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The Biography of Benvenuto Cellini

Vita by Benvenuto Cellini (1500 – 1571)
The autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571) the Italian sculptor and goldsmith is considered one of the great biographies.  It was written between 1556 and 1558, and entitled by him simply Vita (Italian for Life).  He declares at the start: ‘No matter what sort he is, everyone who has to his credit what are or really seem great achievements, if he cares for truth and goodness, ought to write the story of his own life in his own hand; but no one should venture on such a splendid undertaking before he is over forty’.  Most serious autobiographies have been written based on these criteria and Microchip Pillar Identifier Program has also adopted this format.

Benvenuto Cellini was born in 1500 in Florence, Italy, where his family had been landowners in the Val d’Ambra for three generations.  His parents were Giovanni Cellini, a musician and builder of musical instruments, and Maria Lisabetta Granacci, who were married for eighteen years before the birth of their first child.  Benvenuto was the second child of the family.  His father Giovanni initially wished Benvenuto to join him in instrument making, but the young child was more inclined to metalwork.  When he was fifteen, his father reluctantly agreed to apprentice him to a goldsmith, Antonio di Sandro, nicknamed Marcone.  At sixteen, Benvenuto took part in an affray with youthful companions.  He escaped punishment by fleeing for six months to Siena, where he worked for a goldsmith named Fracastoro.  From Siena he moved to Bologna, where he became a more accomplished flute-player and made progress as a goldsmith.  After a visit to Pisa and two periods of living in Florence, he moved to Rome at nineteen.

Work in Rome
His first works were a silver casket, silver candlesticks, and a vase for the bishop of Salamanca, which won him the approval of Pope Clement VII.  Another celebrated work from Rome is the gold medallion of ‘Leda and the Swan’ executed for Gonfaloniere Gabbrielo Cesarino, now in the Vienna museum.  He also took up the flute again, and was appointed one of the pope’s court musicians. In the attack on Rome by Charles III, the Duke of Bourbon, Cellini according to his accounts claimed he himself shot and injured Philbert of Chalon, prince of Orange.  His bravery led to a reconciliation with the Florentine magistrates, and he soon returned to his hometown.  Here he devoted himself to crafting medals, the most famous of which were made in gold are ‘Hercules and the Nemean Lion’, and ‘Atlas supporting the Sphere’, the latter eventually falling into the possession of Francis I of France. 

From Florence he went to the court of the duke of Mantua and then again to Florence.  When he returned to Rome, he was employed in the working of jewellery and in the execution of dies for private medals and for the papal mint.  In 1529 his brother Cecchino killed a Corporal of the Roman Watch and in turn was wounded, later dying from his wound.  Soon afterward Benvenuto killed his brother’s killer.  Cellini fled to Naples to shelter from the consequences of an affray.  Cellini mentioned in his Memoirs that he obtained pardon through the influence of many cardinals, and also found favour with many Popes for the homicides and other punishable acts he committed.

Ferrara and France
The plots of Pierluigi Farnese led to Cellini’s retreat from Rome to Florence and Venice, where he was restored with greater honour than before.  At the age of 37, on returning from a visit to the French court, he was imprisoned on a charge (apparently false) of having embezzled during the war the gems of the pope’s tiara (crown).  He was confined in the Castel Sant’Angelo, escaped, was recaptured, and treated with great severity, and was in daily expectation of death on the scaffold.  The intercession of Pierluigi’s wife, and especially that of the Cardinal d’Este of Ferrara, eventually secured Cellini’s release, in gratitude for which he gave d’Este a splendid cup. 

Cellini then worked at the court of Francis I at Fontainebleau and Paris.  However, he considered the Duchesse d’Etampes to be set against him and refused to conciliate with the king’s favourites.  He could no longer silence his enemies by the sword, as he had silenced those in Rome.  As a result, after about five years of sumptuous work but continual jealousy and violence, Cellini returned to Florence, where he continued as a goldsmith and became the rival of sculptor Baccio Bandinelli.

During the war with Siena, Cellini was appointed to strengthen the defences of his native city, Florence, 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 and was buried with great pomp in the church of the Annunziata.  He had supported in Florence a widowed sister and her six daughters.

Personal relationships
Cellini is known to have taken some of his female models as mistresses, having an illegitimate daughter in 1544 with one of them while living in France, whom he named Costanza.  After briefly attempting a clerical career, in 1562, he married a servant, Piera Parigi, with whom he claimed he had five children, of which only a son and two daughters survived him.  Outside his marriage, Cellini was officially charged with three times with homosexual sodomy and once with heterosexual.

Besides his works in gold and silver, Cellini executed sculptures of grander scale-the bronze group of Perseus and others now in Loggia dei Lanzi at Florence and other museums around the world.  His works of decorative art and portraiture as medallions for kings and popes etc are florid in style.  Many of his art works have perished.  Cellini was mentioned in music and literature of many of the master pieces. Cellini’s autobiographical memoirs which he began writing in Florence in 1558, give a detailed account of his singular career, as well as his loves, hatreds, passions, and delights, written in an energetic, direct, and racy style.  They show a great self-regard and self-assertion, sometimes running into extravagances which are impossible to credit. 

The life of Cellini also inspired many other national writers of adventure and historical novels and Broadway and other musicals.

Compiled by: Dr Samuel B. Goddy, Ph.D, M.Sc (with distinction)

Vita by Benvenuto Cellini (1500 – 1571),
ref:( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benvenuto_Cellini and other sources)