Benvenuto Cellini was one of the most larger-than-life figures of the Italian Renaissance. A celebrated sculptor, goldsmith, author and soldier, but also a hooligan and even a killer. The son of a musician and builder of musical instruments, Cellini’s first major brush with the law came as an early teenager. He was banished from his native Florence for his alleged role in a fight. As a result, he received his early artistic training not only from the Florentine goldsmith, Marcone [Antonio di Sandro], but also from Francesco Castoro, a goldsmith of Siena.
After further visits to Bologna and Pisa, Cellini was allowed to return to Florence and continue his work there. In 1519 Cellini moved to Rome, remaining until the city’s fall to the Spanish Emperor in 1527. Among Cellini’s works dating to this early period in his career is a gold medallion with carved stone inset, “Leda and the Swan,” created for Gonfaloniere Gabbrello Cesarino and now in the collection of the museum at Vienna. Another of his patrons in the period was Cardinal Patriarch Marco Cornaro, of the powerful Cornaro della Regina family of Venice.
By his own account Cellini played a role in the ultimately unsuccessful defense of Rome in 1527, slaying the Constable of Bourbon in one attack and later killing Philibert, Prince of Orange, as well. After a brief stay in Florence, where he concentrated on producing medals (including “Hercules and the Numean Lion” in gold repousse and “Atlas Supporting the Sphere” in chased gold), Cellini returned again to Rome. Among his works for Pope Clement VII during this period were a peace commemorative medallion depicting the Pope, 1530, a chalice (not completed), and a magnificent morse [button] for the Pope’s cope.
Then his work was interrupted again by one of the recurrent storm clouds that was persistent through out his career. In 1529 he killed a man who had early killed Cellini’s brother and, in another incident, wounded a notary of the city. Celini fled briefly to Naples but, upon the accession of Pope Paul III, returned to Rome. His stay this time was brief, however, culminating in a dispute with Pietro Alvise Farnese, the Pope’s natural son, and flight to Florence and Venice. While at Florence he executed, 1535, a 40-soldi coin for Alessandro de Medici, depicting the Duke on one side and Saints Cosmo and Damian on the obverse.
Fences were mended in Rome, however, and soon Cellini was back in Rome and back in favor. There he continued to produce coins and medals for the new Pope as he had for his predecessor. He also executed a gold prayerbook cover for Pope Paul III to give to Emperor Charles V. The next storm cloud was imprisonment in 1537 on a charge (perhaps false) of stealing gems from a tiara of the Pope. Intervention by Cardinal d’Este of Ferrara (for whom he had created a silver cup) and others brought his release, and Cellini left Rome for the last time. His destination this time was the court of King Francis I of France.
Five productive years followed at Fontainebleau and Paris, as Cellini produced several of his most celebrated works, including a salt cellar (now in the museum at Vienna) and large silver statues (subsequently lost) of Jupiter, Vulcan and Mars. Characteristically, Cellini became embroiled in disputes with those around him and in 1545 he returned at last to his native Florence, where he remained until his death in 1571. At Florence Cellini created one of the most celebrated works of his long career and one of the notable monuments of the Italian Renaissance, the bronze figure Perseus holding the Head of Medusa.
Other acclaimed statuary of the period include Ganymede on the Eagle and a bust of Cosimo I de Medici, both now in the Bargello Museum in Florence. Much of Cellini’s notoriety, and perhaps even fame, derives from his memoirs, begun in 1558 and abandoned in 1562, which were published posthumously under the title The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini. As noted by one biographer, “His amours and hatreds, his passions and delights, his love of the sumptuous and the exquisite in art, his self-applause and self-assertion, make this one of the most singular and fascinating books in existence. “