Benvenuto Cellini: how the ‘bad boy’ sculptor and goldsmith gives us a fresh perspective on the Renaissance

Jerry Brotton tells the sensational story of Benvenuto Cellini, a master goldsmith and sculptor who revelled in violence, sodomy and murder

Salt cellar with Neptune and Tellus by Benvenuto Cellini

Goldsmith, sculptor, poet, soldier, musician, murderer, necromancer, priest and lover – of men and women. The incredible life and times of Benvenuto Cellini, one of the Italian Renaissance’s most extraordinary but now neglected figures, provides a unique perspective on the period. Yet what his surviving art and writings reveal is less an idyllic “golden age” of harmony and beauty, and more a period defined by political turbulence, religious conflict and vicious artistic rivalries.

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Although Cellini is now largely overlooked as an artist in favour of his immediate predecessors Leonardo da Vinci (whose position he inherited in France) and Michelangelo (whom he revered), he left behind one of the first – and certainly most dramatic and intimate – autobiographies ever written by an artist. My Life (simply entitled Vita in the original Italian) is a grandiose, scandalous and boastful account of 16th-century art and society. It is largely based on life in Cellini’s native Florence, but it also spans his career spent living and working in the Italian cities of Rome, Venice, Mantua, Ferrara and Siena, as well as Paris and Fontainebleau in France.

The book is a compelling historical document and offers fascinating insights into the period. But no historian takes an autobiography at face value – and rightly so, in this case. By comparing Cellini’s My Life to the surviving historical records, it seems that his autobiography contains a lot of fact, but also quite a bit of fiction – seemingly to adhere to traditions in writing at the time.

Cellini’s autobiography vividly records his fights with his rivals – he killed at least three – while he was also creating some of the greatest sculptures and designs in gold and silver of his day. He survived warfare, imprisonment, poisoning, syphilis and the loss of many of his family to the plague, which was an everyday threat. He befriended kings, popes and the Medici rulers of Florence, who all forgave him his sins to ensure he made art for them. “You should know,” said Pope Paul III, “that men like Benvenuto, unique in their profession, need not be subject to the law.” Cellini participated in some of the most significant turning points in the Renaissance in its greatest cities; his violent and passionate life makes the volatile painter Caravaggio look like a choirboy.

Turbulent times

For Cellini, fantasy and reality blurred from the very beginning. His autobiography claims that he was born in Florence “on the night of All Saints’ Day at exactly half past four in the year 1500”. He was actually born on 3 November, but in trying to create an aura of importance for himself as a great artist, he wanted to share his birth with an auspicious saint’s day.

The world into which Cellini was born was already changing politically and artistically. The 15th-century Italian peninsula was never a unified state but rather a series of small republics and principalities primarily ruled by tyrannical condottieri, military “contractors” or mercenaries. These powerful figures gave rise to great art, as they commissioned artists to create fantastic pieces for them in city states including Florence, Ferrara, Mantua and Milan. But the Italian Wars, beginning with the French invasion of 1494, changed the political balance of these creatively feuding cities, bringing French and Spanish imperial power into the region, and with it a change in artistic production. Cellini grew up working for the patrons of many of these factions, and it would shape his art.

Initially his father wanted him to follow in his footsteps as a musician working at the Florentine Medici court. Despite becoming an accomplished player of the recorder and cornetto, Cellini, like many aspiring artists before him, chose to train as a goldsmith. As a teenager he worked in Siena, Bologna and Pisa before gaining admission into the prestigious Florentine goldsmiths’ guild. In 1523 the first of many accusations of outlawed sexual practices and violence were levelled against him. He was accused of sodomy with Domenico di Giuliano da Ripa, and he also became embroiled in a blood feud with the Guasconti family, admitting that “being somewhat hot-blooded by nature”, he “attacked them like a raging bull” and stabbed one of them – for which he was sentenced to death in absentia, having already gone on the run.

Cellini fled to Rome and established his own goldsmith’s business there. He exploited his Medici connections to obtain the patronage of Giulio de’ Medici, who was appointed Pope Clement VII in 1523. But the wider geopolitics surrounding the Italian peninsula would quickly engulf him. In 1527 mutinous troops from the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s imperial army invaded Rome. The subsequent sack of the city saw an orgy of looting and violence in which up to 25,000 civilians died.

Cellini organised the pope’s defences at the Castel Sant’Angelo, doing by his own reckoning “a better job of firing artillery than of being a goldsmith” and even claiming to have shot dead the imperial force’s commander, Charles III, Duke of Bourbon. But even in the midst of warfare Cellini was able to aestheticise his experience and profit from it.

While “contemplating this unbelievable spectacle and conflagration” he was ordered by the pope to hide his jewels by “extracting them all from the gold in
which they were set”. He was also instructed to take the gold to “melt it down in as much secrecy as [he] could” before he and the pope fled the city.

Returning to Florence, Cellini found a city that was almost a stranger to him. The Florentines had taken advantage of the turmoil in Rome to banish the Medici and proclaim a republic, and a plague that had swept through the region was ravaging the city’s inhabitants. A contemporary observer described the epidemic’s impact on Florence: “The neat and beautiful streets which used to be bursting with rich and noble citizens are now stinking… The shops are locked, the businesses closed… The piazzas and markets, where the citizens used to be in the habit of gathering frequently, are now made into communal graves.” The fear of plague, coupled with the exodus from Rome caused by its invasion, led artists to move across Italy, avoiding outbreaks of the disease and obtaining patronage where they could.

Cellini was no different, and the spectre of plague forced him to travel and work in Mantua, Venice, Naples and even Paris, still labouring primarily as a goldsmith. By 1529 the reinstalled pope required Cellini’s skills in rebuilding Rome, appointing him to the prestigious role of head of the Papal Mint designing coinage. But the artist’s temper soon reared its head again. His brother was murdered, leading Cellini to confront the killer and try “to cut off his head cleanly” before stabbing him so deeply that he could not remove the blade. Despite Cellini’s arrest, once again he evaded justice for his crimes. The pope told him that he should apply himself to his work and remain silent.
However, keeping his head down proved almost impossible. As he recounted in My Life, he fell for a serving woman and, in an attempt to bewitch her, enlisted the help of a priest and necromancer to conjure devils in the Roman Colosseum. The ceremony involved a 12-year-old virgin servant of Cellini’s who watched as “several legions of devils appeared, until the Colosseum was completely filled”.

Tall tales and half-truths

This incident is one of the many moments in My Life when Cellini’s artistic licence got the better of his reportage. His autobiography drew on earlier Italian writers and artists who understood the need to self-consciously concoct events that evoked terribilità – awesome and terrifying moments in art and life that shock and amaze the audience or reader.

If the devils were not real, then did Cellini conspire with a necromancer? Possibly. Shortly after describing this scene, Cellini writes that he attacked and wounded a notary before fleeing to Naples. Did it really happen, or was it another classic rhetorical move, a description of fantastical and confrontational acts, known as meraviglioso?

What was certainly not invented was Cellini’s need for patronage. It was his lifeline, and with the death of Pope Clement VII in September 1534, he seems to have realised that his days of papal support were numbered under Pope Paul III, a member of the Farnese family with little interest in backing Medici supporters in Rome.

Cellini stabbed and killed another rival goldsmith, Pompeo de’ Capitaneis – this time an event recorded in official documents – and he was exiled once again. Eventually the pope absolved him, but anti-Florentine factions within the papacy took against the headstrong goldsmith. Hearing that the French king Francis I was searching for artists to help transform his royal palace of Fontainebleau, Cellini headed to Paris. Unhappy with the indifferent reception he received, Cellini made the fateful decision to return to Rome in 1537.

Cellini’s nemesis, the pope’s son, Pier Luigi Farnese, immediately imprisoned him in the Castel Sant’Angelo he had defended in 1527. The artist was charged with stealing papal jewellery during the sack. In one of the most graphic and harrowing accounts of imprisonment written in this period, Cellini describes attempts to poison him with ground diamonds and believing he would “end my miserable life” by finding “the means of killing myself”. Instead, he read the Bible and seemingly had a miraculous conversion, including hallucinatory visions of Christ in which he was “seized by that Invisible Being and carried away as if by a wind”. As papal machinations swirled around him, powerful patrons such as Cardinal Ippolito d’Este Cellini, a clergyman from Ferrara, finally secured his release.

However, it seems that Cellini’s account of his ecstatic religious conversion while imprisoned was merely another example of him adhering to the established literary technique of writing his life as a story of earthly sin leading to glorious redemption. The reality was more mundane and violent. Having obtained his freedom, Cellini decided to return to France and the patronage of Francis I. But after leaving Florence he went to Siena, where he killed a postmaster – hardly the contrite actions of a zealous convert.
The years Cellini spent in Paris and Fontainebleau working for the French king were some of his happiest and most productive. He began working on larger sculptural projects at the urging of Francis I, who was keen to show his patronage of the arts rivalled that of the pope and his great adversary, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Cellini made the extraordinary Salt Cellar, which also appears to have been designed to support Francis’s desire to break into the Asian spice market – the cellar contained pepper as well as salt.

He also worked on larger, classically inspired sculptures, but as ever, trouble was lying in wait. One of his models fell pregnant with his child – a pattern that would play out again and again in his later years – and she gave birth to his first daughter. Cellini quarrelled openly with Francis I’s mistress and was accused yet again of sodomy, though this time with a woman. It was time to move on once more. He returned to Florence in 1545 with the prospect of a powerful new patron: Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici.

Making his masterpiece

Cosimo had reasserted Medici control in Florence and was eager to commission Cellini to fashion a piece of large public art to celebrate Medici power over the city. He asked Cellini to create a sculpture of Perseus slaying Medusa, a classical story that he felt represented the masculine Medici asserting their will over the “feminine”, malevolent republican ideals that had characterised the city’s recent rule. For nearly a decade Cellini worked on the Perseus. Ambitiously, he wanted to cast it in bronze in one piece to outshine da Vinci – who had tried and failed to make a similar bronze statue – and Michelangelo’s marble David, whose statue stood in the same square where Cosimo wished to display the Perseus.

Over the next nine years Cellini worked intensely on the Perseus alongside other smaller statues, while still living in a dysfunctional domestic world and quarrelling incessantly with friends, lovers, artistic rivals and even Cosimo. He had a son by another of his models and fought relentlessly with fellow artist Baccio Bandinelli. In one extraordinary scene, Bandinelli accused Cellini of being a “dirty sodomite” in front of Cosimo, after Cellini had ridiculed him for making a statue of Hercules that looked like a sack of melons.

But the Perseus loomed large. In one of My Life’s great climactic moments Cellini describes the casting of the statue. Lying ill in bed with a fever, he is told that the process is going wrong. With a storm raging and fire threatening to burn down the studio, Cellini leaps into action and saves the casting by throwing English pewter into the furnace.

“I saw,” he wrote, “that we had brought a corpse back to life.” On 27 April 1554 the statue was triumphantly unveiled in the Loggia dei Lanzi, standing opposite Michelangelo’s David. The public were astonished; Cosimo was delighted. Perseus is shown holding up the severed head of Medusa, whose look turns those who meet her gaze to stone. Cellini positioned the head so it looked straight at Michelangelo’s statue – made of stone, in contrast to his bronze. The point was clear: he had turned Michelangelo to stone and eclipsed his great master.

A tattered reputation

But just as Cellini finally secured the fame and critical adulation he craved, he blew it. In 1556 he attacked and seriously injured yet another rival goldsmith. He was arrested and thrown in jail. Released on bail, just months later in 1557 he was accused once more of sodomy. This time the court records show that the charge came from an apprentice, “with whom he had had carnal intercourse very many times and committed the crime of sodomy, sleeping in the same bed with him as though he were a wife”.

Perhaps the seriousness of the charges meant that Cellini omitted both accusations in his autobiography, but the court records reveal he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. Cosimo commuted the sentence to a period of house arrest, but Cellini’s reputation never fully recovered. He was tainted with the charge of sodomy, and younger artists were eager to take his place.

Ironically, however, the cost of the charges to his artistic reputation inspired the writing of his autobiography. In 1558, as commissions dried up, he began dictating My Life to a studio assistant, perhaps as a way of defending his actions and restoring his reputation. He married his servant, but fathered children by models and servants. He turned ostentatiously to religion, working on a life-sized marble crucifix, but Cosimo was rather indifferent to it. Cellini was damaged goods, and there were younger, more exciting sculptors available. Cellini withdrew into domestic life, but it remained turbulent and grew increasingly eccentric. He took religious vows but renounced them after a couple of years, presumably finding the life of a priest less exciting than he had hoped.

As his influence at the Medici court waned, Cellini still quarrelled with anyone he could. Unsurprisingly another rival, the artist and writer Giorgio Vasari, all but wrote Cellini out of his influential Lives of the Artists, which would negatively affect his reputation forever more. Cellini took further refuge in writing, working on treatises about sculpture and goldsmithing. He was appointed to the prestigious Florentine Academy of Design but seemed to use it as a way of fighting even more with other artists, one of whom labelled him “that hopeless lunatic”.

Cellini died on 13 February 1571 and was buried two days later in great pomp and splendour in the church of the Santissima Annunziata, with all the ceremony the state could accord him. The funeral oration praised the fine disposition of Cellini’s incomparably virtuous life, in one of the many great ironies of this most extraordinary of Renaissance artists.


Three of Cellini’s greatest works…

Perseus with the Head of Medusa

Perseus with the Head of Medusa (1554) is Cellini’s masterpiece. It was commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici to represent his family’s rule over Florence and was also designed to stand in the same square as Michelangelo’s David.

Nearly a decade in the making and standing over three metres tall, the casting in bronze was an epic achievement. Perseus is shown slaying Medusa, with cast bronze mimicking her blood, in a political image of male dominance.

Crucifix

Cellini’s life-size Crucifix (1556–62) is his last great artwork. Having mastered gold and bronze, his crucifix took on the medium favoured by Michelangelo: marble.

Based on his vision of Christ while in jail in 1539, it could represent Cellini’s turn to religion late in life. But he sold it to an underwhelmed Cosimo, who gave it to the Spanish king Philip II. It has remained in the Escorial Palace near Madrid ever since.

The Salt Cellar

The Salt Cellar (or Saliera) was made in 1543 for King Francis I during Cellini’s time in France. Dubbed the “Mona Lisa of sculpture”, it is one of the most iconic and outrageous objects of the Renaissance.

It depicts a woman personified as Earth next to a temple for the pepper, and a man representing the Sea beside a ship containing salt. Hand-sculpted in rolled gold, it was unrivalled in its craftsmanship.


Cellini legacy’s: why did he fade into obscurity?

The manuscript of Cellini’s autobiography, My Life, was largely forgotten following his death, possibly due to its criticism of his Medici patrons, and certainly because many of his artworks had either been destroyed or fallen out of fashion. It was first published in Italian in 1728, followed by an unreliable English version in 1771. A significant shift in appreciation of Cellini came when Goethe translated and published his autobiography in 1796–97, claiming: “I see the whole century far more distinctly through the eyes of this confused individual.”

Goethe’s translation sparked a wholesale reassessment of Cellini’s personal and artistic reputation under the Romantic movement. Lord Byron, always quick to identify with a fellow reprobate, described Cellini in his poetic drama The Deformed Transformed (published in 1824) as “A famous artizan, a cunning sculptor; Also a dealer in the sword and dagger.” Increasingly Cellini and his writing came to encapsulate Italian life and culture in the Renaissance.

The French composer Hector Berlioz was “greatly struck by certain episodes” from the autobiography, which he drew on (somewhat inaccurately) in composing his first opera, Benvenuto Cellini, which premiered to a largely hostile reception in 1838. Berlioz’s opera climaxed with the dramatic casting of the Perseus, as the ultimate symbol of the romantic artist triumphing over adversity in creating art.

The Victorians were even more enthusiastic about Cellini. Painters like John Singer Sargent copied his statues, while writers in the aesthetic movement such as Walter Pater discreetly celebrated him as a pro-gay icon. John Addington Symonds translated My Life in 1887, writing that Cellini “was reckless in the indulgence of his sensual appetites… He was not free from the darker lusts which deformed Florentine society in that epoch.” He condemned Cellini for enjoying “killing live men quite as much as casting bronze statues”, but still concluded that the autobiography was “the first book which a student of the Italian Renaissance should handle”. Oscar Wilde adored Cellini as an amoral aesthete, describing My Life as an “autobiography in which the supreme scoundrel of the Renaissance relates the story of his splendour and his shame”.

In the 20th century, Cellini’s volatile life continued to spark interest. In 1924 Edwin Justus Mayer’s Broadway play about Cellini, The Firebrand, spawned various imitations. Hollywood came calling in 1934, with The Affairs of Cellini, a swashbuckling romp starring Fredric March as the romantic lead dressed in tights who spends more time chasing ladies than making art. By 1945 Mayer’s play attracted the attention of Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weil. Their operetta, The Firebrand of Florence, received the same lukewarm reception as Berlioz’s opera.

The last 50 years have seen Cellini anthologised in collections of gay writing, while figures like Terry Gilliam tried repeatedly to make films about him. Otherwise there has been an unfair waning of interest in Cellini – perhaps because his autobiography is just too sensational, and his art suffers unnecessarily in comparison to Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.


Jerry Brotton is professor of Renaissance studies at Queen Mary University of London, and spoke about Cellini on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast. His radio series on Cellini, Blood and Bronze, was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and is now available to stream.

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This content first appeared in the April 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine