1902 Encyclopedia > Benvenuto Cellini

Benvenuto Cellini
Italian goldsmith, sculptor, painter, soldier, musician and autobiography writer
(1500-69)




BENVENUTO CELLINI, (1500-1569), was born at 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. The father designed Benvenuto for the same profession with 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 becoming apprenticed to a goldsmith, Antonio di Sandro, named 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. After visiting Bologna and Pisa, and after twice resettling for a while in Florence, he decamped to Rome.

On his next return to Florence, his violent temper again embroiled him in a quarrel, which again com-pelled him to retreat in disguise to Rome. Here he pro-duced a vase for the bishop of Salamanca, which introduced him to the favourable notice of Pope Clement VII.,—like-wise at a later date one of his celebrated works, the medallion of Leda and the Swan ; 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, in 1527, 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 after-wards wounded the 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, and Atlas supporting the Sphere. From Florence he went to the court of the duke of Mantua, and thence again to Florence and to Rome. Here he avenged a brother's death by slaying the slayer; and shortly afterwards he 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 cardinals he obtained a pardon; and on the elevation of 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 in the interregnum Once more the plots of Pier Luigi, 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 was in daily expecta-tion of death on the scaffold. At last, however, he was released at the intercession of Pier Luigi's wife, and of the cardinal of Ferrara, to whom he presented a splendid cup.

For a while after this he wrought at the court of Francis I. at Fontainebleau and in Paris; but 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 at Rome, led him, after about five years of laborious and sumptuous work, and of continually- recurring jealousies and violences, to retire 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. Here, as well as in a previous instance in Paris, he was accused of gross immorality ; in his autobiography he rather repels than denies the charge, but he certainly repels it with demonstrative and grotesque vivacity. During the war with Siena, Cellini was appointed to strengthen the defences of his native city, and he continued to gain the admiration of his fellow-citizens by the magnificent works which he pro- duced. He died in Florence on 13th December 1569, and was buried with great pomp in the church of the Annunziata.





Besides the works in gold and silver which have been alluded 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, placed in front of the old Ducal Palace at Florence, a work 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; its completion was hailed with rapturous homage from all parts of Italy.

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. The autobiography has been translated into English by Thomas Roscoe.

Cellini also wrote treatises on the goldsmith's art, on sculpture, and on design.

Among his works of art not already mentioned, and many of which have perished, are a colossal Mars for a fountain at Fontainebleau and the bronzes of the doorway, coins for the Papal and Florentine states, a marble Christ in the Escorial palace, a magnificent button for the pontifical cope of Clement VII., a Jupiter in silver of life size, and a bronze bust of Bindo Altoviti. (w. M. B.)







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