Cellini, Benvenuto 1500–1571 Italian Goldsmith, Sculptor, and Writer

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Cellini, Benvenuto
Italian goldsmith, sculptor, and writer

Benvenuto Cellini's life was filled with conflict and controversy and included two artistic careers. His first career as a goldsmith and sculptor ended when he fell out of favor with his patron*, Cosimo I de' Medici. This withdrawal of support led the artist to lay down his chisel and start a new career as a writer.

Early Artistic Career. Cellini came from a family of respected artisans* in Florence. At age 13 he began training with Florentine goldsmiths, but three years later was forced to flee the city because of his involvement in a brawl. He worked in Bologna, Pisa, and Rome before moving back to Florence in the early 1520s. After a violent conflict with other goldsmiths in 1523, he left once again for Rome. There he worked for many important nobles and members of the clergy until the city was invaded in 1527.

After another period of wandering, Cellini returned to Rome in 1529 and entered the service of Pope Clement VII. Among the pieces he created for his new patron were two silver medals. After Clement VII died, Cellini was accused of murdering a fellow goldsmith. The new pope, Paul III, pardoned Cellini and hired him to work on a gold coin of St. Paul. Despite the pope's support, Cellini had to leave Rome in 1535 to avoid arrest. Over the next two years he traveled in Italy and France, returning to Rome only briefly. During this time he created a portrait medal for an Italian nobleman and perhaps one for the king of France. He went back to Rome in 1537, where he was arrested and jailed the next year. He soon escaped. By 1540 he had returned to France.

Work in France and Florence. During his stay in France, Cellini took on many projects for the French king Francis I. One of the first pieces was a bas-relief* for the king's chateau in Fontainebleau, based on a local legend involving a hunting dog and a water nymph. In the bas-relief, Cellini gave the water nymph long, elegant arms and legs in the Mannerist* style. However, the other figures—dogs, boars, and a stag—are extremely realistic and show a goldsmith's eye for detail.

While in France, Cellini created a sculpted saltcellar (salt dish), the most celebrated work in gold from the Renaissance. In this piece, the main characters of Earth and Neptune are joined by figures representing Morning, Day, Evening, Night, the four seasons, and animal figures. Despite their reduced scale, the figures have the power of much larger monumental sculpture.

Cellini had to leave Paris in 1545 when he was accused of stealing from the king. He returned again to Florence, where he found a patron in Duke Cosimo I. The duke commissioned him to create a bronze statue of the Greek hero Perseus holding the head of the monster Medusa. Cellini created a powerful statue of Perseus, who symbolizes Florence's civic pride and Cosimo's leadership. The figure's graceful pose shows the influence of Mannerism. The base of the statue includes fine detailing that reflects Cellini's experience as a goldsmith.

During the same period, Cellini began a bronze bust of Cosimo that captured the duke's personality. With its deep-set eyes and windswept locks of hair, the work conveyed a sense of Cosimo's nervous energy. Cellini wanted this piece to outshine a marble bust by Bandinelli, a rival artist. In the end, the duke chose the more traditional image by Bandinelli.

Cellini took on a number of other projects in the following years, but the completion of the Perseus in 1533 marked the high point of his career as an artist. However, after falling out of favor with Cosimo in the late 1550s, he abandoned the fine arts. Today, experts view Cellini as one of Italy's greatest Mannerist artists.

Cellini the Writer. In the late 1550s, Cellini claimed that "everyone who has to his credit … great achievements … ought to write the story of his own life." He decided to take his own advice, though he worried that others might view his efforts as excess pride.

In his autobiography, Cellini presents himself as the leading artistic figure of the 1500s. He describes how kings honored and favored him and discusses rival artists as uncultured, talentless fools. Cellini boasts, "I outdo many rivals and can equal the ones who outdid me." Although harsh with his critics, Cellini writes honestly about his crimes, murders, and affairs.

Cellini's autobiography was not published until 1728. Called Vita, meaning "life" or "autobiography," it was a huge success. It presents the author as a talented hero forced to work for a petty nobleman who is "more like a businessman than a duke." With its lively prose and its focus on the struggles of the hero to find meaning in life, some critics have called it the forerunner to the modern novel.

Besides Vita, Cellini published two technical books, On Goldsmithing and On Sculpting. They mix discussions of artistic techniques with details of the author's life. Cellini also wrote a collection of unremarkable poetry and some songs.

(See alsoArt; Art in Italy; Biography and Autobiography; Coins and Medals; Decorative Arts; Italian Language and Literature; Medici, House of; Patronage; Popes and Papacy. )

* patron

supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer

* artisan

skilled worker or craftsperson

* relief

type of sculpture in which figures are raised slightly from a flat surface

* Mannerist

referring to an artistic style of the 1500s characterized by vivid colors and exaggeration, such as elongated figures in complex poses