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Cellini, Benvenuto

    Full Name: Cellini, Benvenuto

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1500

    Date Died: 1571

    Place Born: Florence, Tuscany, Italy

    Place Died: Florence, Tuscany, Italy

    Home Country/ies: Italy

    Subject Area(s): Mannerist (Renaissance-Baroque style), Renaissance, and sculpture (visual works)


    Mannerist sculptor; his autobiography (Vita) contains evaluations of many renaissance artists. Trained as a goldsmith, Cellini worked primarily as a sculptor. His early work in Pisa on the cathedral (accidentally, he had originally set out for Rome) resulted in a keen knowledge of Roman sculpture via sarcophagi. Finally in Rome by 1519, he dealt in antique medals, gems, and other objects which, according to his autobiography, he routinely discovered. In 1532 he traveled to Naples before a commission for the Cardinal Ippolito d’Este (1479-1520) led him to the court of Francois I in Fontainebleau in 1540. At Fontainebleau, Cellini worked on royal commissions, including a famous Nymph of Fontainebleau, now in the Louvre [the work was only reattributed to Cellini by Leopoldo Conte Cicognara in 1824]. In 1543 he produced his most famous work of art, the Salt Cellar of Francois I, a gold and enamel salt holder for royal use. Thereafter, Cellini returned to Florence to work for for Cosimo I de’ Medici. These included his notable bronze Perseus statue. In 1556 he was imprisoned in the Stinche for more than two months for assault. He was charged with sodomy in 1557. It was during this time, when, sentenced to four years’ imprisonment and under house arrest, (or possibly the following year) that Cellini began his Vita, an important proto-art-historical work. He likely intended his autobiography both as an apologia as well as a document of his accomplishments. The manuscript, which was dictated in 1562 to an assistant while Cellini sculpted, was unpublishable at the time because of his strained relations with Cosimo I. Cellini appears to have added sections to it around 1566-7. The Vite remained unpublished during Cellini’s lifetime, though contemporaries such as Giorgio Vasari, himself an important art-historical chronicler, knew of its existence. Benedotto Varchi, another in the Medici circle, may also have read it. The manuscript was believed lost, though imperfect 17th-century copies existed. These copies circulated to Filippo Baldinucci and Antonio Cocchi, who issued an edition in 1728. The first English translation appeared in 1771 by Thomas Nugent, who had used the Cocchi version. Goethe translated it into German. The rediscovery of the original manuscript in 1805 allowed Francesco Tassi to issue a reliable edition in 1829. Though many events appear to be “reconstructions,” perhaps in the hopes of reingratiating himself with the Medici, the account overall is a more or less truthful document. Cellini’s life forms a privileged snapshot of artistic life in the art capital of the time. He faced interrogations in the Castel Sant’Angelo in 1538, encountered bizarre scenes of witchcraft in the Colosseum, and had dealings with many famous artists and patrons. The Vita is part of a tradition of Italian humanistic biography. Cellini’s style is immediate, his facility for dialogue sensitive. His romancing of episodes and impossible chronologies has led to accusations of fiction. Cellini freely discusses the oneiric aspects of life (hallucinations, visions, premonitions) as well as his experience with other renaissance artists and his frank evaluation of them. Modern organization into chapters and sub-parts, which makes for easier reading, is not part of the original structure. Cellini also wrote a treatise on art, not connected with an art history.

    Selected Bibliography

    [Original manuscript:] Florence, Bib. Medicea-Laurenziana, Cod. Mediceo-Palatino 234.2, (c. 1558-67); [first printed edition:] Atonio Cocchi, editor. Vita di Benvenuto Cellini orefice e scultore fiorentino da lui medesimo scritta. Colonia [i.e., Naples]: P. Martello 1728; [first English edition:] The Life of Benvenuto Cellini. Thomas Nugent, trans. 2 vols. London: Printed for T. Davies, 1771; [first edition using original manuscript:] Tassi, Francesco, editor. Vita di Benvenuto Cellini orefice e scultore fiorentino scritta di lui medesimo, restituita alla lezione originale sul manoscritto Poirot ora Laurenziano ed arrichita d’illustrazioni e documenti inediti. 3 vols. Florence: G. Piatti, 1829 ; [most recent reliable English translation:] Symonds, John Addington, trans. The Life of Benvenuto Cellini. 2 vols. London: John C. Nimmo, 1888; [abridged edition] Hope, Charles, and Nova, Alessandro, editors. The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini. Oxford: Phaidon Press, 1983.


    Kultermann, Udo. Geschichte der Kunstgeschichte: Der Weg einer Wissenschaft. 2nd ed. Frankfurt am Main and Vienna: Ullstein, 1981, p. 35; Naumer, C. “Cellini, Benvenuto.” Encyclopedia of the History of Classical Archaeology. Nancy Thomson de Grummond, ed. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996, vol. 1, pp. 262-3; Novo, Alessandro. “Cellini, Benvenuto.” Dictionary of Art; Wittkower, Rudolf and Wittkower, Margot. Born under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists: A Documented Study from Antiquity to the French Revolution. New York: Norton, 1963; Pope-Hennessy, John. Cellini. New York: Abbeville Press,1985; Cervigni, Dino. The ‘Vita’ of Benvenuto Cellini: Literary Tradition and Genre. Ravenna: Longo,1979; Rossi, Paolo L. “Sprezzatura, Patronage, and Fate: Benvenuto Cellini and the World of Words.” in, Vasari’s Florence: Artists and Literati at the Medicean Court. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.


    "Cellini, Benvenuto." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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