See translation of his autobiography by J. A. Symonds (1888; many later editions).
Giovanni initially wished Benvenuto to join him in instrument making, and endeavoured to thwart his inclination for metalwork. When he was fifteen, his father reluctantly agreed to apprentice him to a goldsmith, Antonio di Sandro, nicknamed Marcone. At the age of sixteen, Benvenuto had already attracted attention in Florence by taking part in an affray with youthful companions. He escaped punishment by fleeing for six months to Siena, where he worked for a goldsmith named Fracastoro (unrelated to the Veronese polymath). From Siena he moved to Bologna, where he became a more accomplished flute-player and made progress as a goldsmith. After a visit to Pisa and two periods of living in Florence (where he was visited by the sculptor Torrigiano), he moved to Rome, age nineteen.
In the attack upon Rome by Charles III, Duke of Bourbon, Cellini's bravery proved of signal service to the pontiff. According to his own accounts, he himself shot and injured Philibert of Châlon, prince of Orange. . His bravery led to a reconciliation with the Florentine magistrates, and he soon returned to his hometown. Here he devoted himself to crafting medals, the most famous of which are "Hercules and the Nemean Lion", in gold repoussé work, and "Atlas supporting the Sphere", in chased gold, the latter eventually falling into the possession of Francis I of France.
From Florence he went to the court of the duke of Mantua, and then again to Florence. On returning to Rome, he was employed in the working of jewelry and in the execution of dies for private medals and for the papal mint. In 1529 his brother Cecchino killed a Corporal of the Roman Watch and in turn was wounded by an arquebusier, later dying of his wound. Soon afterward Benvento killed his brother's killer — an act of blood revenge but not justice as Cellini admits that his brother's killer had acted in self-defense. Cellini fled to Naples to shelter from the consequences of an affray with a notary, Ser Benedetto, whom he had wounded. Through the influence of several cardinals, Cellini obtained a pardon. He found favor with the new pope, Paul III, notwithstanding a fresh homicide during the interregnum three days after the death of Pope Clement VII in September 1534. The victim was a rival goldsmith Pompeo Of Milan and the killing, the fourth that Cellini boasts of in his Memoirs, was more by accident than by premeditated malice. He was saved from arrest only because of a safe-conduct by the Pope.
The plots of Pierluigi Farnese led to Cellini's retreat from Rome to Florence and Venice, where he was restored with greater honour than before. At the age of 37, upon returning from a visit to the French court, he was imprisoned on a charge (apparently false) of having embezzled during the war the gems of the pope's tiara. He was confined in the Castel Sant'Angelo, escaped, was recaptured, and treated with great severity, and was in daily expectation of death on the scaffold. The intercession of Pierluigi's wife, and especially that of the Cardinal d'Este of Ferrara, eventually secured Cellini's release, in gratitude for which he gave d'Este a splendid cup.
Cellini then worked at the court of Francis I at Fontainebleau and Paris. However, he considered the duchesse d'Étampes to be set against him and refused to conciliate with the king's favorites. He could no longer silence his enemies by the sword, as he had silenced those in Rome. As a result, after about five years of sumptuous work but continual jealousy and violence, Cellini returned to Florence, where he continued as a goldsmith and became the rival of sculptor Baccio Bandinelli.
Cellini is known to have taken some of his female models as mistresses, having an illegitimate daughter in 1544 with one of them while living in France, whom he named Costanza. After briefly attempting a clerical career, in 1562, he married a servant, Piera Parigi, with whom he claimed he had five children, of which only a son and two daughters survived him.
Outside his marriage, Cellini was officially charged or accused three times with homosexual sodomy and once with heterosexual.
Towards the end of his life during a public altercation before Duke Cosimo, Bandinelli had called out to him Sta cheto, soddomitaccio! (Shut up, you filthy sodomite!), an 'atrocious insult' which greatly wounded Cellini's pride.
By 1996, centuries of environmental pollution exposure had streaked and banded the statue. In December of that year it was removed from the Loggia and transferred to the Uffizi for cleaning and restoration. It was a slow, years-long process, and the restored statue was not returned to its home until June of 2000.
Among his art works, many of which have perished, were a colossal Mars for a fountain at Fontainebleau and the bronzes of the doorway, coins for the Papal and Florentine states, a life-sized silver Jupiter, and a bronze bust of Bindo Altoviti. The works of decorative art are florid in style.
In addition to the bronze statue of Perseus and the medallions already referred to, the works of art in existence today are a medallion of Clement VII commemorating the peace between the Christian princes, 1530, with a bust of the pope on the reverse and a figure of Peace setting fire to a heap of arms in front of the temple of Janus, signed with the artist's name; a signed portrait medal of Francis I; a medal of Cardinal Pietro Bembo; and the celebrated gold, enamel and ivory salt-cellar (known as Saliera) made for Francis I at Vienna. This intricate 26-cm-high sculpture, of a value conservatively estimated at 58,000,000 schilling, was commissioned by Francis I. Its principal figures are a naked sea god and a woman sitting opposite each other with legs entwined, symbolically representing the planet Earth. "Saliera" was stolen from the Kunsthistorisches Museum on May 11, 2003 by a thief who climbed scaffolding and smashed windows to enter the museum. The thief set off the alarms, but these were ignored as false, and the theft remained undiscovered until 8:20 AM. On January 21, 2006 the Saliera was recovered by the Austrian police and is supposed to be returned to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in the coming days.
One of the most important works by Cellini from late in his career was a life-size nude crucifix carved from marble. Although originally intended to be placed over his tomb, this crucifix was sold to the Medici family who gave it to Spain. Today the crucifix is in the Escorial Monastery near Madrid, where it has usually been displayed in an altered form--the monastery added a loincloth and a crown of thorns. For detailed information about this work, see the text by Juan López Gajate in the Further Reading section of this article.
Cellini, while employed at the papal mint at Rome during the papacy of Clement VII and later of Paul III, created the dies of several coins and medals, some of which still survive at this now defunct mint. He was also in the service of Alessandro de Medici, first duke of Florence, for whom he made in 1535 a forty-soldi piece with a bust of the duke on one side and standing figures of the saints Cosma and Damian on the other. Some connoisseurs attribute to his hand several plaques, "Jupiter crushing the Giants", "Fight between Perseus and Phineus", a Dog, etc. Other works such as the portrait bust shown are not directly attributed but are instead attributed to his workshop.
Cellini's autobiographical memoirs, which he began writing in Florence in 1558, give a detailed account of his singular career, as well as his loves, hatreds, passions, and delights, written in an energetic, direct, and racy style. They show a great self-regard and self-assertion, sometimes running into extravagances which are impossible to credit. He even writes in a complacent way of how he contemplated his murders before carrying them out. He writes of his time in Paris:
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.|10px
Parts of his tale recount some extraordinary events and phenomena; such as his stories of conjuring up a legion of devils in the Colosseum, after one of his not innumerous mistresses had been spirited away from him by her mother; of the marvelous halo of light which he found surrounding his head at dawn and twilight after his Roman imprisonment, and his supernatural visions and angelic protection during that adversity; and of his being poisoned on two separate occasions.
The autobiography has been translated into English by Thomas Roscoe, by John Addington Symonds, and by A. Macdonald. It has been considered and published as a classic, and commonly regarded as one of the most colourful autobiographies (certainly the most important autobiography from the Renaissance). Cellini also wrote treatises on the goldsmith's art, on sculpture, and on design.
Cellini was also the subject of an eponymous opera by Hector Berlioz and a Broadway musical, The Firebrand of Florence, by Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weill, which featured Lotte Lenya (Mrs. Weill) as one of the sculptor's royal conquests. The show only ran for a month on Broadway, although some of its songs are periodically revived. It marked the last major collaboration between Weill and Gershwin, who are best known for Lady in the Dark (1941).
Herman Melville compares Ahab, at the captain's first appearance, to a sculpture of Cellini. From Moby-Dick chap. 28; "His whole high, broad form, seemed made of solid bronze, and shaped in an unalterable mould, like Cellini's cast Perseus."
In Les Misérables in Marius' chapter "There are Benvenuto Cellinis in the galleys, even as there are Villons in language.
More images of the restored Perseus: