In This Article Benvenuto Cellini

  • Introduction
  • Primary Sources and Main Translations
  • Cultural Context
  • General Overviews and Reference Works
  • Monographic Studies
  • Documentation of His Life
  • Life and Fiction
  • Networks
  • Essay Collections

Renaissance and Reformation Benvenuto Cellini
by
Diletta Gamberini
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0336

Introduction

Benvenuto Cellini (b. 1500–d. 1571) was a Florentine goldsmith, sculptor, and writer. His tempestuous and violent life, vividly narrated in his autobiography, La Vita di Benvenuto di maestro Giovanni Cellini fiorentino, scritta, per lui medesimo, in Firenze (c. 1558–1567), is characterized by a strenuous and fiercely competitive pursuit of excellence in art and by an often frustrated ambition to be recognized as the greatest artist of his times. These features appear to be constant throughout his long artistic career, which scholars have profitably divided into four salient phases: the wandering juvenile apprenticeship as a goldsmith, which found the professional coronation in the subsequent Roman-centered years within the papal Curia; the period at the French court of François I Valois, during which he completed his first sculptures; the Florentine maturity, which saw his triumph (with the unveiling, in 1554, of the Perseus and Medusa group, traditionally considered as his sculptural masterpiece); and his subsequent decline. Due to his irascible temper and marked egotism, he had numerous conflicts with contemporary fellow artists, while his firm belief in the exceptional value of his own art led him to engage with powerful patrons with an obstinate awareness of what he considered to be his rights and, frequently, an uncommon lack of courtly compliance. In his later Florentine years he found himself more and more marginalized as an artist at the court of Cosimo I and Francesco de’ Medici. In this situation, as he wrote in the twelfth chapter of the Trattato dell’oreficeria, in order to fill the void caused by the absence of relevant artistic commissions, he decided to become a writer. In the last two decades of his life, he composed a lengthy and unfinished autobiography, more than one hundred vernacular poems, two treatises on goldsmithing and sculpture, and several discourses on art. Indeed, for a long time Benvenuto Cellini’s fame rested on his accomplishments as a writer, rather than on the works he created as a goldsmith and sculptor. First published in 1730, the Vita enjoyed enormous popularity in the 19th century, when its author came to be seen as a proto-Romantic incarnation of the passions and intemperances of artistic genius: as such, the artist was the protagonist of historical novels like Alexandre Dumas père’s historical novel Benvenuto Cellini, as well as of operas like Camille Saint-Saëns’s Ascanio or Hector Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini. Mainly thanks to the enduring fortune of his autobiography, Cellini is still widely considered to be one of the most versatile talents, as well as one of the most extraordinary writers, of his age. Starting from the late 20th century, scholars have, however, finally begun to fully appreciate him also as a great Italian artist of the High Renaissance.

Primary Sources and Main Translations

Probably more than any other Italian artist of his age, Cellini wrote extensively on his own life and works: thus, investigations on his activity as a goldsmith, a sculptor, and a writer have traditionally found a valuable starting point in his own written testimonies, which often share—to various extents—an autobiographic character. While the author’s literary masterpiece, the Vita, has long been available in excellent critical editions like Cellini 1901 and Cellini 1996, and in several translations (see Conaway Bondanella and Bondanella 2009 and Goethe 2004), the situation of the so-called “minor” writings is different. For the Trattati dell’oreficeria e della scultura, Cellini 1980 offers a philologically reliable Italian edition of the original manuscript, now preserved in the Biblioteca Marciana of Venice (see also Cellini 1568 and the introduction to Milanesi 1857, both cited under Trattati dell’oreficeria e della scultura and Discorsi sulle arti, for the history of the book). The only available English translation of the Treatises dates back to the late 19th century, even though the text has since been reprinted (Ashbee 1967). Cellini 1980 should also be consulted for the Discorsi sulle arti, which have not been translated in English. Cellini 2014 provides the first critical and annotated edition of the author’s poems; while no comprehensive translation of these verses exists as of the early 21st century, a few texts have been translated and are available to an English-reading audience in the context of wider studies of Cellini’s art or literary production (see especially Cole 2002, cited under Monographic Studies, and Gallucci 2003, cited under General Scholarship on Cellini as a Writer).

  • Ashbee, Charles Robert, trans. The Treatises of Benvenuto Cellini on Goldsmithing and Sculpture. New York: Dover, 1967.

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    A translation of the original, manuscript version of the Trattati dell’oreficeria e della scultura as edited by Carlo Milanesi in 1857. It was intended to serve as a handbook for modern goldsmiths and metalworkers: due to its practical purposes, the translation omits the Trattati’s dedicatory letter to Francesco de’ Medici and has very few notes. Originally published in 1898.

  • Cellini, Benvenuto. Vita di Benvenuto Cellini: Testo critico con introduzione e note storiche per cura di Orazio Bacci. Edited by Orazio Bacci. Florence: Sansoni, 1901.

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    The first critical edition of the Vita, and still among the best to consult. It remains fundamental especially for its introductory description of the original manuscript and of its editorial history, as well as for its excellent transcription and scrutiny of the text transmitted by it. The thorough historical and biographical annotations are also very useful.

  • Cellini, Benvenuto. Trattati dell’Oreficeria e della Scultura and Discorsi sulle arti. In Opere di Benvenuto Cellini, a cura di Giuseppe Guido Ferrero, 591–804. Turin: UTET, 1980.

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    The most reliable text for the technical and artistic writings, with a sober but useful apparatus of linguistic and historical notes. Cellini’s discourses on art are at pp. 806–835. First published in 1971.

  • Cellini, Benvenuto. La Vita: A cura di Lorenzo Bellotto. Parma, Italy: Fondazione Pietro Bembo, 1996.

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    The standard modern critical and annotated edition of the autobiography. Even though the text rarely improves the already reliable edition by Bacci, Bellotto provides an excellent introduction to Cellini’s literary masterpiece and includes a very good bibliography. In the context of the annotations, the linguistic commentary is particularly valuable.

  • Cellini, Benvenuto. Rime: Edizione critica e commento a cura di Diletta Gamberini. Florence: Società Editrice Fiorentina, 2014.

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    By removing apocryphal texts, the volume redefines the corpus of the author’s poems, as it had been determined in previous editions. The systematic commentary illustrates the meaning of Cellini’s often obscure verses, highlights their biographical relevance, and stresses their significance within 16th-century artistic debates.

  • Conaway Bondanella, Julia, and Peter Bondanella, trans. Benvenuto Cellini: My Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

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    A readily available, affordable, and good English version of the Vita. The text, which has useful annotations, is based on Lorenzo Bellotto’s critical edition; furthermore, the volume offers a valuable introduction, a chronology, and a select bibliography.

  • Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, trans. Leben des Benvenuto Cellini, florentinischen Goldschmieds und Bildhauers, von ihm selbst geschrieben. Edited by Harald Keller. Frankfurt am Main: Insel-Verlag, 2004.

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    Although often unreliable from the textual point of view, this German translation of the Vita has a great cultural and historical relevance, as it was mainly Goethe’s version—followed by a critical appendix—that gave rise, in the 19th century, to a pan-European interest in Cellini’s autobiography. Originally published in the periodical Horen, between 1796 and 1797, then, as a monograph, in 1803.

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