Artist and sculptor

Cellini, Benvenuto

Category: Artist and sculptor

Benvenuto Cellini (3 November 1500 – 13 February 1571) was an Italian goldsmith, sculptor, draftsman, soldier, musician, and artist who also wrote a famous autobiography and poetry.  He is remembered for his skill in making pieces such as the Cellini Salt Cellar and Perseus with the Head of Medusa.

Benvenuto Cellini was born in Florence, he was pushed towards music, but when he was fifteen, his father reluctantly agreed to apprentice him to a goldsmith.   Cellini was possibly bisexual and his statues and artistic works reflect this, he has a clear preference for male statues and executes them in some cases with considerable attention to detail and accuracy. 

On the other hand he also, according to his biography, liked women, especially courtesans:

I went to the house, which was not far from our inn, and found there my Angelica, who greeted me with infinite demonstrations of the most unbounded passion. I stayed with her from evenfall until the following morning, and enjoyed such pleasure as I never had before or since.

He was much favoured by the Pope and the cardinals.  Cellini, while employed at the papal mint in Rome during the papacy of Clement VII and later of Paul III, created the dies of several coins and medals, some of which still survive. He was also in the service of Alessandro de Medici, first duke of Florence.

Below:   Cellini Salt Cellar 

He was without doubt a very skilled artist, but he was also a very immoral one up until a very life changing moment – when he spent time in a filthy dungeon under sentence of death. So why is he on the site? 

Cellini recorded some extraordinary spiritual events.  He recounts stories of conjuring up a legion of devils in the Colosseum, after one of his mistresses had been spirited away from him by her mother.

And, whilst in a dungeon in the Castel d’Angelo for a crime he did not commit, he had a most extraordinary vision.  We have included this in the observations.  He also wrote a poem about it.  Cellini’s Capitolo in Praise of the Prison is made up of pieces written in the dungeon of S. Angelo, and of passages which he afterwards composed to bring these pieces into a coherent whole.  Symonds [translator]  remarked that “He had not displayed much literary skill in the redaction”, but it sings with honesty.  It also explains why he had the vision – a combination of humiliation, fear, lack of nourishment, isolation, loneliness and anger at being in prison for nothing, when his accusers roamed free – an anger thus born of a sense of deep injustice.

Thus there is a ‘before’ stage to Cellini, where his work is accomplished but not inspired and he dabbled in sorcery, and an ‘after’ stage to his life where he works for the Medicis and produces some extraordinarily accomplished and arresting sculptures.

Right above: Mercury [smaller copy of a larger bronze]

Autobiography

Left:  Ganymede completed in 1547

The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini was started in the year 1558 at the age of 58 and ended abruptly just before his last trip to Pisa around the year 1563 when Cellini was approximately 63 years old.  

Wikipedia

“It has been considered and published as a classic, and commonly regarded as one of the most colorful autobiographies (certainly the most important autobiography from the Renaissance).”

The memoirs give a detailed account of his career, as well as his loves, hatreds, passions, and delights, written in “an energetic, direct, and racy style”; as one critic wrote,

"Other goldsmiths have done finer work, but Benvenuto Cellini is the author of the most delightful autobiography ever written."

A life of immorality

Cellini's autobiography paints him as a self publicising, egotistical and violent man.  He certainly murdered people, but then many set out to murder him.

I LEFT Naples by night with my money in my pocket, and this I did to prevent being set upon or murdered, as is the way there; but when I came to Selciata,  I had to defend myself with great address and bodily prowess from several horsemen who came out to assassinate me

Right Jupiter, again a copy

Furthermore, a little exaggeration just as you are coming up to retirement does help to sell the book that might be your pension.

The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini  – Introductory note

Cellini wrote that the world might know, after he was dead, what a fellow he had been; what great things he had attempted, and against what odds he had carried them through. ………..as to whether he was a man of truth, there is still dispute among scholars. Of some misrepresentations, some suppressions of damaging facts, there seems to be evidence only too good - a man with Cellini’s passion for proving himself in the right could hardly have avoided being guilty of such -; but of the general trustworthiness of his record, of the kind of man he was and the kind of life he led, there is no reasonable doubt.

He was treated abominably by the church and his patrons, these were very violent immoral times.

 At the age of 37, for example, upon returning from a visit to the French court, Cellini was imprisoned on a false charge of having embezzled the gems of the pope's tiara during the war. He was confined to the Castel Sant'Angelo, escaped, was recaptured, and was treated with great severity; he was in daily expectation of death on the scaffold.  And this is how he managed to obtain his freedom:

The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini,  translated by John Addington Symonds

A FEW days had passed when the Cardinal of Ferrara arrived in Rome. He went to pay his respects to the Pope, and the Pope detained him up to supper-time. Now the Pope was a man of great talent for affairs, and he wanted to talk at his ease with the Cardinal about French politics.  . …………. They raised his Holiness to a high pitch of merriment and gladness, all the more because he was accustomed to drink freely once a week, and went indeed to vomit after his indulgence [sic]. When, therefore, the Cardinal observed that the Pope was well disposed, and ripe to grant favours, he begged for me at the King’s demand, ……………Upon this the Pope laughed aloud; he felt the moment for his vomit at hand [sic]; the excessive quantity of wine which he had drunk was also operating; so he said: “On the spot, this instant, you shall take him to your house.” Then, having given express orders to this purpose, he rose from table. The Cardinal immediately sent for me.

Right:  Apollo and Hyacinth Benvenuto Cellini, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence

In other words, there is no point in singling Cellini out as being immoral , the Catholic Church and Royalty as well as most of the population were immoral as well.  It is worth mentioning, for example, that Costanza Farnese was the Pope’s natural daughter, not that the Pope was married of course.  We have different standards these days.  And we have a justice system.  Italy didn’t.

His autobiography is that much more interesting because it describes a completely different set of moral standards to those we have now and those standards were wholly unrelated to Christianity, in fact they appear to be just an extension of the mores of the late Roman empire.  He writes of his time in Paris:

The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, Ch. XXVIII, translated by John Addington Symonds

When certain decisions of the court were sent me by those lawyers, and I perceived that my cause had been unjustly lost, I had recourse for my defense to a great dagger I carried; for I have always taken pleasure in keeping fine weapons. The first man I attacked was a plaintiff who had sued me; and one evening I wounded him in the legs and arms so severely, taking care, however, not to kill him, that I deprived him of the use of both his legs. Then I sought out the other fellow who had brought the suit, and used him also such wise that he dropped it.

And that is not all.  There are other accusations  of sodomy.  But they all seem to be levelled by disgruntled lovers or jealous associates.  He had terrible trouble from one of his servants called Pagolo.  He had ordered Pagolo to protect Cellini’s mistress Caterina –
 “….you know that poor young girl, Caterina; I keep her principally for my art’s sake, since I cannot do without a model; but being a man also, I have used her for my pleasures, and it is possible that she may bear me a child. Now I do not want to maintain another man’s bastards,”  But, returning unexpectedly one day he “ all but caught Pagolo and that little wretch Caterina 'in flagrante.' …..  When I saw the pair advancing, overcome with fright, their clothes in disorder, not knowing what they said, nor, like people in a trance, where they were going, it was only too easy to guess what they had been about”. I said then to Pagolo: “Had I seen with my own eyes, scoundrel, what your behaviour and appearance force me to believe, I should have run you with this sword here ten times through the guts. Get out of my sight”

Left Perseus

But in revenge for being cast out Caterina, Pagolo and Caterina’s mother consulted a lawyer, who advised them “to declare that I had used the girl after the Italian fashion” [sodomy].  The lawyer had argued that: “At the very least, when this Italian hears what you are after, he will pay down several hundred ducats, knowing how great the danger is, and how heavily that offence is punished in France.”   So he faced blackmail.  But Cellini defended himself rather vigorously in ‘court’ and thereby won his case.

Right   Ganymede from the side

According to Wikipedia [although we could not find this account in the autobiography], on 26 February 1556, Cellini's apprentice Fernando di Giovanni di Montepulciano accused his mentor of having sodomised him many times while "keeping him for five years in his bed as a wife".  So he waited 5 years before complaining?  I smell a rat and it wasn’t Cellini.

More telling are passages such as these

One day on one of these occasions, I mounted a nice nag I had, put a hundred crowns in my purse, and went to Fiesole to visit a natural son of mine there, who was at nurse with my gossip, the wife of one of my workpeople. When I reached the house, I found the boy in good health, and kissed him, very sad at heart. On taking leave, he would not let me go, but held me with his little hands and a tempest of cries and tears. Considering that he was only two years old or thereabouts, the child’s grief was something wonderful.

For those interested we recommend you read the autobiography.  Italy as she was.

Cosimo de Medici

After several years of productive work in France, but beset by almost continual professional conflicts and violence, Cellini returned to Florence. There he once again took up his skills as a goldsmith, and was warmly welcomed by Duke Cosimo I de 'Medici - who elevated him to the position of court sculptor and gave him an elegant house in Via del Rosario.

Furthermore Cosimo commissioned him to make two significant bronze sculptures: a bust of himself, and Perseus with the head of Medusa.  These are extremely accomplished works.  The casting of Perseus caused Cellini much trouble and anxiety, but it was hailed as a masterpiece as soon as it was completed.

Cellini received three commissions for works in marble after his rival Bandinelli 's sudden death: a Narcissus and a Ganymede, both done in the late 1540s, and an Apollo with Hyacinth from 1550. He also made a Christ figure in marble for the Duke's wife.

Benvenuto Cellini. Crucifix 1562. Marble, height 185 cm. Monasterio de San Lorenzo, El Escorial

Around this time, Cellini turned his attention to investing his earnings and acquiring property; he had fallen out of favour with the Medicis and received no more commissions.

Cellini started his autobiography in the year 1558 at the age of 58 and ended abruptly just before his last trip to Pisa around the year 1563 when Cellini was approximately 63 years old.  He was named a member (Accademico) of the prestigious Accademia delle Arti del Disegno of Florence, founded by the Duke Cosimo I de' Medici, on 13 January 1563.

Cellini Lost-wax casting of bronze statuary sculpture molded from the original by Fonderia Artistica Ferdinando Marinelli Black Belgium marble base

Very vivid, ….is the impression we receive of the social life of the sixteenth century; of its violence and licentiousness, of its zeal for fine craftsmanship, of its abounding vitality, its versatility and its idealism.

For Cellini himself is an epitome of that century. This man who tells here the story of his life was a murderer and a braggart, insolent, sensual, inordinately proud and passionate; but he was also a worker in gold and silver, rejoicing in delicate chasing and subtle modelling of precious surfaces; a sculptor and a musician; and, as all who read his book must testify, a great master of narrative.

Keen as was Benvenuto’s interest in himself, and much as he loved to dwell on the splendor of his exploits and achievements, he had little idea that centuries after his death he would live again, less by his “Perseus” and his goldsmith’s work than by the book which he dictated casually to a lad of fourteen, while he went about his work.


The autobiography was composed between 1558 and 1566, but it brings the record down only to 1562. The remainder of Cellini’s life seems to have been somewhat more peaceful. In 1565 he married Piera de Salvadore Parigi, a servant who had nursed him when he was sick; and in the care of his children [he had five children, of which only a son and two daughters survived him], as earlier of his sister and nieces, “he showed more tenderness than might have been expected from a man of his boisterous nature”. He died at Florence, May 13, 1571, and was buried in The Church of the Annunziata in that city.

Observations

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