An all-around artist was how Renaissance artists would describe Benvenuto Cellini. He was a goldsmith, sculptor, musician, autobiographer and technical writer whose career emerged during the Mannerism period. He spent most of his professional years in Rome, Ferrara and France before retiring in Florence.
Benvenuto Cellini had a colorful professional and personal life as he traveled across Italy and France. He was famous for authoring an autobiography and for executing a mythological work, Perseus with the Head of Medusa. Cellini was undeniably an important figure of Mannerism as his documentations of his professional works and knowledge through his autobiography and other books on metallurgy.
Cellini was born and raised in Florence on November 3, 1500. He came from a middle class family, with Giovanni Cellini and Maria Lisabetta Granacci as his parents. His father was a skilled musician and carpenter in Florence and thus it only made sense for his father to convince him to pursue a career in music.
However, Cellini chose to enter the goldsmith studio of Antonio di Sandro at the age of 15. His father although reluctant at first eventually let him pursue his artistic talents in sculpture. Cellini left Florence for six months as he got involved in a violent brawl around 1518. He settled in Siena for a while to work as a goldsmith. He worked for Fracastoro alongside a small number of companions. He then moved to Bologna where he practiced his skills in music, but this time, as a flute player.
While in Bologna, he made time to visit Pisa, went back to Florence and then transferred to Rome at 19 to finally pursue his career path as an independent sculptor and goldsmith. In 1527, he thought to be involved in defending Rome against the Spanish invaders, wherein he killed a couple of notable military figures such as the Constable of Bourbon and Philibert, Prince of Orange. Even though this was the case the city still fell into the hands of its invaders in 1527.
Cellini’s life in Rome had been rather simple as an artist who was just starting out. He worked under the patronage of Pope Clemente VII as his head of Papal workshop in which his works largely involved creating vases, silver caskets and candlesticks.
While working for Clemente VII, he also accepted a commission by Gonfaloniere Gabbriello Cesarino for whom he would create a golden medallion that depicted the mythological story of Leda and the Swan. This particular art work is now located in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in modern day Florence.
After Spain defeated Rome in a battle, Cellini had to return to Florence and because of his heroic display in the former city, the Florentine magistrates accepted him again. He had then again engaged himself in producing metal works particularly medallions such as the famous Hercules and the Nemean Lion and the golden Atlas Supporting the Sphere. However, these precious creations were handed over to Francois I of France as the said country invaded Florence.
In 1529, Cellini was involved in violence yet again, where he killed a man who nearly murdered his brother. And another incident that garnered him banishment from Florence was when he assaulted a notary officer named Ser Benedetto. As a result, he had stay in Naples for quite some time to hide away from the prosecutors.
Around 1530, Pope Paul III gave Cellini a favor of going back to business as usual. So he was summoned by the Pope to return to Rome albeit briefly. He worked as a goldsmith producing jewelries and medals. However, he had a brief stay in Rome due to his dispute with Pietro Farnese, the Pope’s son. Therefore, Cellini was forced to flee to his hometown and then went to Venice.
At Florence, he created a 40 soldi coin for Alessandro Medici. This coin depicted the profile of the Duke on its front-end while the remaining half was dedicated to Saints Cosmo and Damian on the back.
Benvenuto Cellini Found Success in France
Since Cellini had been having a tough time in Italy, he decided to go to France where an eventual success awaits him. He paid a visit to the French court in 1537 to face the theft charges pressed against him. He was accused of stealing the pope’s tiara when the war was ongoing. It was also reported that he was sent to the Castel Sant’Angelo hospital and then tried to escape only to be re-captured by the officers.
However, fortunately, Cellini found favor on the side of Cardinal d’Este of Ferrara and wife of Pier Luigi that granted him his release. When the imprisonment episode was over he returned to rendering his services to Francois I at Paris and Fontainebleau.
Cellini never had it easy in life even though he sought refuge in France. He found the duchess of d’Etampes as one of his major enemies and when he had enough of his enemies, he retreated to Florence after five years of being the King’s favorite court artist. At Florence, he still worked as a goldsmith and found a good rival in Baccio Bandinelli, a sculptor.
Aside from his physical troubles and jealousy issues against his enemies in Rome and France, Cellini also had a quite controversial personal life when it comes to his relationships. He had committed to a few affairs with his female models. In fact, he had a daughter with a French model named Costanza in 1544.
At some point in his life, he was also accused of Sodomy for being in intimate relationships with a woman and three different men. Cellini obviously acted on his bisexuality which was considered a crime during his time. In 1523, he was ordered by the court to pay 12 staia of flour for having an affair with Domenico di ser Giuliano da Ripa. The same charges were pressed against him by Margherita in 1548 for she thought that Cellini shared resemblance to her son. Lastly, in 1556, Cellini was accused of sodomy by Fernando di Giovanni di Montepulciano a student of his own. But fortunately, the Medici family made an intervention into the case that Cellini only had to face four years of house arrest instead of staying in prison.
In 1562, he settled down with Piera Parigi, a housemaid with whom he had five children.
Despite all the troubles and failures that got into Cellini’s way, he still had quite a successful career especially when he wrote his autobiography and other books. He began writing the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini in 1558 but this project was cut short by 1563 when he visited Pisa and he was already 63 years old at that time.
Nevertheless, the autobiography was an important piece of High Renaissance because of Cellini’s personal accounts on love, interests, passion and hatred that were significant that time. He was an excellent writer for his straightforward yet lively presentation of narratives.
As for statues, he was commissioned by King Francois I to design and build the Golden Gate of Chateau de Fontainebleau in bronze material. He also had a series of sculptures for the Medici family of Florence like the Perseus with the Head of Medusa, which was truly a masterpiece that could be comparable to Michelangelo’s David statue.
The later years of Benvenuto Cellini were mainly spent in Florence. He was even given acknowledgement by the Accademia delle Art Del Disegno Guild as a member, which is the greatest achievement that any artist could ever achieve in Florence.
Cellini died on May 13, 1571 due to old age and his remains were buried in the Church of Santissima Annunziata of Florence.