“All men of whatsoever quality they be, who have done anything of excellence, or which may properly resemble excellence, ought, if they are persons of truth and honesty, to describe their life with their own hand,” wrote Benvenuto Cellini in his famous Autobiography. Born November 3, 1500, Cellini certainly lived a colorful life, but stretched the truth whenever he felt the need. Cellini always strove to break out from the pack of the great Renaissance artists, creating works such as Perseus Holding the Head of Medusa (above, from 1545) as his own grand public gesture in Florence to compete with Michelangelo’s David. Cellini took on all comers and made as many friends in high places as he did enemies.
The Salt Cellar of Francis I (above, from 1540) stands as perhaps Cellini’s most memorable work, a relatively small piece of elaborate tableware fit only for a king, in this case, the king of France. A mythological sea god and women sit upon the cellar, their legs entwined. Cellini’s male figures always stand above his depictions of women, a lacking that some see as evidence of his sexual preference. Rival sculptor Baccio Bandinelli, among others, denounced Cellini as a homosexual. A lover and a fighter, Cellini took up arms in defense of the Vatican and Pope Clement VII against the attack Charles III, Duke of Bourbon in 1527, killing the duke himself, if you believe Benvenuto’s version.
As undeniable as Cellini’s talent for art (as shown in his drawing of A Satyr, above, from 1544) is his appetite for self-promotion and self-destruction. The Autobiography abounds with tales of his bloodthirsty revenge against his enemies, complete with his cold, calculating plotting of the when, where, and how. Cellini often delves into the fantastic, calling upon devils in the Roman Colosseum to come to his aid at one moment and upon choirs of angels to protect him at another. Such fantasies inspired Hector Berlioz to compose an opera about Cellini’s life, but even the drama of the stage couldn’t match the drama inside Cellini’s imagination. By telling his tall tales, Cellini earned himself a place in art and cultural history for all time.