Benvenuto Cellini: prodigies and controversies of a Renaissance master

Bust of Benvenuto Cellini, Raffaello Romanelli

During the Reinassance, there were many Italian artists who gave birth to an artistic heritage of inestimable value through their excellence, and whose fascinating stories left an indelible trace in the identity of the bel paese. Among these influential personalities, Benvenuto Cellini certainly stands out: he was a goldsmith, silversmith, sculptor, prose writer and poet, born in 1500 in Florence and lived until 1571. With his works, he perfectly embodies the love for beauty and the distinctive traits of craftsmanship of Florence, a city that has always been nourished by unique artistic treasures in the world.

From a very young age, Cellini shows himself destined for great works: at the age of fifteen he begins working as an apprentice in Antonio di Sandro’s workshop, and his innate talent is immediately appreciated. The fire of passion already burns inside the young man, who works only for pleasure, unlike his colleagues, without even receiving a salary. In fact, his father, who desires a future in music for his son, tries to hinder his vocation towards goldsmithing, preventing him from receiving compensation for his services. However, the satisfaction comes from the heart: “There was so much desire or real inclination, and both, that in a few months I joined those good ones, indeed the best young people in the art, and I began to take the fruits of my efforts”, Cellini writes in his autobiographical work La Vita, recalling his youth.

In all his things he is daring, proud, lively, very prompt and terrible, and a person who, unfortunately, has been able to affirm himself with his principles, no less than the hands and intelligence which he uses in the fields of the arts” , this is how he is described by the contemporary Giorgio Vasari in his own famous work Vite (1550). As a matter of fact, Benvenuto Cellini is impetuous, sometimes sinful and violent. He is charged with multiple accusations, including that of sodomy, which at the time could be punished with prison, and he is repeatedly involved in fights and violent episodes, which force him to leave Florence and even cost him imprisonment. Although he has even committed three murders, he is convinced that through his artistic creations he will obtain the salvation of the soul from God. In his autobiography, he frequently addresses to the “God of nature“, who has granted him a talent behind which a real divine call is hidden.

Salt cellar of Francis I, Benvenuto Cellini

By taking inspiration from the Mannerist aesthetic, over the course of his lifetime the artist creates works of immeasurable value. In Rome, he receives protection from Pope Clement VII and produces extraordinary medals and seals for him. In France, he offers Francis I one of his most famous works, the salt cellar made of gold and ebony, with the representation of the god Neptune and the goddess Earth. The two figures cross their legs, and the salt originates from their contact. The figures of Aurora, Day, Twilight and Night also appear below. This masterpiece of high jewelry, which was stolen in 2003, then fortunately found three years later, dates back to 1543 and is now kept in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. For Francis I he also created the Nymph of Fontainebleau, a bronze relief dating back to 1543-44 and now housed in the Louvre Museum, Paris.

Salt cellar of Francis I (detail), Benvenuto Cellini

Among all Benvenuto Cellini’s works of art, the statue of Perseus is extremely famous. It was commissioned by Cosimo I de Medici for the Loggia dei Lanzi, in Piazza della Signoria, Florence. The mythological hero takes Medusa’s head with his left hand, while with his right hand he holds the sword he used to cut it. His feet, which wear a pair of winged sandals donated to Perseus directly by Hermes, rest on the body of the just killed Gorgon. The head is protected by a magnificently decorated helmet. The statue, universally considered as one of the highest examples of Italian Mannerist sculpture, symbolizes the alter ego of the artist, according to many critics: a mighty hero who triumphs in the fight against the adversities of life, against the “cruel Destiny”.

Perseus with the head of Medusa, Benvenuto Cellini
Perseus with the head of Medusa, Benvenuto Cellini

In addition, Cellini wrote several literary works such as Rhymes, Treatise on sculpture and Treatise on goldsmithing. In the latter he meticulously teaches “the beautiful secrets and admirable ways which are present in the great art of goldsmithing“, dividing the work into thirty-six chapters, each dedicated to a particular working technique, from “the art of enameling” up to the “jewel“, which stands for the processing of four elements: ruby, sapphire, emerald and diamond. Furthermore, the artist also wrote on architecture and drawing. Precisely in these works, a real ennobling of these arts takes place: following what, in his introduction to La Vita, Lorenzo Bellotto defines as “a process of social revaluation” that had been strengthening since the fifteenth century, Cellini wishes to give great dignity to the artist-artisan, considering those who belittle their work as presumptuous.

Today, whoever walks on the Ponte Vecchio and admires the wonderful panorama, whether to take a picture or to enjoy such great beauty, comes across the bust of Benvenuto Cellini, by Raffaello Romanelli. The artist is there, among the passers-by, forever close to the bridge-monument that is today a symbol in the world of luxury and Italian craftsmanship, as if to indicate his paternity of goldsmithing, as if to guard it. And the bond with the artists is attested in the inscription of the monument: “To Benvenuto Cellini – master – the goldsmiths of Florence“. His presence thus remains eternal in the heart of Florence.

Laura Inghirami in front of the Bust of Benvenuto Cellini by Raffaello Romanelli