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Saturday, August 9, 2014

Benvenuto Cellini

Cellini's Salt Cellar created for Francis I of France, 1539-43.

Benvenuto Cellini
Self-portrait, 1555-65, during
the years after he'd settled down.
Artists are not always "nice" people. I've met more than a few I wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley on a dark and stormy night. Artists (especially famous artists) are not often what you'd call "ordinary people." In the "not nice" category they range the gamut from weirdos such as Paul Gauguin, who deserted his wife Paris family in favor of the naked native girls (and I do mean girls, not women) of Tahiti; to rapscallions such as Caravaggio who once killed a man in a temper tantrum involving at tennis match. He spent many of the most productive final years of his all-too-brief life on the run from the law. And then there was Benvenuto Cellini, the famous 16th-century Italian goldsmith and sculptor. Not only did he kill a man, actually he killed several, and not in fits of rage either. This man was a cold-blooded, calculating murderer, also a bisexual adulterer, accused and arrested on more than one occasion for molesting teenage boys.
Cellini was a teenage boy once himself, an not one a father would want to boast proudly of. Born in 1500 in Florence, the younger of two sons of a musician and musical instrument maker. Apparently rather hot-tempered and difficult to govern. Although his father encouraged him in music and tried to interest him in his own trade (as was common at the time), before the boy was fifteen he was banished from his hometown for a period of six months for rioting. He spent his time in youthful exile some thirty miles away in Siena where his father had arranged an apprenticeship with a goldsmith. Jewelry making in Italy has always been a promising, highly lucrative career. Several great artists from this period, including Michelangelo, spent their early adolescent years learning the art. Young Benvenuto apparently learned it quickly and well. By the time he was nineteen, he was off to Rome to ply his new trade.
Campidoglio, as Cellini would have encountered it atop the
Capitoline Hill in Rome during the early 1500s before
Michelangelo went to work on it.
If Cellini was, from youth, what you'd term a "not nice" artist, Rome in the early 16th-century could just as easily be considered a "not nice" city. It's population was at a low ebb, most of its "downtown" area was in ruins, its once-great forum and coliseum overrun by brush, weeds, sheep, thieves, and robbers. Had it not been for the Pope (Clement VII at the time) just across the Tiber enconced amid the massive construction zone that was the St. Peter's, the place might well have been considered one of the top hell-holes in Italy. Nonetheless, Cellini found work, creating expensive knickknacks in gold and silver for clergy noblemen, while working part-time playing the flute in the Pope's private musical group.
The Sack of Rome 1527, 17th-century, Johannes Lingelbach.
Then, in 1527, came the sack of Rome by Charles V, Duke of Bourbon. The talented flute-playing goldsmith is credited by himself (in his autobiography) and others with the shooting (he survived) Philibert of Châlon, Prince of Orange (commander of the invasion), during the Siege of Florence, and later having killed Charles V himself during the Siege of Rome (this claim is a bit shaky). For his bravery and homicidal finesse, Cellini was welcomed back to Florence with open arms and there was apparently quite successful in the precious metals trade centered then, as now, among the shops of the Ponte Vecchio. Then his big brother got in trouble by killing by a Corporal in the Roman Watch (the Pope's troops). In the process he himself was wounded by a rifleman and later died. So, of course, Cellini was honor bound to kill his brother's killer even though the artist, himself, later admitted the man more than likely acted in self-defense.
Ganymede on the Eagle, 1548-50, Benvenuto Cellini
Mercury, 1545-53,
Benvenuto Cellini
Cellini found advisable to flee Florence to Naples where he got into a fight with a notary wounding him. Several of his friends (who just happened to be Cardinals) got him a pardon from the new Pope, Paul III, even though by that time, he had managed to add yet another murder charge (a rival goldsmith from Milan) to his "rap sheet." Apparently, with the right friends, an artist as talented as Cellini could literally "get away with murder." In any case, he "high-tailed" it from Rome back to Florence and later Venice only to be falsely charged by the long arm of the Papacy with stealing the Pope's crown jewels many years before during the sack of Rome. Imprisoned in the Castel San Angelo in Rome, he very nearly met his fate hanging from a scaffolding. But once more, a Cardinal friend, this time from the d'Este family of Ferrara, came to his rescue. In gratitude Cellini made him a nice silver cup.

Nymph of Fontainebleau, 1542, Benvenuto Cellini, the only surviving part of
what once was the Golden Gate for the Château de Fontainebleau.
Not only was Benvenuto Cellini a murderer, but something of a philanderer as well, routinely taking his models (of both sexes) to bed. While working in France for King Francis I, he apparently fathered an illegitimate daughter. It wasn't until he was in his early sixties that he finally married one of his models, a servant girl with whom he had five more children (only three survived). As early as 1523 Cellini had been forced to pay a fine of twelve staia (whatever that might be) for having sexual relations with a young boy. He was accused again of the same offense in 1548, and arrested for having sodomized an apprenticed in 1556. This time, the fine was some 1,500 gold scudi and four years in prison, which ended up being simple house arrest. The Florentine Medici family interceded this time.
Perseus with the Head of Medusa, 1545, Benvenuto Cellini
Crucifix, 1562, Benvenuto Cellini
So, what kind of artist was Benvenuto Cellini that he could essentially, get away with such indefensible shenanigans? Second only to Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Cellini was probably the best (I hesitate to say "greatest") sculptor in Italy during the Mannerist period. He is best known for his Perseus with the Head of Medusa (above), from 1545, and his famous gold salt cellar crafted for Francis I during his sojourn to Paris during the 1540s (top). We have a tendency to think Cellini worked only in gold, silver, and bronze, but he was also adept at carving marble (though he only rarely did so) as witnessed by his Ganymede (below) from around 1540 and a superb marble crucifix (right) dating from around 1562.
Ganymede, 1540
Strangely enough, Cellini is almost as well know for his racy, unfinished autobiography dictated between 1558 and 1563 which he called simply, Life. In it he, not only divulges his many sins in considerable and surprising detail (bordering on bragging), but also describes numerous ornamental and sculptural works, now lost. In fact, the number of Cellini's lost pieces rivals the number of his works to be found today in museums all over Europe. On the pages of his book the artist paints a picture of an energetic, assertive, self-assured, master of his craft, describing his loves, hatreds, passions, and delights, even the ruthless manner in which he coldly planned his murders. Cellini died in 1571. His autobiography was not published until 1728. By that time, the statutes of limitations for his many crimes had expired.

An artist whose life may well be more interesting and colorful than his art.


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