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Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Benvenuto Cellini – sculptor and goldsmith

Creator of the famous Perseus bronze had a dark history


Cellini's bronze of Perseus and the Head of Medusa in Piazza della Signoria in Florence
Cellini's bronze of Perseus with the Head of
Medusa
in Piazza della Signoria in Florence
The colourful life of the Renaissance artist Benvenuto Cellini ended on this day in 1571 with his death in Florence at the age of 70.

A contemporary of Michelangelo, the Mannerist Cellini was most famous for his bronze sculpture of Perseus with the Head of Madusa, which still stands where it was erected in 1554 in the Loggia dei Lanzi of the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, and for the table sculpture in gold he created as a salieri - salt cellar - for Francis I of France.

The Cellini Salt Cellar, as it is generally known, measuring 26cm (10ins) by 33.5cm (13.2ins), is now kept at the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna, with an insurance value of $60 million.

His works apart, Cellini was also known for an eventful personal life, in which his violent behaviour frequently landed him in trouble. He killed at least two people while working in Rome as a young man and claims also to have shot dead Charles III, Duke of Bourbon, during the 1527 Siege of Rome by mutinous soldiers of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.

Cellini was also imprisoned for alleged embezzlement of the gems from the tiara of Pope Clement VII, famously escaping from jail at the Castel Sant’Angelo by climbing down a rope of knotted bedsheets, and for immorality.

He was a self-confessed bisexual, being found guilty of sodomy on a number of occasions.  One such charge, brought following accusations made by a male apprentice in his Florence workshop, led to a prison sentence of four years, commuted to house arrest following the intervention of the Medici family.

Cellini's extraordinary salt cellar in gold is insured for a value of $60 million
Cellini's extraordinary salt cellar in gold is insured
for a value of $60 million
Much of this is known because Cellini documented his life in an autobiography, the first by a significant Renaissance figure, in which he shared the details of his racy exploits. 

Cellini was apprenticed as a metalworker in the studio of the Florentine goldsmith Andrea di Sandro Marcone. He might have stayed in Florence had he not twice had to leave to escape the consequences of his violent behaviour.

After fleeing to Rome, he worked for the bishop of Salamanca, Sigismondo Chigi, and Pope Clement VII, which is how he came to participate on the side of the pontiff in defending Rome against the imperial forces in 1527, where he claimed not only to have killed Charles III of Bourbon but also to have shot, possibly fatally, the Prince of Orange, Philibert of Chalon.

Having survived the sack of Rome, he returned to Florence and in 1528 worked in Mantua, making a seal for Cardinal Gonzaga, which is now the property of the city’s Episcopal Archives.  Back in Rome, he then executed several works in gold for Clement VII, although apart from two medals made in 1534, which can be seen at the Uffizi in Florence, none survive.

His violent ways continued. After his brother, Cecchino, had killed a corporal of the Roman Watch and in turn received fatal wounds from the gun of another soldier, Cellini meted out his own justice by murdering his brother’s killer. He later murdered another man, this time a rival goldsmith.

A portrait bust of Cellini by Raffaello Romanelli  can be found on Florence's Ponte Vecchio
A portrait bust of Cellini by Raffaello Romanelli
 can be found on Florence's Ponte Vecchio
Amazingly, he was absolved by Clement VII’s successor, Pope Paul III, but the following year, having wounded a notary, he fled from Rome and settled back in Florence.

He made his first visit to France as a guest of Francis I in 1538. It was two years later that he arrived at Fontainebleau, carrying with him an unfinished salieri, which he had originally offered to Cardinal Ippolito d’Este of Ferrara, and which he now completed in gold for the French king. The piece, which has the figures of a man and a women symbolising the sea and the Earth, and in which tiny models of a ship and a temple were intended to be receptacles for the condiments, is the only surviving fully authenticated Cellini work in precious metal. Modelled by hand rather than cast, it has been dubbed the Mona Lisa of small sculptures.

While in France, Cellini modelled and cast his first large-scale work, a large bronze lunette of the Nymph of Fontainebleau for the entrance to the Louvre.

He left Paris to return to Florence in 1545, at which point he was welcomed by Cosimo de’ Medici and entrusted with the commissions for the bronze Perseus in the Loggia dei Lanzi, and for a colossal bust of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, now at the Bargello museum, a short distance away.

Cellini’s other late works include his marble figures of Apollo and Hyacinth (1546) and of Narcissus (1546–47), which are also in the Bargello, as is a small relief of a greyhound made as a trial cast for the Perseus (1545).

There is a statue of Cellini in the  Piazzale degli Uffizi
There is a statue of Cellini in the
Piazzale degli Uffizi
After the unveiling of the Perseus, he began work on a marble crucifix originally intended for his own tomb in the Florence church of Santissima Annunziata, but now in the church of the royal monastery of the Escorial in Spain.

He began to write his autobiography in 1558 and completed it in 1562, dictating the text to an assistant in his workshop.

First printed in Italy in 1728, the book was translated into English in 1771. Composed in colloquial language, it is enormously valuable in providing a first-hand account of life in Clement VII’s Rome, the Paris of Francis I, and the Florence of Cosimo de’ Medici.

Michelangelo's David (left) and Bartolommeo Bandinelli's Hercules and Cacus in Florence's Piazza della Signoria
Michelangelo's David (left) and Bartolommeo Bandinelli's
Hercules and Cacus in Florence's Piazza della Signoria
Travel tip:

Florence’s Piazza della Signoria, situated right in the heart of the city, close to the Duomo and the Uffizi Gallery, is home to a series of important sculptures, including Giambologna’s The Rape of the Sabine Women and his Equestrian Monument of Cosimo I, Baccio Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus, the Medici Lions by Fancelli and Vacca, The Fountain of Neptune by Bartolemeo Ammannati, copies of Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes and Il Marzocco (the Lion), and the copy of Michelangelo’s David, at the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio.

The Palazzo del Bargello in Via del Proconsolo is home to many masterpieces
The Palazzo del Bargello in Via del Proconsolo
is home to many masterpieces
Travel tip:

As well as works by Cellini, other great Renaissance sculptures can be appreciated in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello - the Bargello National Museum - situated just a short distance from Piazza della Signoria in Via del Proconsolo. The museum houses masterpieces by Michelangelo, Donatello, Giambologna, Vincenzo Gemito, Jacopo Sansovino, Gianlorenzo Bernini and many works by the Della Robbia family.






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