Benvenuto Cellini

The Italian goldsmith and sculptor Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571) is considered the greatest goldsmith of the Italian Renaissance. He was also the author of the celebrated "Autobiography."

Given the immense pride that Benvenuto Cellini took in his talents, it is ironic that very few certain examples of his art as a sculptor exist today and that he is best known for his Autobiography. It is an extraordinary record of absorbing interest on many levels: a spirited and candid revelation of a complex character; a narrative of historical importance for its account of the working life of a 16th-century artist in his relations with his family, friends, enemies, and patrons; and a document of great interest for a description of the techniques of sculpture which has still not been fully investigated. Cellini stopped working on his Autobiography in 1558, and it was not published until 1728. It enchanted the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who wrote the first of countless translations; served as the basis for an opera by Hector Berlioz, Benvenuto Cellini (1837); and even stimulated the production of films for the 20th century centered on this colorful life that seems to fulfill every demand of the romantic conception of the artist.

However colorful the Cellini myth has become and however significant the response to this legend as an indication of the concept of the artist as romantic hero, the actual facts of Cellini's life remain at least as interesting as the stories. The son of an architect and musician, Benvenuto Cellini was born in Florence on Nov. 3, 1500. Trained as a goldsmith and early proficient in that craft, at 16 he had to leave Florence because of a street fight and spent some months in Siena. In 1519 he moved to Rome, the center of his activity for the next two decades, although his Roman years were frequently interrupted by journeys to Pisa, Bologna, Venice, Naples, and Florence, the city to which he always remained loyal.

In Rome, Cellini served popes Clement VII and Paul III, working chiefly on portrait medallions, coins, and jewels. By his own account Cellini was a notable fighter, and in the sack of Rome (1527) he fought against the imperial troops. An increasingly tense relationship with Paul III and a series of violent incidents led to Cellini's imprisonment in the Castel Sant'Angelo, from which he made a dramatic escape.

Works for the French King

Cellini spent the years 1540-1545 in France, serving Francis I as sculptor, decorator, and designer of architectural projects for the royal château of Fontainebleau. In 1543 he completed the famous and elaborate Salt Cellar from a model prepared earlier for Cardinal Ippolito d'Este. Cellini made models for a series of 12 silver statues of gods and goddesses and executed two bronze busts and silver vases (all now lost). He cast the bronze lunette of the Nymph of Fontainebleau (1545).

The gold Salt Cellar demonstrates extremely well the technical virtuosity in which Cellini delighted; the architectural relief of the Nymph reveals that even when he was working on a large scale as a sculptor his art was still essentially that of a goldsmith. These two examples of the few extant works by Cellini display the hallmarks of his style: intricately wrought surfaces alternating with highly polished smooth areas bounded by carefully chiseled contours. The precise and elegant effect achieved by such contrasts was enhanced by the use of graceful, elongated figures. Works of art such as these as well as Cellini's actual presence in France, along with other artists working under the enthusiastic patronage of Francis I, played an important part in forming the style of French art in the late 16th century and helped to create an international courtly style favored throughout Europe in this period.

Return to Italy

Cellini returned to Florence in 1545. For Duke Cosimo de' Medici he executed a bronze portrait of the duke, some marble statues of classical themes, and his most ambitious creation, the bronze Perseus in the Loggia dei Lanzi. The rigid, tense pose and biting characterization of the portrait of Cosimo were tempered in the more austere portrait of Bindo Altoviti (ca. 1550). Cellini's love of classical allusions, elaborate decorative effects, and formal elegance makes the Perseus appear more constrained and more stylish than the artist's tempestuous account of its casting would suggest.

These later Florentine years of the sculptor's life saw reenacted the earlier pattern of gradually increased difficulties with his patron, Duke Cosimo, and bitter conflicts with other artists, especially Baccio Bandinelli and Bartolommeo Ammanati. At the same time Cellini's admiration for Michelangelo, his constant concern for his family, and the carving of a large ivory Crucifix (1562) as the realization of a vision he had years before in prison reveal other facets of his many-sided character.

Cellini's Autobiography broke off in 1558, the year in which he took preliminary religious vows, but these were never carried further. In 1565 he began work on his treatises on the goldsmith's art and on sculpture; they were published in 1568. He died in Florence on Feb. 13, 1571.

Cellini lived during a period of religious, political, social, and military strife and tension. This stormy atmosphere is nowhere more vividly described than in Cellini's Autobiography and nowhere more apparent than in the evidence of his own life with its sharp contrasts of egoism and religious faith, worldly ambition and filial devotion, and spirited pride in his own talents and genuine humility in his admiration for the greater genius he saw in the work of Michelangelo and the ancients.

Further Reading on Benvenuto Cellini

C.R. Ashbee translated The Treatise of Benvenuto Cellini on Goldsmithing and Sculpture (1888; repr. 1967). The Life of Benvenuto Cellini Written by Himself, edited by John Pope-Hennessy (1949), is the most useful recent edition of the basic translation by J. A. Symonds. The major work, in French, upon which less important studies have been based, is Eugène Plon, Benvenuto Cellini (1883). A brief but important critical summary is in volume 2 of John Pope-Hennessy, Italian High Renaissance and Baroque Sculpture (1963).

Additional Biography Sources

Cellini, Benvenuto, The autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, New York: Modern Library, 1985.

Cellini, New York: Abbeville Press, 1985.