Benvenuto Cellini – Italian Goldsmith

Cellini's "Saliera" in gold, enamel, and ivory
Cellini's "Saliera"

If one were to name a single Italian artist who most perfectly embodies the turbulence and the genius of late Renaissance Italy that artist would certainly be Benvenuto Cellini, unexcelled goldsmith, sculptor, painter, musician, but also a lawless murderer whose life was marked by violent conflict whenever his immoderate appetites were thwarted or his professional preeminence challenged. Benvenuto was also a successful military man, hailed as a hero at the Siege of Rome in 1527, rewarded by the Pope for his military prowess, and a distinguished participant in the conflict between his native city of Florence and its rival Siena. As if all this were not enough, Benvenuto was also the author of an acclaimed Autobiography, which is relentlessly self-promoting but magnificently captures the spirit of those restless times.

Benvenuto’s life is the stuff of film and legend. His travels spanned the great centers of Italian art, Florence, Rome, Naples, Venice. He was a friend of Popes and kings, spending several years at the court of Francis I of France, immersed in court intrigues and controversies. During his stay in Rome he murdered a couple out of jealousy, because he was in love with the MAN. He was for a period jailed in Castel Sant’Angelo, from which he tried to escape in the best tradition of a Dumas novel. He suffered both legs broken in the process, and was nearly executed but for the timely intercession of powerful friends.

But it is of course his art that has made him immortal, and of all the art forms in which he excelled his predilection was goldsmithing and the carving of intricately beautiful objects. Some of his most notable works are the Saliera (The Salt Cellar), carved in gold, ivory and enamel, pictured in this article. The Saliera itself has a checkered history: made for Francis I of France it eventually made its way to the Vienna Museum, from which it was stolen in 2006. Only recently was it recovered and restored to its former home in Austria.

Famous are also his gold medallions, among which we may mention “Leda and the Swan”, also in Vienna, “Hercules and the Nemean Lion”, in gold repousse’, and “Atlas supporting the Sphere”, in chased gold. An outstanding Cricifix carved in ivory is housed at the Escorial, outside Madrid. And his “Perseus with the Head of Medusa” is a magnificent example of his larger sculptures.

Cellini died in his native city, Florence, in 1571. Straddling the end of the Italian Renaissance and the birth of Mannerism, he was truly a figure of myth, incomparable artist, swashbuckling adventurer, at the mercy of strong passions, and an accomplished author.

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