The Renaissance, also known as the Age of Humanism, was one of the most astonishingly productive and creative epochs of European history. For the first time ever, individual artists took center-stage by the sheer dint of their personalities and genius, and opened up whole new vistas of painting, sculpture, and architecture.
The significant events of the period―in terms of political disorder, conflicts, epidemics, etc.―had surprisingly little adverse effect on these artists.
One such talented, celebrated figure was that of Benvenuto Cellini, a Florentine goldsmith and sculptor, who became one of the leading artisans under the Medici Rulers of the middle and late Renaissance.
He was man whose memoirs recreate a notable portrait of the ideological and social times of the 16th century Italian city-states. His travels took him from Florence to France, with many detours and stops in between, having interesting escapades and witnessing first-hand some of the most turbulent events in Europe.
He was born in Florence, on November 3, 1500, to the musician and engineer, Giovanni Cellini. Giovanni wanted his son to be a flutist, but Benvenuto instead apprenticed himself as a goldsmith at the age of 15.
He studied under Michel Agnolo (Pinzi di Monte), Marcone (Florence), Francesco Castoro (Siena), Scipione Cavalletti (Bologna), Ulivieri della Chiostra (Pisa), Firenzuola (Rome), Pagalo Arsago (Rome), and Santi (Rome), and was immensely inspired by the artists of the day like Michelangelo Buonarroti, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Francesco Lippi, and Fra Lippi.
Displaying an innate skill, he soon acquired illustrious patrons like Pope Clement VII, the Bishop of Salamanca, Cardinal Cibo, Cardinal Cornaro, Ridolfi and Salviati of the Holy College, Signor Gabriello Ceserino who was the Gonfalconier of Rome, and this enabled him to set up a goldsmith shop for himself.
However, possessing a restless, strong-willed, and wild temperament, Cellini was very rarely able to maintain an even keel in both his business and personal transactions.
In 1519, he was expelled from Florence for dueling, and he went to Rome only to get caught up in the plague epidemic that claimed thousands of lives and in the city's futile resistance against the Spaniards in 1527.
Here, he played a prominent part slaying both the Constable of Bourbon and the Prince of Orange, becoming an Artillery soldier, and coming under the personal notice of the Pope. After the articles of peace were signed, Cellini obtained permission to return to his father in Florence and remained there briefly.
The notable artworks of this early period were candelabras and vases for the Bishop of Salamanca, and a gold medal engraved with 'Leda and her swan' made for Signor Gabriello Ceserino to be worn on his hat. However, it proved too expensive for him and remained with Cellini.
It is now in the Museum of Vienna. During his time in Florentine, Cellini designed a Christian reliquary and a pontifical seal for the Duke of Mantua.
Next, he created a gold medal depicting Hercules to be worn on a hat for Girolamo Maretti, and a medal showing Atlas holding the world on his shoulders for Federigo Ginori, which later ended up in the possession of the King of France.
Soon thereafter the Pope declared war on Florence, but showed a special benevolence for the Florentine Cellini and made him return to Rome.
Cellini spent the next few years under his patronage, excelling in many artistic mediums and gaining recognition for his masterful designing of a magnificent Papal Cope button, gold doubloons, a chalice (left unfinished), jewel settings, caskets, vases, and candlesticks.
During this period, Cellini's younger brother was murdered. After two separate incidents in which he avenged his brother and wounded a city official, he was forced to flee to Naples.
Pardoned and recalled by the dying Pope, he got into a hassle next with Pier Luigi, the son of the succeeding Pope Paul III, and was put to flight yet again. Cellini went to Florence for a while, where he designed a gold coin for the Medici Duke Alessandro and remained there until the relations with Rome were restored.
Then, he went to work for the new Pope and produced a jeweled gold case for a Book of Hours of Our Lady that was presented to Emperor Charles V in honor of his victorious Tunisian Campaign.
His good relations with the Pope, however, did not last and he was falsely accused of having stolen Church jewels during the Sack of Rome and was imprisoned for a long time.
After an escape attempt, recapture, and re-incarceration, he was finally released at the repeated behests of the King of France's emissary, the Cardinal of Ferrera. Shortly thereafter, having finished a silver basin for the Cardinal, he left Rome to never return.
Cellini's next destination was France, where he was very warmly received and remained for five years, becoming a distinguished member of the Court and executing several famous works―the bronze lunette relief of the Nymph of Fontainebleau, an elaborate gold and enameled salt-cellar, large silver statues of Jupiter, various bronze heads, and silver vases.
True to character, he found himself in several controversies with the French, particularly incurring the enmity of the King's mistress, Madame d'Etampes, and thereby soon outliving his welcome. In 1545, receiving the timely invitation of Duke Cosimo I, he returned to Florence and this time stayed in his native land.
He created some of the finest metal works of his long career in Florence for Duke Cosimo I―notably the bronze portrait bust of Cosimo de Medici (Bargello Museum, Florence), Ganymede on the Eagle (Bargello Museum, Florence), and most acclaimed of all, the colossal bronze statue Perseus and Medusa (Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence).
It is one of the most successful sculptural creations of the Renaissance, requiring a pioneering technique to cast an 18 feet tall bronze figure. In the manner of his idol Michelangelo's Pieta, Cellini's signature is seen in large letters on a strap crossing Perseus' chest, and the huge nude figure is modeled with utmost anatomical precision.
It caused a sensation on its installation and Bronzino, one of the last good Florentine painters, composed sonnets in its praise. Four years later, in 1558, Cellini began to write his memoirs, which stop suddenly in the year 1562.
During the last decade of his life, according to official documents, he married, raised a family, and litigated against former patrons for back-payments. Although he appears to have transacted several businesses, his work as an artist fell back for various reasons and gradually ceased altogether.
His health, which had been wrecked by his long imprisonment in Rome, deteriorated with old age, and he passed away on the 13th of February 1571. He was buried with public honors in the Church of the Annunziata.
His autobiography was published posthumously nearly 150 years later, and has been in print since. It has been the inspiration for an outpouring of books, music, paintings, plays, TV dramas, and films.