Cellini, Benvenuto 1500–1571

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Cellini, Benvenuto

Benvenuto Cellini, who was born in Florence on November 1, 1500, and was one of the most renowned sculptor-goldsmiths of the Renaissance, crafted numerous works celebrating the nude body, male and female, with mannerist elegance and erotic undertones. He is equally renowned in the early twenty-first century for his swashbuckling bisexual life and his socially revealing, if exaggerated and self-justifying, autobiography and other writings. The memoir, which he began to dictate while he was sentenced to house arrest for sodomy from 1557 to 1561, selectively details his eventful career in Florence, Rome, and France. Although Cellini boasts about his often casual or exploitative female affairs, when he gossips about the libertine sodomy among clergy, aristocrats, and artists and their youthful assistants, he omits or denies his own relations with young men, documented in court archives (he was convicted twice, first in 1523).

After 1545, as the Counter-Reformation tightened sexual and artistic mores, the lighthearted hedonism of Cellini's youth met increasing hostility. Commissioned that year by Cosimo I de' Medici, the duke of Florence, to complete a classical fragment of a nude youth, Cellini suggested adding symbols to identify the marble boy as Ganymede, the mythical prince loved by Jupiter, who had been the premier symbolic justification of pederasty since antiquity. The sculptor Baccio Bandinelli, exploiting his rival's well-known weakness, blurted out, "Shut up, you filthy sodomite!" Cellini's witty retort both denied the specific charge and dignified the general custom: "I wish to God I did know how to indulge in such a noble practice; after all, we read that Jove enjoyed it with Ganymede in paradise, and here on earth it is the practice of the greatest emperors and … kings" (Cellini 1956). Evidently few believed him; a sonnet, written a decade later while in jail for assault, acknowledged persistent rumors: "Some say I'm here on Ganymede's account" (Saslow 1986).

Although Cellini's masterpiece, a bronze Perseus brandishing the head of Medusa (1545–1554), exposed a colossal male nude in Florence's central piazza, it was officially a political allegory of Duke Cosimo. In contrast, his marbles from the same years frankly appeal to the homoerotic gaze. Besides Ganymede, two other nude statues represent myths of male love: a seductive Narcissus and an Apollo ruffling the hair of his beloved Hyacinthus. Neither was commissioned, and he kept them in his studio all his life, indicating strong personal investment in their theme; another sonnet compared Apollo's female beloved Daphne unfavorably to Hyacinthus, who was more willing to accept "the incurable wound" of love.

Late in life, Cellini converted to the newly prevailing orthodox piety, marrying his mistress and shifting to more acceptable religious subjects, but his emphasis on the male body still unsettled traditional decorum. His marble crucifix (1556–1562) atypically depicted Jesus totally nude; when puritanical Philip II of Spain received it as a gift, he hastily covered its genitals with his handkerchief.

Cellini died in Florence on February 13, 1571. His writings, among the first detailed autobiographical evidence from an artist, offer important evidence of sexual practices and attitudes, and show the evolution of his art and emotional life as the High Renaissance tolerance for classically inspired pederasty gave way to renewed moral conservatism.

see also Art; Homoeroticism, Female/Male, Concept; Homosexuality, Male, History of.


Cellini, Benvenuto. 1956. Vita, Book 2. Chapters 70-71, trans. George Bull. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

Gallucci, Margaret A. 2003. Benvenuto Cellini: Sexuality, Masculinity, and Artistic Identity in Renaissance Italy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Saslow, James M. 1986. Ganymede in the Renaissance: Homosexuality in Art and Society. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

                                             James M. Saslow