November 4, 1500 – Benvenuto Cellini:
“When the poor give to the rich, the devil laughs.”
Artists are not always “nice”. Artists (especially famous artists) are not what you’d call “ordinary people.” Paul Gauguin deserted his wife and family in Paris for young naked native girls in Tahiti; Caravaggio killed a man in a temper tantrum over a tennis match. He spent his final years of his all-too-brief life on the run from the law. And then there was Cellini, the famous 16th-century Italian goldsmith and sculptor. Not only did he kill a man, he killed several, and not in fits of rage either. This artist was a cold-blooded, calculating murderer, also a bisexual adulterer, accused and arrested more than once for molesting teenage boys.
Born in Florence, the younger of two sons of a musician and musical instrument maker, Cellini seems to have been rather hot-tempered and difficult to parent. Although his father encouraged him in music and tried to interest him in his own trade, at 15 years old, Cellini was banished from Florence for six months for participating in a riot. He spent his youthful exile in Siena where his father arranged an apprenticeship with a goldsmith. During the Renaissance, just like today, jewelry making in Italy was a highly lucrative career. Several great artists from this period, including Michelangelo, learned the art when they were young. Young Cellini learned it quickly and did it better than anyone. At 19, he traveled to Rome to practice his new trade.
If Cellini was a “not nice” artist, Rome in the early 16th-century could easily be considered a “not nice” city. Much of Rome was in ruins, its once-great forum and coliseum overrun by weeds, thieves, and robbers. Had it not been for the Pope Clement VII just across the Tiber, living amid the massive construction zone of St. Peter’s Basilica, it was probably considered what the future 45th president of the United States of America would call a “shithole” city. Even so, Cellini found work creating expensive knickknacks in gold and silver for the clergy and noblemen, while working part-time playing the flute in the Pope’s private musical group, The Popettes.
In 1527, Rome was sacked by Charles V, Duke of Bourbon. The young, talented flute-playing goldsmith credited by himself (in his autobiography) with the shooting of Philibert of Châlon, Prince of Orange, the commander of the invasion, during the Siege of Florence, and having killed Charles V himself during the Siege of Rome. For his killing finesse, Cellini was welcomed back to Florence. He was quite successful in the precious metals trade, then, as now, concentrated among the shops of the Ponte Vecchio.
He was all set to become rich when his big brother got in trouble by killing a Corporal in the Roman Watch (the Pope’s guards). The brother died in the fight also. Cellini was honor bound to kill his brother’s killer even though the artist, himself, admitted the man probably acted in self-defense.
Cellini fled Florence for Naples where he got into a fight that ended in another killing. Several of his friends (who just happened to be Cardinals) got him a pardon from the new Pope, Paul III, even though ,he had managed to add yet another murder charge (a rival goldsmith) to his rap sheet. With the right kind of friends, an artist as talented as Cellini could literally get away with murder.
He went to Venice only to be charged by 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, from the powerful d’Este family, came to his rescue. In gratitude Cellini made him a nice silver cup.
Cellini routinely bedded his models, both male and female. While working in France for King Francis I, he 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. In 1523, Cellini was forced to pay a fine of a dozen staia (whatever that might be) for having sex with a young boy. He was accused again of the same offense in 1548, and arrested for having sodomized his young apprentice in 1556. This time, the fine was some 1,500 gold scudi and the sentence was four years in prison, but the super powerful Florentine Medici family interceded and he got off with just simple house arrest with an ankle monitor.
So, what kind of artist was Cellini that he get away with all these crimes? Second only to Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Cellini was probably the best sculptor in Italy during this period. He is best known for his Perseus with the Head of Medusa (1545), or his famous gold salt cellar crafted for Francis I during his time in Paris during the 1540s. Cellini didn’t just work in gold, silver, and bronze, he was also adept at carving marble.
Look at his Ganymede (below) from around 1540, commissioned by Cosimo I de’ Medici, the duke of Florence,. Cellini suggested adding symbols to identify the marble boy as Ganymede, the mythical prince loved by Jupiter. At its unveiling, his greatest rival, sculptor Baccio Bandinelli, exploiting his Cellini’s well-known weakness for young men by saying: “Shut up, you filthy sodomite!” Cellini’s witty retort:
“I wish to God I did know how to indulge in such a noble practice; after all, we read that Jove enjoyed it with Ganymede in paradise, and here on earth it is the practice of the greatest emperors and … kings.”
A decade later while in jail for assault, Cellini acknowledged the persistent rumors, writing:
“Some say I’m here on Ganymede’s account.”
How about this superb marble crucifix dating from around 1562?
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, but also describes numerous ornamental and sculptural works, now lost (the number of Cellini’s lost pieces rivals the number of his works to be found today in museums all over the world.
The memoir gives a detailed account of his loves, hatreds, passions, and delights, written in a direct, and decidedly dirty style. A reviewer for the Florence Daily News wrote:
“Other goldsmiths have done finer work, but Benvenuto Cellini is the author of the most delightful autobiography ever written.”
Cellini’s writing shows a considerable self-regard, with extravagances that were impossible to credit. He even writes with amusement about how he contemplated his murders before carrying them out:
“When certain decisions of the court were sent me by those lawyers, and I perceived that my cause had been unjustly lost, I had recourse for my defense to a great dagger I carried; for I have always taken pleasure in keeping fine weapons. The first man I attacked was a plaintiff who had sued me; and one evening I wounded him in the legs and arms so severely, taking care, however, not to kill him, that I deprived him of the use of both his legs. Then I sought out the other fellow who had brought the suit and used him also such wise that he dropped it.”translated by John Addington Symonds, 1961
He recounts some extraordinary events, such as stories of conjuring up a legion of devils in the Colosseum; of the marvelous halo of light which he found surrounding his head at dawn and twilight after his imprisonment in Rome, his supernatural visions, and his angelic protection when times were tough.
It is regarded as one of the more colorful autobiographies of all time, certainly the most important autobiography from the Renaissance.
Cellini died in 1571. The memoir was not published until 1728. By that time, the statutes of limitations for his many crimes had expired.
Rolex named their line of precious metal dress watches after Cellini, with the Rolex Cellini Collection beginning in 1928 and continuing to this day.
Cellini’s life is the unlikely subject of a Broadway musical, The Firebrand Of Florence (1945), by Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weill. It features the songs Life, Love, And Laughter; and I kid you not, The Little Naked Boy. Unfortunately, there was no sodomy dream ballet.
The Affairs Of Cellini (1934) is a film starring Frank Morgan, Constance Bennett, Fredric March, and Fay Wray. It’s a comedy, and although it is pre-code, the sodomy never made it to the screen.