The Life and Crimes of a Casual Necromancer: Benvenuto Cellini (S2E7)
Updated: Jun 29
Apart from fashioning exquisite music, goldwork, and statuary under the patronage of Pope Clement VII, among other notables, sixteenth-century Renaissance man Benvenuto Cellini had a special talent for making enemies. One professional rivalry even ended in murder, in the middle of a busy street. After getting imprisoned for a crime he never committed, Cellini found himself the target of a brazen assassination attempt. Show notes and full transcript below.
Above: Self-portrait of Cellini, sketched in the 1540s. Held by the Biblioteca Reale in Turin. Wikipedia Commons.
Boy Playing a Flute, painted in the 1630s by esteemed artist of the Dutch Golden Age Judith Leyster and held by the Nationalmuseum Sweden in Stockholm. Mostly to make his father happy, Cellini played flute as a boy and adolescent, which eventually led to a spot in the pope's band. I came across this painting while looking for images of Renaissance flautists. It was created more than a century after Cellini took up piping--and in the Netherlands--but I decided to post it here anyway. What can I say? It's a cool portrait.
1531 portrait of Pope Clement VII by Sebastiano del Piombo. By the time the pontiff sat for this portrait, he had already lived through the apocalyptic sack of Rome.
Silver medal with a portrait of Clement VII on the front with an allegorical figure of Peace on the back, created by Cellini in 1534. Unless I'm mistaken, Clement is wearing this medal around his neck in the portrait. Copyright held by the Trustees of the British Museum.
1667 drawing of the Castel Sant' Angelo (to the right) by Cruyl Lieven. A sort of papal panic room, the Castello stood within walking distance of St. Peter's, allowing the pontiff swift access to this fortress during times of emergency. Cellini defended this landmark during the sack of Rome only to wind up imprisoned inside on trumped-up charges of theft years later. Copyright held by V&A Museum.
The statue of Perseus, holding Medusa's severed head aloft, usually considered Cellini's masterwork. Sculpted from bronze, it stands in Florence's Piazza della Signoria.
---Cellini, Benvenuto. My Life. Translated by Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella.
Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 2002.
---Gallucci, Margaret A. Benvenuto Cellini: Masculinity, Sexuality, and Artistic Identity in Renaissance Italy. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
---Gallucci, Margaret A. and Paolo L. Rossi, eds. Benvenuto Cellini: Sculptor, Goldsmith, Writer. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.
---Pope-Hennessy, Sir John. Cellini. New York: Abbeville Press, 1985.
---Rossi, Paolo L. “The Writer and the Man. Real Crimes and Mitigating Circumstances: Il Caso Cellini.” In Crime, Society and the Law in Renaissance Italy, edited by Trevor Dean and K.J. Rowe, 157-83. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Sometimes necromancy gets out of hand. Just ask sixteenth-century Renaissance man Benvenuto Cellini—flautist, jeweler, goldsmith, sculptor, architect, and autobiographer. It happened one day, while living in Rome, that Cellini befriended a Sicilian priest of extraordinary intellect. The cleric could read Hebrew, Greek, and Latin; he was also conversant in the dark arts. It was just a hobby, but he took it pretty seriously. When Cellini expressed his lifelong interest in necromancy, his buddy invited him to the Coliseum that night for a dialogue with demons. Once the man of God had summoned Satan’s minions, the priest explained, Cellini could ask whatever he desired about his future, and the evil beings would answer. After nightfall, these two and a few others met up inside Rome’s most famed entertainment venue, but the conjuring went awry. The devils weren’t in the mood for making prophecies that night. “Not to worry,” the clergyman told Cellini. “We’ll try again tomorrow. I’ll bring the pentacle. You bring the virgin boy. Don’t freak out—we’re not going to sacrifice him or anything like that.”
Twenty-four hours later, Cellini was back at the Coliseum, having bid a youth from his workshop to accompany him. Arrayed in his voluminous sorcerer’s robes, the priest took each of his companions by the hand and ushered them into a circle he had drawn on the ground, the darkness illuminated by glowing coals and the air perfumed with incense. As directed, Cellini took the star-shaped pentacle in hand and held it over the boy’s head. Meanwhile, the necromancer intoned his awful incantations, switching back and forth among multiple tongues. As he cast his enchantment, thousands upon thousands upon thousands of devils filled the Coliseum. Slightly daunted yet confident the warlock had command of his spell, Cellini stepped forward to ask his question and received his answer. With his inquiry settled, it was time for the priest to disperse this infernal congregation. He chanted the appropriate invocations, to no avail. The legions of evil remained in place. After a moment, to the summoners’ horror, they advanced on the circle. Out of the swarm emerged four giants, armed with weapons. Trying to stay calm, Cellini panicked when he saw the necromancer shaking like a leaf. He had obviously lost all control of the ritual. Still beneath the pentacle, the boy looked up and let out a shriek. The Coliseum caught fire, and the conflagration would engulf them all at any moment. At the preacher’s behest, Cellini ordered another man in their party, Agnolo, to burn a handful of asafetida, a foul-smelling resin, hoping the odor would repel the fiends. But then, and here I’m quoting from the Oxford World Classic edition of My Life by Benvenuto Cellini, translated from the Italian by Julia and Peter Bondanella, “This Agnolo, as soon as he turned to move, let out such a blast of farts, accompanied by such an abundance of shit that it produced a far more overpowering smell than the asafetida.” Pinching their noses, the demons retreated. The hellfire extinguished. Playing it safe, Cellini and his associates stayed inside the protective circle until vespers and then hurried home, at least one of them desperate for a change of underpants.
This account comes from Cellini’s autobiography, completed circa 1562 and hailed as one of the most significant documents of the sixteenth century. My Life has fascinated historians and literary critics alike for its blend of biographical and historical accuracy, on the one hand, and outright fantasy, on the other. Cellini’s flirtation with necromancy and the incidents that follow make a fine case in point. In the weeks after the feculent misadventure, the necromancer supposedly declares that he senses a “great danger” in Cellini’s future, admonishing the artist “to keep [his] eyes open and guard against any misfortunes that might befall [him].” Shortly after, an innocent misunderstanding sets in motion a series of events that lead to Cellini’s wrongful imprisonment and near-assassination. Safe to say the autobiographer never faced down an army of the unholy inside the Coliseum, but he did go to prison without a fair trial, and he was almost killed there. Probably fictional, the encounter with hell-spawn is a literary device meant to foreshadow Cellini’s actual confinement, a different iteration of hell on earth.
Cellini may have languished behind bars for a crime he never committed, but he had plenty of crimes on his record by the time of his confinement. He even cut down a rival goldsmith in a busy Roman street, which some historians have viewed as an assassination. Today, we’ll hear the story of how Cellini won renown as a goldsmith, assassinated one of his many enemies in public, and almost got assassinated by another in prison. This is The Art of Crime, and I’m your host, Gavin Whitehead. Welcome to episode 7 of Assassins . . .
The Life and Crimes of a Casual Necromancer: Benvenuto Cellini
Between Two Arts
On November 3, 1500, the Florentine architect Giovanni Cellini quite emphatically welcomed a son into his household. The builder’s wife, the beautiful Elisibetta, had previously faced difficulties in pregnancy before giving birth to a girl called Cosa. When similar complications arose this time around, mother and father expected a daughter, even as Giovanni wished for a son. (Predicting the sex of a baby before birth was an inexact science in the 1500s.) On the day of the delivery, the midwife presented the newborn, bundled up in white linens, to his father with a smile. “I am bringing you a gift,” she said, “one you did not expect.” Giovanni unwrapped the blankets and, seeing a boy inside, praised God. “Lord, I thank you with all my heart: this gift is very dear to me and let him be welcome.” Lest this latter point ever be forgotten, he baptized the boy as Benvenuto, Italian for “welcome.”
Less welcome were young Benvenuto’s professional inclinations. At the time, the autobiographer observes, musicians stood in high esteem among other artisans in Florence and even enjoyed membership in major guilds, a pathway to wealth and a prerquisite to political participation in the republic of Florence. Musical himself, Giovanni placed a soprano flute in Benvenuto’s hands at an early age and taught him to play. The boy-piper demonstrated God-given talent. He even had the honor of playing with a company of palace musicians outside the castle-like Palazzo della Signoria, the town hall of Florence, reading his sheet music while perched on the shoulders of a page. Where Giovanni could think of no greater pleasure than to raise a musician, Benvenuto could think of no greater displeasure than to become one. He hated playing the flute—it was as simple as that. His father grew so upset when he confessed these feelings to him, however, that Benvenuto caved and promised to set aside time to practice his scales, trilling, and all the rest on a regular basis. Out of love for his father, he kept his word. Cellini would exhibit a dazzling array of character flaws later in life, but filial impiety was never one of them.
When he wasn’t begrudgingly blowing on a flute, a teenaged Cellini was often studying his real passion: goldsmithing. At fifteen, he apprenticed for Antonio di Sandro, known around town as Marcone the goldsmith. Marcone taught Cellini the fundamentals of his craft.
In a lecture to the British Institute of Florence, sculptor and historian Alan Pascuzzi breaks down what these foundations would have entailed. In the Renaissance, gold came to Italy from northeastern Africa and modern-day Hungary. Malleable, ductile, and immune to corrosion, this yellowy mineral was easier to manipulate than other precious metals, enabling goldsmiths to fashion intricate artworks. Favorite creations included—but were not limited to—silverware, chalices, jewelry, and reliquaries. In goldsmithing, economics and artistry were inextricably bound: because of the rarity and costliness of gold, patrons expected nothing short of excellence, and metalworkers delivered—or at least tried to.
Their art required tremendous skill. Every goldsmith mastered draftsmanship—each project started with a detailed sketch—as well as what Pascuzzi calls “digital delicacy.” Nimble fingers came in handy during the second step of the process: the molding of a wax model, which served as a guide when the metalwork started. Throughout this phase, goldsmiths engaged in filing, sawing, casting, soldering, forging, and polishing.
These techniques required difficult—and even dangerous—labor. Take casting in bronze. After sketching and modeling a design, the goldsmith created a clay mold in the intended shape of the artwork. Then, the metalworker coated it with wax. Next came the task of encasing the figure in an outer mold of clay with a hole on top and another on bottom. After that, the artist poured burning-hot molten bronze into the opening on top, which melted the wax. The liquid then drained through the aperture at the base. Meanwhile, the bronze solidified where the wax had been previously. Once the metal cooled, the goldsmith broke open the outer clay layer, exposing the bronze inside. Finally, the creator might apply a veneer of gold, polishing and refining the work until satisfied.
Given the demands of goldsmithing, it’s no wonder plenty of apprentices threw in the towel. In this profession, Pascuzzi points out, many were called, but few were chosen.
Cellini most certainly had what it took. For a taste of how well he could cast in bronze, feast your eyes on his most famed creation—the statue of Perseus, unveiled to the public in 1554 and celebrated as a masterwork of Renaissance sculpture. There’s a picture on the Art of Crime website, so make sure to check it out. The riveting tale of the artwork’s genesis falls outside the purview of this episode, unfortunately, but I’d be remiss not to mention the Perseus at least in passing. In Greek mythology, Perseus vanquishes the dread Medusa, the snake-haired Gorgon who can literally petrify people just by looking at them. Cellini sculpted the brazen assassin holding Medusa’s severed head in his right hand, gore dripping from her neck, her headless cadaver lying at his feet on the pedestal. Pardon the pun, but it’s pretty metal. Though fearsome in appearance, the Perseus reveals the wit of its creator. Cellini knew where the sculpture would stand once completed and used that location to his advantage. The masterpiece can be found in Florence’s historic Piazza della Signoria, across the plaza from two marble statues, a replica of Michelangelo’s David and the original Hercules by Baccinelli. The David in particular seems almost to have fixed his eyes on Medusa’s head. In a visual wisecrack, Cellini’s monster appears to have turned the slayer of Goliath to stone.
From 1515, Cellini apprenticed in Florence and then Rome, always sending money to support his father. By 1523, he had come back to his native city and made a name for himself as a goldsmith. That year, he also established a pattern of criminal behavior whereby intense professional rivalries led to violence.
Cellini’s success aroused the jealousy of two fellow goldsmiths he had worked for previously: Salvadore and Michele Guasconti. Their family owned three workshops in Florence and held a prominent position in the goldsmiths’ guild. The Guascontis maligned Cellini’s work behind his back, costing him commissions, in what he regarded as a form of robbery. Cellini was not above talking trash—he had a special talent for it, in fact, and appears to have enjoyed it—and repaid the Guascontis’ abuses in kind.
The knives came out on November 13, 1523. Cellini was leaning against a goldworker’s storefront in the heavily trafficked Mercato Nuovo when he caught sight of a pair of Guascontis who owned two shops across the way. The three were exchanging insults in no time. At some point, another member of the Guasconti clan named Gherhardo involved himself in the altercation. Waiting for a pack-animal to pass, he pushed a load of bricks off its back and onto Cellini, hurting him badly. When Cellini regained his bearings, he saw Gherhardo laughing in his face. To call Cellini hot-headed would understate the issue. He was Mount Vesuvius in the shape of a man, and when the lava started flowing, you had better run for cover. Gherhardo, however, stayed put and just kept laughing. Cellini strode over and punched him in the temple, knocking him out cold. He turned on Gherardo’s kinsmen across the way and shouted, “This is how to treat thieving cowards like you!” They made as if to retaliate, whereupon Cellini pulled a knife. “Whichever one of you leaves his shop, the other will go fetch his confessor, because there’ll be no use for a doctor.” The cousins backed down and promptly reported Cellini to the Eight, a tribunal of magistrates who ruled on criminal cases. They in turn summoned Cellini and reprimanded him for committing violence in the marketplace, a public space where bystanders easily could have come to harm. Rather than throw Cellini in jail, the judges imposed a heavy fine: twelve bushels of flour. At the time, it was customary to pay fees in that commodity rather than money.
While the Eight were still hammering out his punishment, they adjourned for supper, leaving Cellini alone and unwatched. Working himself up into a stab-happy rage, he snuck out of the building, rushed to his workshop, grabbed a dagger, and burst into the workplace of Gherhardo Guasconti, which doubled as his home. He and his family were seated at the dinner table when Cellini barged in. Rising, Gherhardo lunged at the intruder, all too ready to even the score. Too fast by far, Cellini shanked him in the chest, Gherhardo’s clothes audibly ripping as the knife cut through them. Gherhardo crumpled to the ground. “You traitor,” Cellini roared. Then, turning to his mother, father, and sister, still in their seats, he vowed, “Today is the day I kill you all.” Terrified, they threw themselves on their knees and cried out for mercy. They were unarmed, the home invader saw, and considering it craven to attack when they could not defend themselves, he withdrew to the street. Waiting outside was a worrisome surprise. He came face to face with more than a dozen Guascontis, bearing a small arsenal of armaments among them, including an iron shovel, a heavy iron bar, hammers, anvils, and cudgels. Cellini charged like a bull, and a no-holds-barred brawl ensued. Cellini slashed at one and then another, ducking as hammers and shovels swung overhead. In another example of artistic license, Cellini brings the rumble to an absurd climax in his autobiography. In his limitless mercy, God intercedes and protects Cellini as well as his opponents from injury. Other than losing his hat in the scuffle, Cellini walks away without a scratch, as do his enemies. Despite getting stabbed, moreover, Gherhardo somehow emerged unharmed, according to Cellini. In his illuminating essay on Cellini’s criminal career, historian Paolo L. Rossi factchecks the goldsmith’s account against archival records of the home invasion and subsequent scrimmage, revealing that more blood was spilled than the goldsmith cared to admit. In truth, he seriously wounded both Gherardo and another of his cousins on the street.
Cellini incurred the full wrath of the Eight for these offenses. The magistrates issued what was called a bando against him—one of the most severe punishments possible—and a town crier accordingly proclaimed him a bandito.
Rossi explains what this penalty entailed—at least in theory. Laying down a bando effectively rendered criminals stateless, banishing them from the cities where they had committed their crimes and depriving them of all civil and political rights. If necessary, the authorities could take harsh punitive action against banditi, annulling their marriages or destroying their property. Anyone who aided and abetted these outlaws ran the risk of being branded a bandito, further isolating the offenders. Banned from civilization, banditi were forced to live in the wilderness and could be executed without trial if captured by lawmen or vigilantes.
In practice, many banditi managed to carry on despite their dire standing. Some took sanctuary in a church or monastery, beyond the reach of the arm of the law. Others immersed themselves in the criminal underworld, even acting as contract killers. Still others moved to another city-state and started afresh there, the local authorities unaware of their criminal past. Data-sharing among police jurisdictions can be spotty today, and you can rest assured it was far worse back then. Banditi could also have their criminal status removed if they captured other banditi and handed them over to the police or if they brokered a formal reconciliation with the injured party.
In the immediate aftermath of the Guasconti affair, the wounds were still fresh and a truce out of the question. Flight was Cellini’s only viable option. He sought refuge in a monastery, where his father visited in secret, giving the fugitive a goodbye kiss on the forehead. Within a few hours, Benvenuto had saddled up and ridden to Sienna, disguised as a friar for part of the journey. His next stop was Rome. For the next six years, he remained in exile. On February 20, 1529, however, his father arranged a rapprochement with the house of Guasconti on his son’s behalf, lifting the bando once and for all.
From Piper to Gunner
In Rome, Cellini picked up where he left off in Florence. He joined a workshop and started soldering. In his downtime, he caroused with other artists and hunted pigeons with his trusty arquebus, a long gun invented in the fifteenth century. That’s when he was healthy. He occasionally lay bedridden with syphilis or plague—like other artists I can think of, Cellini slept around and could have been better about washing his hands. Before long, he had impressed big-money patrons and even opened a workshop of his own.
He even found favor with the deepest-pocketed patron of all: Pope Clement VII. Painted by Sebastiano del Piombo and featured on the Art of Crime website, a 1531 portrait depicts a bearded Clement seated in profile, a look of contemplative serenity on his face, his crimson, white-trimmed papal short cape--or mozetta--over his his cassock. A competent statesman who had served as an advisor to Popes Leo X (1513-21) and Adrian VI (1521-22), he was more than qualified for the job. Yet a host of political, economic, and religious woes beyond his control would compromise his papacy—it’s not for nothing that history remembers him as “the most unfortunate of popes.” More on that in a minute.
Annoyingly for Cellini, he caught the attention of Clement VII not as a goldsmith but rather as a musician. He still piped from time to time, mostly because he knew it would make his pops happy, and he played well considering how much he abhorred the instrument—so well, in fact, that a chum of his asked if Cellini would sit in for an upcoming concert. They needed a cornetist. The pope himself would attend the event—a banquet celebrating the feast of the Assumption, which marked the ascent of the Virgin Mary into heaven. More than willing to help a friend in need and perhaps enticed by the idea of performing for His Holiness, Cellini agreed. The musicians rehearsed two hours a day for eight consecutive days, and when the big night rolled around, they unpacked their instruments in the Belvedere gardens. The practice paid off. Cellini and his bandmates absolutely crushed it, and Clement VII offered the goldsmith a permanent spot as a cornetist. If he accepted, Cellini would have to fife more than he had ever fifed before—a prospect that hardly filled him with joy. Still, he went through with it. What was he going to do—turn down the pope? Besides, the gig came with a princely salary.
Cellini attained even greater heights in the pope’s estimation during the sack of Rome, a cataclysm of biblical proportions that traumatized the city. To cut a long story short, the disaster came about because of longstanding geopolitical tensions between two territories: the Papal States and the Holy Roman Empire. Alarmed by the ambitions of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Pope Clement VII forged an alliance with several Italian city-states and King Francis I of France, Charles V’s archnemesis. Friction intensified, leading to the War of the League of Cognac (1526-1530). In 1527, Holy Roman Imperial troops, comprised primarily of Spaniards, Germans, and Italians, scored an important victory against French soldiers in Italy. However, the Empire lacked funding to pay its fighters. The warriors mutinied and dragooned their commander, Charles III, Duke of Bourbon (not to be confused with Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor), into marching on Rome. There, they intended to plunder and pillage to their hearts’ content. Joined by brigands as well as deserters from the opposing side, they reached the outer walls of the papal city on May 5. The siege began the following day. The exact number of invaders at this point is unknown, but estimates place it well above 20,000. The Duke of Bourbon fell on day one of the sack, an easy target because of the white cloak he wore on the battlefield. In some cases, the death of a commanding officer might demoralize an army. This time, it whipped the soldiery into a frenzy. Like so many berserkers, they swiftly overwhelmed Rome’s defenses, breaching the outer walls and executing some 1,000 guardsmen. Then came the looting. No site was too sacred to escape untouched. The raiders destroyed and despoiled churches and monasteries, killing indiscriminately. They also stormed the palaces of moneyed prelates and cardinals, extorting large sums in exchange for the owners’ lives and property.
From the outset of the sack, Clement VII bunkered down inside the Castel Sant’Angelo, a sort of papal panic room. This towering, cylindrical, stone-wrought edifice stands on the right bank of the Tiber river, not far from the Vatican. You can visit today, and there’s picture on the Art of Crime website. Originally commissioned by the emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum for himself and his relatives and built between 134-39 A.D., the Castel Sant’Angelo had come to serve as both a castle and a prison by the fifteenth century. A fortified corridor led from St. Peter’s Basilica straight to the Castello, allowing the pontiff easy access in times of emergency. Seldom are opulence and squalor of such extremes to be found under the same roof. The Castel Sant’Angelo boasted a lavish apartment for the pope as well as a glittering treasury. At the same time, prisoners wasted away in cells crawling with tarantulas and poisonous worms, furnished with nothing but a flyblown mattress.
Thanks indirectly to his musical gifts, Cellini spent the sack of Rome inside the Castel Sant’Angelo, defending the stronghold from imperial forces. His autobiography provides one of the most vivid eye-witness accounts of the invasion—another reason for its fame. Shortly after enemy troops penetrated Rome’s outer walls, Cellini hastened to the Castel Sant’Angelo and squeezed through a gap in the gate before the watchmen closed it by lowering the portcullis, metal gating that slid along vertical grooves on either side of the gateway and blocked passage. To Cellini’s relief, the captain of the Castello granted him admission even as he turned others away. He was entitled to take refuge there precisely because he was a member of the pope’s favorite band.
Still, the head honchos were not about to let Cellini kick back and relax. They expected him to weapon up and fight for Clement VII as well as his city. Cellini obliged, and by his own admission, he might have missed his calling as a career soldier. The goldsmith-flautist doled out more than his fair share of death, often stationed on the so-called Angel, the highest point of the Castello, named for a statue of the heavenly creature there. He cannonballed a Spaniard clean in two with his falconet, a light cannon, an extraordinary feat given the great distance of the target, visible to Cellini by virtue of his rosy-red uniform. He blew away more than thirty foes with a single volley, firing five artillery pieces during a changing of the guard. It was as if his identity as an artist and the elegance of his output faded away amid the havoc of warfare. At the same time, Cellini discerned a certain euphony in gunfire. He recalls in My Life, “My drawings, my wonderful studies, and the beauty of playing music were all drowned in the music of those military pieces.” Cellini’s acts of valor astounded Clement VII, among other residents of the Castel Sant’Angelo.
During the siege, the pope finally found a use for the artist-turned-artilleryman’s goldsmithing abilities. He requested that Cellini extract the jewels set in a group of golden tiaras inside the Apostolic Chamber and melt down the gold, apparently not wanting the sackers to steal them. After prizing out the precious stones, Cellini retired to his private room, bolted his door, and cobbled together a brick blast furnace. Then, he placed the gold on top of a metal grate inside and cranked up the heat. As the resplendent mineral liquified, it dripped down and collected in an ash-tray underneath, the contents of which he then delivered to the pope.
Despite Cellini’s sundry triumphs, Rome had no hope of victory. On June 6, 1527, a month into the fighting, Clement VII surrendered, paying an ungodly ransom of 400,000 ducats. This disbursement would not end the bloodletting. Pillaging continued into early 1528, as did the wanton slaughter of Romans. It’s estimated that between 6,000-12,000 people were murdered during the free-for-all. Adding to the death toll were the unburied corpses that piled up in the streets, spreading deadly diseases among the locals and aggressors alike. It was not until a visitation of plague in February 1528 that the Holy Roman Emperor’s soldiers retreated, leaving much of the city in ruins. All told, the Roman population shrank from more than 55,000 before the incursion to about 10,000 afterward. It would take decades to make up for this loss. Many who had not perished resettled in other cities, and plenty of these refugees worked in the arts. Depleted of financial resources, Rome had fewer big-spending patrons. It’s hard to overstate the toll the sack took on the cultural, political, and religious standing of the city. It gravely weakened the Papacy and by extension the Catholic Church, already shaken by the Protestant Reformation. For many historians, it further sounded the death knell for the Italian High Renaissance.
Goldsmithing for the Pope and Appointment to the Mint
Cellini numbered among the artisans who scattered after the sack. He worked in Mantua for a year before coming home to Florence, his first time back since his banishment. Heartrending news awaited. His beloved father had died of plague. Still grieving, Cellini received a summons from Clement VII. After enlisting him as a piper and then as a gunner, he finally wanted to hire him as a goldsmith. Cellini packed his bags and rode for Rome.
Upon his arrival, the pope commissioned him to design an ornamental clasp called a morse for his cope, a silken mantle worn for processions and other special occasions. According to Cellini’s biographer, Sir John Pope-Hennessy, the finished product appears not to have come down to us. Yet to judge from Cellini’s extant drawings and descriptions of the accessory, he fashioned an ornament of exquisite intricacy. Made of gold, the morse measured one third of a cubit in width, roughly seven inches. Cellini set a magnificent diamond in the center that jutted out about as far as the accessory was deep. Above the upper edge of this jewel was a figure of God the Father, a triangular halo atop His head and a globe in His left hand. Meanwhile, His right arm was raised in the air, as if in benediction. Above and to either side of the Lord Almighty were a choir of angels. One of them supported the God the Father’s right arm, while others propped up additional gems—a sapphire, an emerald, and likely others, too. Along the rim of the plate were open-mouthed, male faces, scrolls, wings, and enameled sphinxes. Finally, Cellini mounted a lion mask in high relief on the backside, the teeth of the beast’s maw biting down on the fibula—that is, the pin—that fastened the morse to the cope. Clement VII rejoiced at its completion as if mana had rained down from heaven. On this side of the sack, however, he could ill-afford to pay the true value of the treasure. “If I were a rich emperor,” he assured Cellini, “I would give my Benvenuto as much land as his eye could survey; but though We are impoverished and bankrupt emperors at the moment, We shall, in any case, give him enough bread to satisfy his meagre meals.”
To some degree, Clement VII made up for his “bankruptcy” by bestowing a new honor on Cellini—a coveted appointment at the papal mint. Two chief officials ran the operation—the incisore, charged with designing and engraving the currency, and the pesetore di zecca, tasked with valuing the metal in each coin. Both were paid equally and earned a pretty penny.
In June 1529, just shy of thirty, Cellini assumed his post as incisore, which he would hold until January 1534. More than three decades later, in 1565, Cellini gave descriptions of several coins he minted in his Treatise on Goldsmithing. For example, a golden, two-ducat coin depicted “the form of a nude Christ, His hands bound, done with all the care and study I was capable of.” Printed across the center of the coin was the legend, ECCE HOMO, “Behold the man,” in capital letters. Beneath the martyr’s feet, Cellini etched the word ROMA, “Rome.” On the flipside were the face and name of Pope Clement VII, the portrait executed with admirable realism. Also worth two ducats, another gold coin showed “a pope in his pontifical robes and an emperor also in his regalia: the two were supporting a cross which was in the act of falling to the ground. "I forget if there was a legend on this side; but on the other were a Saint Paul and a Saint Peter in more than half relief, with this legend around them: Unus spiritus et una fides erat in eis [One spirit and one faith were in them].” These passages show the impressive amount of detail Cellini could cram onto the surface of a coin.
It was at the papal mint that Cellini labored with a jeweler he hated enough to kill:Pompeo. We’ll hear what drove the goldsmith to murder after a quick break.
Meeting new people in Cellini’s My Life is about as informative as passing strangers on the street. He usually introduces them in the middle of a pages-long paragraph crowded with other names. When key players make their first appearance, Cellini seldom indicates that he’s talking about someone we need to keep track of. This is especially striking in the case of his nemeses, who are legion—seriously, at any given moment, there are seemingly dozens of back-biting courtiers, cardinals, and artists plotting his downfall. Pompeo is one of them, and I had no inkling of just how significant he would become when he first popped up.
Pompeo came from Milan and worked as pesetore di zecca at the mint. He was related to a gentleman named Traiano Alicorno, a notary and close ally of the Pope, a family connection that may have gotten him his job. Cellini and Pompeo developed a ferocious antipathy toward one another, with the autobiographer looking down on his colleague as vastly inferior. On more than one occasion, they competed for the privilege of designing for Clement VII, Cellini invariably emerging triumphant. Cellini was what you might call an arrogant prick, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he lorded these victories over Pompeo. That they shared the same workplace only worsened the bad blood.
It was around 1533 that Cellini supposedly took a stab at necromancy in the Coliseum, the Sicilian sorcerer warning him of imminent danger.
It all started with a mix-up. Heading into his workshop, Cellini bumped into a good friend of his named Benedetto. Unbeknownst to the goldsmith, his assistant, Felice, had just had a heated dispute with Benedetto about money owed to Cellini. When Cellini warmly greeted Benedetto, the latter responded by hurling insults at him, wrongly believing that the master had sanctioned his servant’s behavior. “At this,” Cellini recalls, “I remembered everything the necromancer had told me.” Angered by the slights, he tried to keep his cool all the same, fearing grave consequences if he lost his temper. Benedetto wouldn’t listen to reason, however, and a crowd was gathering as he laid into the metalworker. Pushed beyond his limit, Cellini picked up a clump of mud and threw it at Benedetto. A stone inside struck his head and knocked him down as if dead. A murmur rippled through the onlookers, many of whom believed that Benedetto had died. He hadn’t, in fact, but this would only become clear later.
Pompeo just so happened to pass by during the altercation and saw the whole thing. Off he skedaddled to Clement VII, eager to denounce Cellini before His Holiness. Likely mistaken rather than lying, Pompeo informed the pope that his incisore had killed a man in public. Horrified, Clement VII distanced himself from Cellini, eventually firing him from the mint. This represented a grievous blow to his career, and Cellini would neither forgive nor forget what Pompeo had done to him.
He exacted his revenge on September 27, 1534. Cellini was sitting with friends alongside the Tiber, when he saw Pompeo coming. The worm-tongued rascal wasn’t alone. Clearly aware that he had goaded a dragon, Pompeo had hired ten Neapolitan bodyguards, a sort of human barrier that went wherever he went. Catching sight of Cellini, Pompeo stopped opposite him on the other side of the avenue, a look in his eyes like he wanted a throwdown. Cellini’s pals were happy to oblige, egging him on to draw his sword and cut the cur from the nave to the chops. They, of course, would have his back. No, Cellini judged, it was neither the time nor the place for a fifteen-man skirmish. There was plenty of foot-traffic, and pedestrians could easily become collateral damage. The goldsmith would bide his time and strike on his own. Having sneered at Cellini long enough to finish two Ave Marias, Pompeo threw back his head and let out a laugh, continuing on his way. Things had gone badly for Gherardo Guasconti when he cackled at Cellini in the Mercato Nuovo, and they would go much worse for Pompeo.
An hour or so later, the pesetore di zecca made his way to a spot in town where several streets converged, known to locals as Chivica. Excusing himself, he popped into the pharmacy on one corner while his hired toughs hung loose. Pompeo resurfaced a few minutes later, maybe destined for his home, a few doors down. Just as his henchmen were closing rank around him, he felt a hand grab his chest. He was probably dead before he knew what hit him.
Cellini chanced to be walking by as Pompeo exited the apothecary. Spotting his enemy, he drew a poniard with a sharp edge and sped toward his prey, catching both him and his stooges unawares. Flinching when Cellini caught hold of him, Pompeo turned his head to one side, and his attacker knifed him right beneath his ear. Cellini stabbed him once again in the same location. Pompeo collapsed, very much dead. His dagger in his left hand and his sword in his right, Cellini braced himself for a forest of blades to fall on him. To his surprise, Pompeo’s thugs ignored him entirely and circled around the body, vainly trying to resuscitate their employer. Almost as swiftly as he had pounced, Cellini slipped away.
He must have fretted about the fallout. After all, he had cut down a high-ranking official of the papal mint in broad daylight, a man with influential kin. He went into hiding without delay.
Lucky for Cellini, he would be blessed with a get-out-of-jail-free card, and it came from none other than the newly anointed pope. Terminally ill, Clement VII had given up the ghost on September 25, 1534, two days prior to Pompeo’s slaying. Cellini paid his respects at St. Peter’s, kissing the pontiff’s feet and wiping away tears. About two-and-a-half-weeks later, on October 13, Alessandro Farnese became Pope Paul III. The name of Cellini came up a short way into his tenure. In conversation with several advisers, Paul III insisted that no hand other than Cellini’s would engrave his coins and voiced his intention of reappointing him to the mint. A counselor pointed out that that might not work since the master coiner was a wanted man. Not perturbed in the least, Paul III ordered the drafting of a safe-conduct, which would shield Cellini from prosecution. Appalled, a friend of Pompeo’s, also in attendance, exhorted the pope, “During the first days of your papacy, it would not be good to grant pardons of this sort.” It’s hard to disagree. I’m no scholar of the Bible, but I’m pretty sure there’s a commandment about this—something to the effect of “Thou shalt not kill.” Anyhow, Paul III seems to have skipped the Old Testament at the Papal Training Academy, roundly dismissing the unsolicited advice. “You don’t understand the matter as well as I do,” he retorted. “You should know that men like Benvenuto, unique in their profession, need not be subject to the law; especially not Benvenuto, since I know what good reasons he had [for killing Pompeo].” Thanks to the safe-conduct, Cellini would not serve time for killing Pompeo—at least not officially.
Back to the Castello
Over the next few years, Pompeo would seem to bedevil Cellini from beyond the grave. The troubles began with Cellini’s next great adversary, Pier Luigi Farnese, son of Paul III. If you thought of Pier Luigi as a character in a novel, calling him flat would exaggerate his depth. There’s nothing to him other than his furnace-hot hatred of Cellini, and it all goes back to the death of Pompeo. The slain jeweler left his illegitimate daughter a dowry of three thousand ducats, and Cellini’s “enemies” (never named, of course, and assumed to exist in vast numbers) arranged for a certain favorite of Pier Luigi’s to marry the orphan. The union fell through, causing grief for everyone, including Pier Luigi. Then, for reasons never adequately explained, the pope’s son made it his mission to annihilate Cellini. To this end, he turned Paul III against the goldworker and even hired a Corsican hitman to kill him. The assassin picked a fight with Cellini in the street only to back down.
Another plan yielded more desirable results. Early one morning in 1538, four years after the murder of Pompeo, Cellini opened his workshop and swept it with a broom, stepping outdoors for a breath of fresh air. When he turned into the Chiavica, a group of constables stopped him without warning, one of whom declared, “You are the Pope’s prisoner.”. As Cellini handed over his weapons to the lawmen, he took stock of where he was: “I realized that I had murdered Pompeo on precisely this spot.” It was as if he were suffering punishment for his unpunished murder. As an aside, some translations use the term "assassinated" rather than "murdered" in this passage. We'll talk about why in the final episode of this season.
Under arrest, Cellini learned of the trumped-up charges against him. A former workman of his had gone to one of Pier Luigi’s secretaries and accused Cellini of stealing jewels from the Church. He had supposedly committed this theft during the sack of Rome, while defending the Castel Sant’Angelo. Now, the accuser claimed, Cellini possessed more than 80,000 ducats in stolen property. Cellini had handled gemstones before melting down tiaras at Clement VII’s behest, but he most certainly had never stolen a pope’s ransom worth of jewelry. When the authorities searched his workshop, they returned without evidence of guilt. Nevertheless, spurred by the malicious Pier Luigi, Paul III ordered Cellini imprisoned.
In a cruel twist of fate, Cellini was escorted to a prison reserved for high-profile criminals: the Castel Sant’Angelo. The irony and indignity of this incarceration cannot have escaped Cellini. Ten years earlier, he had won glory as a crack-shot artilleryman at the Castello, admitted to the fortress as a valued servant to Clement VII. Now, he was a prisoner inside the same castle for an ignominious crime he had never committed, locked in a cell for running afoul of Paul III.
The Great Escape . . . Gone Awry
Days turned into weeks turned into months. Nobody could prove that Cellini belonged inside a Castello prison cell, and yet he remained captive there. Unlike more unfortunate prisoners, confined to moldering dungeons, he enjoyed relative comfort in a spacious apartment. It was more like living under house arrest than doing time inside a state penitentiary. Still, the deprivation of his liberty coupled with the suspicion that he would never get out gnawed away at him until the pain became unbearable. He made up his mind that he would escape.
Early one morning, two hours before daybreak, he dislodged the iron bars from the door to his cell and forced it open. Unbeknownst to his captors, he had stockpiled bedsheets in the previous weeks, tied them together, and wound them around two wooden reels. Shouldering the makeshift spools, the jailbreaker tiptoed out of his apartment and toward the latrines inside the castle’s keep, wearing a white great-coat, matching white stockings, and a pair of high boots. He tucked his dagger into one of them, just in case he needed to defend himself. Inside the lavatory, he leaned out a window and roped his sheets around some kind of protuberance sticking out from the wall, unspooling the coil of sheets until they reached the ground below. Breathing a prayer, he took hold of the strips and climbed his way downward, relying entirely on the strength of his arms as the bedsheets swayed with his weight all the while. After a few minutes, his feet touched down on the earth. Praise be to God—Cellini had made it.
Except that he hadn’t. In the faint light of dawn, he could hardly make out his surroundings at first. After a moment, though, he saw where he was: inside an open-air chicken coop and stable circumscribed by enormous walls, its entryway bolted from the outside. The daring escape had landed Cellini in a whole new prison.
Cursing under his breath, he paced up and down trying to conceive a way out of this mess when he tripped over a large wooden pole in the straw. He eyeballed the tool and reckoned that it might reach to the top of the enclosure. Lifting it and propping it against the wall, he confirmed his suspicion. Within a few minutes, he had scaled the pole and come to grips with his next challenge. He stood at the upper edge of a wall that connected with a pathway down below. Patrolled by guardsmen, the walkway wrapped around the castle exterior. Letting out a groan, he knotted another strip of bedclothes around a battlement and unreeled the rest—Cellini still had one of his improvised spools. He descended as before and planted his feet. On the other side of the walkway was a ledge—the top of yet another wall he would have to make it down if he wanted to escape. Before he could ready the next line of bedsheets, however, he jumped in surprise. Just a step or two away was an armed sentinel. None too keen to return to his cell, Cellini drew his dagger and leapt at the watchman. The bejeezus scared out of him, the sentry made a 180 and ran the other direction. No sooner had Cellini frightened him off than he saw another patrolman headed his way. He picked up his sheets, looped them around another battlement, and vanished over the edge. This security officer appears not to have spotted him. Another crisis averted.
But another was to come. Cellini was shimmying downward when it happened, maybe ten or fifteen feet off the ground. He would never know what caused the accident—it might have had to do with the state of his hands, badly rope-burned and bleeding by now. Whatever the case, he lost his grip and fell to the earth, striking the back of his head on impact.
The sun was almost up when he opened his eyes. Still half-conscious, he thought he had been decapitated and shipped off to Purgatory. As he came to his senses, he remembered where he was and what he was doing. He must have been out for at least an hour, Cellini reasoned, the predawn chill having finally revived him. He touched the back of his head with his fingertips and felt blood flowing. Then, he tried to rise to his feet and realized the full extent of his injuries. A bone had snapped about three inches above his right heel, unable to bend on account of his dagger, tucked in his boot. Throwing away the sheath, he cut a strip of the bedsheets dangling from above and bandaged his lower leg. Then, he went down on all fours and crawled his painful way to the gate of the Castello, clutching his blade in one hand. Discovering a loose stone, he pushed it aside and wriggled through the hole.
Almost as soon as he dragged himself into the street, Cellini got mauled by a pack of mastiffs. Crying out in pain as they sank their teeth into him, he fought them off with his knife and inched along on his belly. Bleeding from his hands, the back of his head, as well as the bite wounds, he spied a water-carrier with his donkey tethered and called out for help, quickly inventing a sympathetic story: “I’m a poor young man,” Cellini lied, “who, for the sake of a love affair, tried to climb down from a window, when I fell down and broke a leg. And since the house I left is one of great importance, I run the risk of being cut to pieces, so I beg you to carry me off quickly and I’ll give you a gold scudo [a Milanese coin].” Who could say no to this clumsy Romeo? The water-carrier hoisted him up and threw him over one shoulder, conveying him to the door of St. Peter’s. From there, Cellini crawled to the palace of Duke Octavio, a friend who would certainly lend a helping hand. To his immense relief, they took him in, and a cardinal staying there called for a physician to set Cellini’s bone and bleed him as well.
Cellini might have escaped from one of the eternal city’s most airtight bastions, but his luck would run out. Informed of the goldsmith’s flight, Pier Luigi did everything in his power to have him thrown back in. Speaking with his father, Pope Paul III, he even invoked the knifing of Pompeo. “His is a nature that is too ferocious and too self-assured. When he killed Pompeo, he stabbed him twice in the throat in the midst of ten men guarding him, and then he escaped.” His arguments hit home. Within a few days, Cellini was ripped from the care of his friends and returned to the Castel Sant’Angelo, right where he had started.
Freedom now appeared entirely unattainable. Cellini despaired, contemplating suicide.
Diamonds Aren’t Forever
For some of Cellini’s adversaries, rotting in jail was just too good for him. They wanted him dead. Enter Mortal Enemy Number—what are we even on now? I’ve honestly lost count. Anyway, this one answered to the name of Messer Durante. When this learned prelate, or clerical dignitary, first turns up in the autobiography, he cheats Cellini out of five hundred scudi given him by the emperor. He’s never mentioned again for sixty pages until suddenly he’s decided to have Cellini assassinated, who knows why. Messer Durante devised a sinister homicide. He would have a diamond pulverized and then the powder sprinkled in Cellini’s food. Unlike other stones, Cellini explains, diamonds retain their sharpness when smashed into pieces. Once ingested, diamond dust shreds the stomach and intestines, killing the eater in excruciating fashion. With this aim in mind, Messer Durante enlisted the expertise of sculptor and goldsmith Leone Leoni—yet another of Cellini’s rivals, not least because Leoni would eventually become incisore at the mint, gaining Cellini’s former position.
One Friday morning, on a feast day, the prison guard delivered a meal of salad, sauce, soup to Cellini. Having fasted the previous evening, the metalsmith gobbled it down, ignoring the odd crackling as he chewed. Only when he finished did he see them on his plate: miniscule particles, almost invisible, amid a few leaves of salad left over. He clasped a couple of grains between his fingers and went to his window, inspecting them in the sunlight. Gradually, it dawned on him—someone had dusted his breakfast with diamonds. Sorrow overtook him, and assuming himself a dead man, Cellini fell to his knees and begged God for fortitude, dreading the agony that would soon rip through him. He stayed like this for an hour or more, reassuring himself that despite this cruel and untimely demise, death would transport him to a better kingdom.
Yet hope springs eternal, and it sprang in Cellini as he bowed his head in prayer. More than sixty minutes had passed by now, his digestive tract not yet cut to ribbons. Could he survive this ordeal? He decided to take a closer look at what he had eaten. Getting to his feet, he reached for a knife and placed a speck of the stone on an iron bar. Then, with care, he pressed the blade on top of it and watched in surprise as the specimen disintegrated. Cellini hadn’t dined on diamond dust after all. Later, he worked out what the condiment was. Messer Durante had presented his would-be assassin, Lioni, with a diamond worth more than 100 crowns. Like the present moment, the Renaissance knew plenty of starving artists. Leoni was among them, and well aware of the diamond’s value, he opted to pawn it rather than weaponize it. In its place, he ground up a brittle greenish beryl, a mineral worth no more than a crown. The worst it could do was mild indigestion. As Cellini recollects in My Life, “I thanked God and blessed poverty, which on many occasions has been the cause of human death, but in this instance was the very cause of my salvation.”
The Light of Liberty
While alive and well, Cellini remained trapped. According to My Life, however, he received a mystical vision foretelling his release from the hellhole of the Castello. One day, stooped in prayer in his miserable cell, the goldsmith was lifted by an invisible force, as if borne aloft by a mighty wind. It carried him to a chamber teeming with millions of men, women, and children. The unseen entity then took the form of a handsome young man and explained that Cellini was now gazing upon every soul ever born. Then, the kindly spirit guided him to a doorway at one end of the hall, Cellini inexplicably clad in armor and clasping a dagger. Much to his astonishment, on the other side of the passage, he suddenly found himself wearing a white shirt, his weapon vanished. He stood in a strange avenue surrounded by walls, and turning his eyes skyward, he saw the warm glow of the sun overhead. “Oh, my friend,” he exclaimed, “what must I do to be able to rise up high enough to see the sphere of the sun itself?” The beautiful youth pointed to a great flight of stairs. Cellini dashed up them until stopping before a sight he could hardly fathom: the flaming celestial body, floating right before him. Closing his eyes because of the brightness at first, he reopened them and stared, unblinking, into the orb. “Oh, my very own sun, the sun I have desired so much!” he cried, his eyes unharmed. The center of the sun rippled as a pool of molten gold. Then, swelling outward, part of it broke off and took the shape of Christ on the cross—a crucifix wrought from liquid fire. The star bulged again, this time part of it dislodging and transforming into a Madonna, seated on high and flanked by angels, Christ near at hand. Before the divine cohort stood St. Peter himself, dressed in his immaculate, pontifical robes. Cellini immediately understood what was happening. Peter was pleading the goldsmith’s case before heaven, imploring his liberation from prison. No matter how Paul III felt about Cellini, the world’s first pope had taken up his cause. Cellini interpreted this vision as a sign from on high that he would soon bid farewell to the Castello once and for all.
Indeed, he did. If poverty saved Cellini from death by diamond, it was rank alcoholism that freed him from captivity. Several days after the bungled assassination, Pope Paul III hosted the Cardinal of Ferrara, a patron of the arts who desired Cellini’s release. Sitting down to dinner, they uncorked a bottle of choice wine, followed by another . . . followed by another . . . followed by another. Paul III had a number of unsaintly habits, and one was a weekly bender during which he drank himself onto the floor. As the vintages flowed, the pope’s heart warmed, and the cardinal took advantage of his high spirits to request an end to Cellini’s imprisonment. “I want you to take him home with you right now,” the pontiff bellowed, absolutely blitzed. Wasting no time, the cardinal sent for Cellini before Pier Luigi could find out. Had his rescuer tarried, the pope may have rescinded his pardon; he later admitted to having regretted his drunken decision. At around four in the morning, Paul III’s messenger knocked on the door to the goldsmith’s cell with wonderful news. After more than a year in the Castel Sant’Angelo, Cellini was free.
By any measure, Cellini had lived a full life by the time of his liberation. Yet he would keep trucking for another three decades, during which he realized many of his most spectacular designs, several unveiled in the court of Francis I, King of France. Only one of these French wonders remains extant, unfortunately, but there’s quite a story to be told about both its creation and what’s happened to it since. Alas, you’ll have to wait to hear more, because I’m saving that for a bonus episode in season 4. (Yes, I plan this far in advance.) Cellini would also have further scrapes with the law. In fact, he dictated My Life while under house arrest for sodomy, a sex crime that had landed him in slammer once before. Though forthcoming—and at times nonchalant—about his many criminal offenses, Cellini remains silent about both these convictions in his autobiography, perhaps out of shame.
Before we take our leave of Renaissance Italy, it’s worth lingering on Cellini’s escape from the Castello and its place within the structure of his autobiography. My Life is divided into two separate books. Book I concludes with Cellini’s rescue—a dramatic climax. (In striking contrast, Book II practically ends mid-sentence—an anti-climax that leaves the autobiography feeling unfinished.) What are we to make of how the first book closes? Perhaps most obviously, Cellini means to underscore the importance of his liberation. At the same time, he imposes a sort of plot structure on his own life, organizing the clutter of his collected experiences into a tidy narrative—with limited success. The first book is a holy mess, a farrago of anecdotes, rollicking though often completely unrelated. But if you squint hard enough, an underlying storyline emerges, faint yet unmistakable. Cellini sculpts a narrative of perdition and salvation. The two major turning points revolve around the divine: the artist’s hellish ritual in the Coliseum and his heavenly revelation inside the Castello. The first presages damnation, the second deliverance. Sordid and sinful, the confessions of this necromancer are miraculously transmuted into a tale of spiritual redemption.
Next episode, we spring forward to the nineteenth century to hear about the career and radicalization of American actor John Wilkes Booth.