Biography of Italian Artist Benvenuto Cellini

About the famous Renaissance painter Benvenuto Cellini, history and account of his autobiography.



Most Italian artists of Cellini's day are known through a book of biographical sketches compiled by one of their number, Vasari. But Benvenuto Cellini was not willing to entrust his presentation to posterity to anyone but himself. He wrote his own biography, a lengthy, swashbuckling one that dealt little with art. Cellini's life, as told by himself, reads like another Decameron--on which he may well have patterned his book. Historians disagree over how much in it is fact, how much fiction. But it proved a best-seller when first published in 1728, a century and a half after his death. It was translated into English in 1771 and has become a standard work of literature.

When the original manuscript of the autobiography was rediscovered in 1804, it showed that publishers had embellished it only slightly. The salty, straight-from-the-gutter language was fit for a Sicilian fisherman, not a master artist. So was the brawling and lusty eating and whoring. But Cellini was not an artist by nature.

The son of a musician, he was straitjacketed into music lessons until the age of 15, then rebelled and was apprenticed as a common laborer--a goldsmith. But even that fell through. Cellini got into a duel and was banished from his home city of Florence. He wandered about Italy, working where he could, and arrived in Rome at the age of 19. Pope Clement VII took an interest in his work and fed him a series of commissions. Other prominent citizens did likewise, and soon Cellini had a reputation that stretched from Venice to Milan. He fashioned jeweled boxes, candlesticks, metal plates, vases, caskets, and coffers. Practically none of this work survives, for it was melted down into bullion. After running afoul of the papal graces, Cellini was briefly imprisoned and went into self-imposed exile in France on his release. There he was hailed as a hero and genius and warmly received by Francis I. In 1545 he returned to Florence, where he remained until his death.

It was only later in life that Cellini turned from making small goldsmith's ornaments to full-scale sculptures. Because of his training, Cellini preferred bronze to marble or stone. His most famous busts, of Bindo Altoviti in the Gardner Museum in Boston and of Cosimo de' Medici in the Bargello in Florence, are bronzes. His marble sculptures include the mythological studies Apollo and Hyacinth and Narcissus, both in the Bargello.

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