Benvenuto Cellini

The master goldsmith with a talent for violence

One puts down Benvenuto Cellini’s Autobiography with a long exhalation. This talented and energetic goldsmith and sculptor (and multiple murderer) tells us throughout that he doesn’t want to dwell on insignificancies. Were it possible to talk with Cellini today, one would have to challenge him on the definition of ‘insignificant’. Cellini would likely respond with a threat to cut my throat (and let there be no doubt that he would carry it out). There cannot have existed a more rash, hot-headed human being — let alone artist — alive in the sixteenth century. His Autobiography, is one long self-justification for some petulant, violent, and oftentimes downright abhorrent, conduct. Weaved between these orgies of violence are vivid sketches of daily life in Renaissance Rome. It is by turns an absorbing and exasperating read.

All autobiographies whitewash to varying degrees, but Cellini seems never to have re-read the work he was having transcribed. That can be the only explanation for the endless superfluity of praise heaped upon him, his inestimable courage against all the odds and the self-pitying figure that frequently appears. In the last third of the book, one pleads with him not to launch into another, forensic analysis of how he has been wronged, slandered, robbed or treated disdainfully. The hands go up in surrender: ‘Enough, Benvenuto, please – you were right’. The persistence with which he badgered patrons five centuries on is tangible, as are the looks on the faces of popes and kings as he pops his face round the door for another tirade on what he’s owed.  

Illustration of Rome from the Nuremberg Chronicle, published in the late 15th century. Old St. Peter’s occupies a prominent position on the Vatican hill; the Pantheon and Colosseum are depicted on the left. [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

Perhaps it isn’t fair to describe his digressions on broken verbal agreements, or his pleading with the Duke and Duchess of Florence, as insignificant; the Autobiography is unmatched in its depiction of artistic life in early to mid-sixteenth century Italy and France, and the intense rivalry between artists to secure patronage. It has a star-studded cast too: Clement VII, Francis I, the Duke of Bourbon (whom Cellini claims to have killed), Paul III and numerous influential Florentines and papal lackeys. Titian and Michelangelo also feature, though theirs are cameo roles (though with time enough to praise Cellini’s work!). Rome, Florence, Paris, Venice, Naples, Siena, Ferrara, Lyons, Geneva and Zurich are the backdrop to Cellini’s tales of male and female love affairs, practical jokes, sleepless nights working on his craft and furious insults and threats. These are front and centre of his narrative, the upheavals of his age mere scenery in Cellini’s telling of his life. He lived in Rome, on and off, for nearly twenty years. It is at Castel Sant’Angelo that one such upheaval enters Cellini’s narrative, in two connected events in the author’s life that best demonstrate his braggadocio, bravery and insolence.  

Formerly Hadrian’s tomb, Castel Sant’Angelo was in Cellini’s day a papal fortress and prison. It was there that Cellini witnessed the Sack of Rome by troops loyal to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1527. Charles held possession of swathes of Europe, including Austria, most of Germany, Belgium, Holland and Spain, either directly or through blood relations. The whole of Southern Italy, including Sicily, was also within his realm. He now sought to annex the rest of Italy – Milan, Venice, Florence and the Papal States. These states combined with the French and formed the League of Cognac. The League fared disastrously against the emperor’s army which soon descended on Rome. Comprised of thousands of German, Protestant landsknecht, Spanish soldiers and Italian mercenaries, and led by the Duke of Bourbon, this unruly army had already twice mutinied when it arrived outside Rome on 5 May 1527. 

A veduta etching of Castel Sant’Angelo from 1756 by Piranesi [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

Cellini at this stage is 27 and has been in the city nearly a decade. He had made a name for himself in Rome, receiving commissions from Pope Clement and running a successful goldsmith workshop. It would be wrong to speak of a private life as it seems the concept didn’t exist, but Cellini’s non-working life was colourful. Much of it is described without any apparent irony. A plague strikes the city, prompting the following comment: ‘Many of my friends died but I stayed safe and sound’. This lack of sentiment is characteristic, as are the many instances of fraught sexual politics. A prostitute called Pantasilea with whom Cellini is in love falls for a younger man of Cellini’s acquaintance. Hearing them flirting outside, Cellini goes ballistic.

I had in my hand a little knife I was using at table. The window was so near where we were sitting that merely by raising myself a little I could see them out in the street…I hurled myself through the window and seized Luigi by the throat.

The situation is defused but Cellini is having none of it. He takes his sword and stalks off to stake out the home of Pantasilea. He then hides in the bushes nearby and waits for their return. When they do, he attacks them and their entourage in a frenzy. Only a few pages earlier, Cellini had assured Pantasilea’s new love Luigi that ‘I don’t care a damn about her’. Quite.

Amidst these violent amorous entanglements, Cellini describes himself diligently copying old masters, studying antiquities and producing fine works of art, however the approach of the emperor’s army in May 1527 puts an immediate halt to this activity. On 6 May its assault on Rome began. Cellini is put in charge of some troops, and, with the imperialists attempting to break into the city, throws himself into the fighting with his arquebus (gun), apparently killing the leader of the imperial forces, the Duke of Bourbon. If this indeed true, then Cellini inadvertently added to Rome’s woes. The news of the Duke’s death riled up the already bloodthirsty imperial troops. What followed was outright butchery. The city walls were stormed and the pope, along with Cellini, fled to Castel Sant’Angelo.

Depiction of the Sack of Rome by Martin Van Heemskerck (1527), with Castel Sant’Angelo in the background surrounded by billowing columns of smoke [Wikimedia Commons]

Without hesitation, Cellini takes control of a cannon on the rooftop and starts firing in a manner that would make Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando call for restraint. ‘In this way, I slaughtered a great number of the enemy…I continued firing, with an accompaniment of blessings and cheers from a number of cardinals and noblemen’. During this busy month in the Castel, Cellini is crushed under falling debris, makes enemies (naturally) of cardinals he tells to bugger off as their red hats can be seen by the imperialists pillaging Rome, and almost kills Cardinal Farnese when some stones propping up his cannon fall from the Castel’s roof. When the cardinal sends his companions up to the roof to remonstrate with him, Cellini ‘trained two light cannon on the stairway, determined that whoever came up first would get the full force of one of them’. Eventually, this standoff peters out but Farnese would later exact harsh revenge on poor Benvenuto.    

By 1537, Farnese was Pope Paul III, and Cellini found himself incarcerated in the building he had helped defend. He was accused of having stolen precious jewels during the Sack from Pope Clement’s tiara and rings and thrown in Castel Sant’Angelo. There’s no evidence Paul had Cellini arrested over the episode at the Castel, but he clearly had it in for our Benvenuto. At first Cellini is afforded the privilege of roaming the fortress and keeps open his goldsmith shop, but after an escape attempt (which he is apparently coaxed into by a wicked Lutheran – remember, it wasn’t Benvenuto’s fault, OK?) he is confined to a cell. He boldly informs his captors he’ll ‘do all I [can] to escape’, and, true to his word, patiently assembles a rope and some tools for his flight. His telling of his escape is one of the most entertaining episodes in the book. Lowering himself from his cell window with knotted linen, he finds himself with two outer walls to surmount. Cellini scorches his hands on the first (and so ‘bathed my hands in my own urine’). The second wall is altogether tougher, and he mistakes its height as he descends to freedom, knocking himself unconscious:

 Then, little by little, my faculties were restored, I noticed that I was outside the castle, and all at once I remembered everything I had done. I became aware of the blow to the back of my head before I realized that my leg was broken: I put my hands to the back of my head and drew them away covered in with blood.

What follows is an agonising crawl to safety, and, eventually, a return to prison in far harsher conditions where, in his delirious state and with the daily threat of death hanging over him, he experiences several hallucinatory visions involving Christ before being released. Henceforth, Cellini repeatedly invokes his divine protection, and is marginally less aggressive. There are no murders, at least. His delirious visions, though, are not confined to his imprisonment. There’s a fantastic passage where Cellini dabbles in necromancy at the Colosseum overnight, conjuring up demons with a Sicilian priest. His companion Agnolo ‘shat himself’ creating a ‘tremendous stench and noise’. The unlucky twelve-year-old lad they’d bought along was hardly less frightened. Walking home from the conjuring, he ‘kept crying out that two of the demons he had seen in the Colosseum were leaping along in front of us, on the roof-tops and along the ground’.

Cellini’s magnificent bronze, Perseus with the Head of Medusa (1554) [Image: Wikimedia Commons, Dodo]

Such stories from ordinary life are among Cellini’s best, and indeed, there is much to admire in his Autobiography. Cellini writes with wit and humour (making his yawn-inducing paragraphs on why he was right and some other was wrong all the more puzzling) and provides tantilising illustrations of Renaissance city life, leaving one wanting more. Its depiction of inter-artist rivalry – a constant throughout – alone justifies its existence. After reading Cellini, Caravaggio’s nocturnal adventures with sword and dagger are better understood as a normal part of life in a violent city. And, indeed, Cellini himself isn’t without virtues. Leaving aside his unrivalled ability for getting into a fight, he appears to have genuinely inspired loyalty in his friends. He is at times generous and his bravery is unquestionable. There is no doubt that he was at the pinnacle of his craft, a superb goldsmith and brilliant sculptor.

The problem, alas, is that Cellini undercuts any sympathy one might feel for him. Having to navigate the minefield of courtly intrigue, currying favour one minute and defending oneself the next, in a tit-for-tat of lavish praise and protestation, was no doubt exhausting. Perhaps his patrons did undervalue his creations. But his beating of a young Parisian girl, for instance, when she has the temerity to find another lover, extinguishes this reader’s sympathy. That he included it in his book reveals that it was probably not unusual behaviour but that’s no excuse. This, coupled with his incessant quarrelling, make the read a slog towards the end.

Cellini’s dwelling on the misfortune he has suffered would be easier to bear were he not constantly lauding his talents, and putting unending praise into the mouths of those he worked for and his fellow artists. There seems little that Cellini couldn’t turn his hand to, and not only succeed, but excel all others in that field. This self-puffery is strangely combined with outbursts of extreme violence (or perhaps it isn’t so strange: murderers are self-pitying). When his brother gets into a spat with a soldier and winds up dead, Cellini responds by murdering his brother’s killer, driving a dagger between the clavicle and neck. A mild disagreement with an innkeeper near Ferrara has Cellini up all night in paroxysms of rage, plotting his revenge. He ponders setting the innkeeper’s house alight, then decides to slit his horses’ throats, before settling on knifing the innkeeper’s mattresses (and remember, he chose to include this in the book).

In between bouts of violence Cellini found time to execute works such as his famous salt cellar for the King of France, with a depiction of the ocean and the earth (1540-1543) [Image: Wikimedia Commons, Cstutz]

Almost 400 pages in, and Cellini offers the reader an apparent respite from the thundering threats and petty squabbles: ‘I would like to talk about other matters and leave off discussing this outrageous villainy for a while’, one reads with a sigh of relief, as he comments on another flare-up, this time with a farmer. ‘…but first I am bound to describe what happened when the five-year agreement expired. After the time was up those rascals were reluctant to keep any of the promises they made me…’ Oh Benvenuto, no more, please.

The modern reader willing to endure such barrages will be amply rewarded with insight into Cellini’s craft, the artistic and social milieu of Florence and Rome, and the connivances of the papal court, in what must rank among the most entertaining – if most brazen – memoirs ever penned.


Cellini, B. (trans Bull, G) 1956. Autobiography. London.

Jake Plenderleith

Writer and editor, passionate about Rome.

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