He was born in Florence, where his family, originally landowners in the Val d'Ambra, had for three generations been settled. His father, Giovanni Cellini, was a musician and artificer of musical instruments; he married Maria Lisabetta Granacci, and eighteen years elapsed before they had any progeny.
Benvenuto (meaning "Welcome") was the third child. The father destined him for the same profession as himself, and endeavoured to thwart his inclination for design and metal work. When he had reached the age of fifteen his youthful predilection had become too strong to be resisted, and his father reluctantly gave consent to his being apprenticed to a goldsmith, Antonio di Sandro, nicknamed Marcone. He had already attracted some notice in his native place, when, being implicated in a fray with some of his companions, he was banished for six months to Siena, where he worked for Francesco Castoro (Fracastoro), a goldsmith; from thence he removed to Bologna, where he became a more accomplished flute-player and made progress in the goldsmith's art.
After visiting Pisa, and after twice resettling for a while in Florence (where he was visited by the sculptor Torrigiano, who unsuccessfully suggested his accompanying him to England), he decamped to Rome, aged nineteen.
His first attempt at his craft here was a silver casket, followed by some silver candlesticks, and later by a vase for the bishop of Salamanca, which introduced him to the favourable notice of Pope Clement VII; likewise at a later date one of his celebrated works, the gold medallion of "Leda and the Swan" — the head and torso of Leda cut in hard stone — executed for the Gonfaloniere Gabbriello Cesarino, which is now in the Vienna museum; he also reverted to music, practised flute-playing, and was appointed one of the pope's court-musicians. In the attack upon Rome by the constable de Bourbon, which occurred immediately after, the bravery and address of Cellini proved of signal service to the pontiff; if we may believe his own accounts, his was the very hand which shot the Bourbon dead, and he afterwards killed Philibert, prince of Orange.
His exploits paved the way for a reconciliation with the Florentine magistrates, and his return shortly after to his native place. Here he assiduously devoted himself to the execution of medals, the most famous of which (executed a short while later) are "Hercules and the Nemean Lion", in gold repoussé work, and "Atlas supporting the Sphere", in chased gold, the latter eventually falling into the possession of Francis I.
From Florence he went to the court of the duke of Mantua, and thence again to Florence and to Rome, where he was employed not only in the working of jewelry, but also in the execution of dies for private medals and for the papal mint. Here in 1529 he avenged a brother's death by slaying the slayer; and shortly afterwards had to flee to Naples to shelter himself from the consequences of an affray with a notary, Ser Benedetto, whom he wounded. Through the influence of several of the cardinalss he obtained a pardon; and on the elevation of Pope Paul III to the pontifical throne he was reinstated in his former position of favour, notwithstanding a fresh homicide of a goldsmith which he had committed more by accident than of malice prepense in the interregnum.
Once more the plots of Pierluigi Farnese, a natural son of Paul III, led to his retreat from Rome to Florence and Venice, and once more he was restored with greater honour than before. On returning from a visit to the court of Francis I, being now aged thirty-seven, he was imprisoned on a charge (apparently false) of having embezzled during the war the gems of the pontifical tiara; he remained some while confined in the castle of Sant'Angelo, escaped, was recaptured, and treated with great severity, and was in daily expectation of death on the scaffold.
At last, however, he was released at the intercession of Pierluigi's wife, and more especially of the Cardinal d'Este of Ferrara, to whom he presented a splendid cup. For a while after this he worked at the court of Francis I, at Fontainebleau and in Paris; but he considered the duchesse d'Etampes to be set against him, and the intrigues of the king's favourites, whom he would not stoop to conciliate and could not venture to silence by the sword, as he had silenced his enemies in Rome, led him, after about five years of laborious and sumptuous work, and of continually-recurring jealousies and violences, to retire in 1545 in disgust to Florence, where he employed his time in works of art, and exasperated his temper in rivalries with the uneasy-natured sculptor Baccio Bandinelli.
The first collision between the two had occurred several years before when Pope Clement VII commissioned Cellini to mint his coinage. Now, in an altercation before Duke Cosimo, Bandinelli insultingly stigmatized Benvenuto as guilty of gross immorality; in his autobiography Cellini rather repels than denies the charge, but he certainly repels it with demonstrative and grotesque vivacity. Two somewhat similar charges had been made were this: one in Paris, which he braved out in court — the other, in Florence, was a mere private quarrel, and perhaps undeserving of attention.
During the war with Siena, Cellini was appointed to strengthen the defences of his native city, and, though rather shabbily treated by his ducal patrons, he continued to gain the admiration of his fellow-citizens by the magnificent works which he produced. He died in Florence in 1571, unmarried, and leaving no posterity, and was buried with great pomp in the church of the Annunziata. He had supported in Florence a widowed sister and her six daughters.
Besides the works in gold and silver which have been adverted to, Cellini executed several pieces of sculpture on a grander scale. The most distinguished of these is the bronze group of "Perseus holding the head of Medusa", a work (first suggested by Duke Cosimo I de Medici) now in the Loggia dei Lanzi at Florence, full of the fire of genius and the grandeur of a terrible beauty, one of the most typical and unforgettable monuments of the Italian Renaissance. The casting of this great work gave Cellini the utmost trouble and anxiety; and its completion was hailed with rapturous homage from all parts of Italy. The original relief from the foot of the pedestal — Perseus and Andromeda — is in the Bargello, and replaced by a cast.
Not less characteristic of its splendidly gifted and barbarically untameable author are the autobiographical memoirs which he composed, beginning them in Florence in 1558 — a production of the utmost energy, directness and racy animation, setting forth one of the most singular careers in all the annals of fine art. His amours and hatreds, his passions and delights, his love of the sumptuous and the exquisite in art, his self-applause and self-assertion, running now and again into extravagances which it is impossible to credit, and difficult to set down as strictly conscious falsehoods, make this one of the most singular and fascinating books in existence. Here we read, not only of the strange and varied adventures of which we have presented a hasty sketch, but of the devout complacency with which Cellini could contemplate a satisfactorily achieved homicide; of the legion of devils which he and a conjuror evoked in the Colosseum, after one of his not innumerous mistresses had been spirited away from him by her mother; of the marvellous halo of light which he found surrounding his head at dawn and twilight after his Roman imprisonment, and his supernatural visions and angelic protection during that adversity; and of his being poisoned on two several occasions. If he is unmeasured in abusing some people, he is also unlimited in praising others. The autobiography has been translated into English by Thomas Roscoe, by John Addington Symonds, and by A. Macdonald. Cellini also wrote treatises on the goldsmith's art, on sculpture, and on design (translated by C. R. Ashbee, 1899).
Among his works of art not already mentioned, many of which have perished, were a colossal Mars for a fountain at Fontainebleau and the bronzes of the doorway, coins for the Papal and Florentine states, a Jupiter in silver of life size, and a bronze bust of Bindo Altoviti. The works of decorative art are, speaking broadly, rather florid than chastened in style.
In addition to the bronze statue of Perseus and the medallions already referred to, the works of art in existence today executed by him are the celebrated salt-cellar made for Francis I at Vienna; a medallion of Clement VII in commemoration of the peace between the Christian princes, 1530, with a bust of the pope on the reverse and a figure of Peace setting fire to a heap of arms in front of the temple of Janus, signed with the artist's name; a medal of Francis I with his portrait, also signed; and a medal of Cardinal Pietro Bembo.
Cellini, while employed at the papal mint at Rome during the papacy of Clement VII and later of Paul III, executed the dies of several coins and medals, some of which still survive at this now defunct mint. He was also in the service of Alessandro de Medici, first duke of Florence, for whom he executed in 1535 a forty-soldi piece with a bust of the duke on one side and standing figures of the saints Cosma and Damian on the other. Some connoisseurs attribute to his hand several plaques, "Jupiter crushing the Giants", "Fight between Perseus and Phinaeus", a Dog, etc.
The important works which have perished include the uncompleted chalice intended for Clement VII; a gold cover for a prayer-book as a gift from Pope Paul III to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor — both described at length in his autobiography; large silver statues of Jupiter, Vulcan and Mars, wrought for Francis I during his sojourn in Paris; a bust of Julius Caesar; and a silver cup for the cardinal of Ferrara. The magnificent gold "button", or morse, made by Cellini for the cape of Clement VII, the competition for which is so graphically described in his autobiography, appears to have been sacrificed by Pope Pius VI, with many other priceless specimens of the goldsmith's art, in furnishing the indemnity of 30,000,000 francs demanded by Napoleon at the conclusion of the campaign against the States of the Church in 1797. According to the terms of the treaty, the pope was permitted to pay a third of that sum in plate and jewels. Fortunately there are in the print room of the British Museum three watercolour drawings of this splendid morse by F. Bertoli, done at the instance of an Englishman named Talman in the first half of the 18th century. The obverse and reverse, as well as the rim, are drawn full size, and moreover the morse with the precious stones set therein, including a diamond then considered the second largest in the world, is fully described.
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