for wearing in the hat, which, though made for the Gonfalconier Ceserino, proved too expensive for him and remained with Cellini. It is now in the Museum of Vienna. During his Florentine sabbatical, Cellini designed a Christian reliquary and a pontifical seal for the Duke of Mantua. Next he created a gold hat medal depicting Hercules for the Sienese Girolamo Maretti, and a gold-crystal-lapis lazuli figurine of ‘Atlas carrying the heaven’ for the Neapolitan Federigo Ginori, which later ended up in the possession of Francis, King of France.

Soon thereafter the Pope declared war on Florence, but showed a special benevolence for the Florentine Cellini and compelled him to return to Rome. Cellini spent the next few years under his patronage, excelling in many artistic mediums and gaining recognition for his masterful designing of a magnificent Papal Cope button, gold doubloons, a chalice (left unfinished), jewel settings, caskets, vases and candlesticks. During this period, Cellini’s younger brother was murdered and he once more got embroiled in trouble. After two separate incidents in which he avenged his brother’s killer and wounded a city official, he was forced to flee to Naples. Pardoned and recalled by the dying Pope, he got into a hassle next with Pier Luigi, the son of the succeeding Pope Paul III, and was put to flight yet again. He went for a while to Florence, where he designed a gold coin for the Medici Duke Alessandro and remained until relations with Rome were restored. Then he went to work for the new Pope and produced a jeweled gold case for a Book of Hours of Our Lady that was presented to Emperor Charles V in honor of his victorious Tunisian Campaign. His good relations with the Pope however did not last and he was accused falsely of having stolen Church jewels during the Sack of Rome and imprisoned for a long time. After an escape attempt, recapture and reincarceration, he was finally released at the repeated behests of the King of France’s emissary, the Cardinal of Ferrera. Shortly thereafter, having finished a silver basin for the Cardinal, he left Rome never to return.

His next destination was France, where he was very warmly received and remained for five productive years, becoming a distinguished member of the Court and executing several famous works – the bronze lunette relief of the Nymph of Fontainebleau (Louvre, Paris), an elaborate gold and enameled salt-cellar for Francis (Museum of Vienna), large silver statues of Jupiter, Vulcan and Mars (now lost), various bronze heads, and silver vases. True to character though, he could not refrain from becoming enmeshed in several controversies with the French, particularly incurring the enmity of the King’s mistress, Madame d’Etampes, and thereby soon outliving his welcome. In 1545, receiving the timely invitation of Duke Cosimo I, he returned to Florence and this time stayed put in his native land.

In Florence, for Duke Cosimo I, he created some of the finest metal works of his long career, notably the bronze portrait bust of Cosimo de Medici (Bargello Museum, Florence), Ganymede on the Eagle (Bargello Museum, Florence), and, most acclaimed of all, the colossal bronze statue Perseus and Medusa (Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence). It is one of the most successful sculptural creations of the Renaissance, requiring a pioneering technique to bypass the difficulty of casting an 18 feet bronze figure. In the manner of his idol Michelangelo’s Pieta, Cellini’s signature is seen in large letters on a strap crossing Perseus’ breast and the huge nude figure is modeled with utmost anatomical precision. It caused a sensation on its installation and Bronzino, one of the last fairly good Florentine painters, composed sonnets in its praise. Four years later, in 1558, Cellini began to write his memoirs, which stop suddenly at the year 1562. During the last decade of his life, according to official documents, he married, raised a family, and litigated against former patrons for back-payments. Although he appears to have transacted several businesses, his work as an artist for various reasons fell back and gradually ceased altogether. His health, which had been wrecked by his long imprisonment in Rome, deteriorated with coming old age, and, on the 13th of February 1571, he breathed his last. He was buried with public honors in the Church of the Annunziata.

His Autobiography, which is responsible for much of his notoriety, was published posthumously nearly 150 years later, and has not been out of print since. It has been the inspiration for an outpouring of books, music, paintings, plays, TV dramas, and films.