Benvenuto Cellini: Passion And Genius Incarnate


Some scholars, artists, and politicians of the Renaissance just seem to embody the spirit of the age.  We find such men, say, in the humanist Lorenzo Valla or the historian Guicciardini.  Another was Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571).  He crowded into his seventy-one years enough lusty living for two lifetimes, perhaps more, and never once in the pages of his Autobiography apologized for a single minute of it.

His parents named him Benvenuto (welcome) out of thanks for his unexpected birth (they were expecting a female child).  Their thanks would soon be sorely tested; for young Benvenuto was a hell-raiser, and a genius, from his earliest maturity.

His father, an engineer, tried to steer the boy to a musical career, but this did not take; his son preferred the sublime mysteries of form, art, and sculpture.  A chance encounter with a book on Roman art lit a fire in his belly to visit Rome; in pursuit of this goal, he and a friend walked (on a spur of the moment) thirty-three miles in one day from Florence to try to see the capital.  In an evocative quote, he tells us that

I had just nineteen years then, and so had the century.

He eventually got himself apprenticed to a goldsmith in Rome, and in his spare time wandered among the city’s ruins and the glorious creations of Michelangelo.  He burned to exceed the achievements of his predecessors.  And he had talent, too:  soon he was known as one of the city’s most capable metal-smiths.  One opportunity led to another, and he eventually got himself noticed by the Vatican.  Soon a pope appointed him master of the papal mint.

His autobiography frankly records these achievements, and also his bedroom acrobatics.  One of his models became the object of his affection, he tells us; she was

A girl of great beauty and grace…I used frequently to pass the night with her…After indulgence in sexual pleasure my slumber is sometimes very deep.

He was a fighter as well as an artist and lover.  When provoked to anger, he could lash out in uncontrolled violence.  He engaged in many duels, and even more brawls; in one of these, he stabbed his adversary in the neck, and nearly killed him.  He eventually did kill a man, and the frankness of his description of the incident gives us an idea of the spirit of the times:

I stabbed him just beneath the ear.  I gave him only two blows, for he fell stone dead at the second.  I had not meant to kill him, but, as the saying goes, knocks are not dealt out by measure.

It is difficult to tell how much of his Autobiography is exaggeration and how much is fact.  Probably a bit of both, with the balance leaning towards the side of truth.  For some reason, despite all his crimes and indiscretions, we still cheer him on.  Perhaps honesty counts for more than we think.

He participated in the defense of Rome during its sack, and handled himself capably as a gunner.  He visited France in 1537, found it uncongenial to his tastes, and then made his way back to Italy; there he was accused of embezzlement and promptly thrown in jail.  People either loved him or hated him; none could be neutral.  He was once sued by a man for damages, lost in court, and then revenged himself on his opponent by crippling him with a dagger.  He also slept with his models at all opportunities, and even gave one a daughter.

But more important than all of this was the fact that he was an artist without peer.  No one who has ever read his story of the casting of his Perseus can forget the thrilling details has Cellini relates them.  It is one of the great dramas in the history of art.  He had designed a special furnace to melt the metal that would form the statue; but just as it was getting heated up, he fell ill.

Not only this, but he had underestimated how much molten metal he would need for the project.  Smelting furnaces in those days took a great deal of time and effort to prepare; to have to start over would have been both expensive and extremely difficult.  Rich patrons are not known to be lenient in such matters.


So he forced himself out of bed, he tells us, desperately sick, and frantically threw every piece of metal he could find into the seething furnace:  plates, cups, candle-sticks, everything and anything metal.  He agonized and fretted over the metallic brew for hours.  Somehow it all worked out perfectly; and the unusual mix of alloys in the casting may have actually improved the final result.  So Fortune can turn desperation into triumph!

One of his assistants, Bernardino Mannellini, described the story of the casting, which is worth quoting at length:

Cellini made the wax model which came out beautifully, but I was questionable [sic] to whether it would come out in bronze as did the Medusa. Apparently the Duke agreed with me when Cellini went to speak to him of the project he was working on. His Excellency was struck by the beauty of the wax model but questioned how it would succeed in bronze with Perseus grasping the head of Medusa so high. The statue would stand ten and a half feet tall if completed with Perseus’s hand holding the head of Medusa high in front of him.

It was clear why his Excellency was concerned for how Cellini would complete the bronze statue. I was standing aside from Cellini as he tried to assure the Duke that the statue would succeed. Cellini pleaded “My lord, I know how very little confidence you have in me; and I believe the reason of this is that your most illustrious Excellency lends too ready an ear to my calumniators, or else indeed that you do not understand my art.” His Excellency argued that he did understand the arts and answered, “I will listen patiently to any argument you can possibly produce in explanation of your statement, which may convince me of its probability.”

Cellini now explained how when filling the mould the nature of fire is to ascend, and therefore Medusa’s head will indeed come out famously. He also explained that since the nature of fire is not to descend that the foot would not come out whole. After listening to the convincing arguments, his Excellency stood shaking his head and departed without any further words…

Finally, the furnace could get going with the pinewood already in place. The furnace was lit and worked so well that Cellini rushed from end to end to keep it going. Keeping the furnace going was difficult labor because it was going to take a lot of heat to melt the metals. To add to the anxiety our workshop took fire and a storm of wind and rain blew outside obviously causing the furnace to cool somewhat…

We battled the unfavorable circumstances for several hours when suddenly Cellini took ill with an intense fever. He was forced to his bed. He first told me that the metals would soon be fused and the mould would fill easily. He said he was so much in pain that he must surely die in a few hours. I did not understand why he was talking this way, but he left for bed. I was left there with the other workers to continue, but something went wrong.

The metal was thickening and not flowing. We couldn’t get it to heat up. One of the workers went to tell Cellini that the statue had been spoiled when I suddenly heard a howl of fury. Cellini was rampaging towards the workshop hitting anything or anyone in his way. He entered the workshop and spoke: “Up with you! Attend to me! Since you have not been able or willing to obey the directions I gave you, obey me now that I am with you to conduct my work in person.

Let no one contradict me, for in cases like this we need the aid of hand and hearing, not of advice.” He took a look at the furnace and then ordered the workers to fetch some oak-wood across the street that was offered to him previously. The oak-wood, which burns powerfully, took quick blaze and the furnace began to glow and sparkle. Meanwhile, there was violent rain outside and I was wondering what had happened to his fever.

The metal was now about to melt and Cellini ordered a sixty-pound block of bronze to be tossed in the furnace. With this the metal was quickly beginning to liquefy. I grabbed an iron rod along with Cellini and started to stir the channels in which the metal would travel into the mould. All of a sudden an explosion took place with a tremendous flame, as if a thunderbolt had struck us. Everyone was in astonishment as the light finally went away.

I then looked to the furnace and discovered the cap had blown off and the bronze was bubbling. A miracle had taken place as Cellini went to pull the plugs and allow the bronze to flow into the mould. At this time we were grabbing dishes, bowls , and any metal items and tossing them into the furnace. The bronze was in perfect liquefaction. All were now joyous in laughter as this miracle was being experienced. We had all doubted this man but were now proven wrong…

When he presented the Perseus to the public in 1554, the reception was ecstatic.  Even Michelangelo would eventually call him “the greatest goldsmith of whom the world has ever heard.”  He was this, as well as a rogue; and genius must be allowed its indulgences.

He found himself jailed a few times in the late 1550s for morals violations (probably sexual indiscretions).  We note that by this time he had five illegitimate children in Florence and one in France. He finally “settled down” with a wife in 1564, and had two more children with her.

He was a lusty sculptor of a vibrant age.


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