Most of Cellini's pieces have been lost but what remains is clearly the work of a master. Michelangelo, his contemporary, wrote (to Cellini) that Cellini was the greatest goldsmith ever, and a look at the salt cellar or "Saliera" (link below) he made for Francis I of France (ca 1542) confirms this. Unfortunately, this piece, about 10 inches high by 13 wide and showing Neptune and Ea, the God of the Sea and the Goddess of the Earth, is the only example of Cellini's work as a goldsmith that survived. (Other pieces in gold sometimes attributed to him are not authenticated.) The Saliera is on display at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
More of his monumental works in bronze are available, however, and the most famous is his larger than life size statue of Perseus with the Head of Medusa (ca. 1550) (link below). Many say that the Perseus is really Cellini's best work -- its unveiling literally brought cheers from the audience -- but the diversity in scale of his pieces and the variety of techniques used for different media make comparisons specious. (Museums, however, always say that whatever piece they hold is the best.) The Perseus, which stands in the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence, is the piece most people are most likely to have seen, either by visiting Florence or because it is so often reproduced in postcards and art books. (The Loggia is the porch full of sculpture on the same square as the Palazzo Vecchio and the Ufizzi Museum). Street hawkers in Florence and Rome also have small and cheap reproductions for sale.
Cellini worked in Florence, Sienna, Bologna, Pisa, Naples, Rome, Paris, and wherever else he went while fleeing from the law. He was bad tempered and, many would say, downright evil. The fact that he was a murderer and a rapist and that he mercilessly and joyfully beat his female and young male models is clearly documented. He was jailed in several different cities for crime and perversion, gaining his release only through the intervention of Cardinals, Popes, kings, and nobles who wanted to give him further commissions. By his own account (which may, of course, be one of his gross exaggerations) he assassinated both the Constable of Bourbon and Philibert, Prince of Orange, during civil strife in Rome in 1527.
Some historians excuse his terrible behavior by saying he was "a man of his times". No doubt that is true: he certainly wasn't the only criminal of his era who took advantage of privilege and of immunity acquired by birth and, in his case, augmented by talent. He was one of the few, however, about whom we have a great deal of information, and this is due in large part to the fact that he bragged of his exploits in an autobiography written between 1558 and 1562, a few years before his death. By then, he had settled down somewhat, finally married, and added two legitimate children to the string of at least five bastards he had already fathered.
In fact, it is the book, rather than his art, which ensured Cellini's fame. Cellini dictated it to a secretary in plain language. The autobiography is surprisingly frank about Cellini's criminal behavior, but it is also full of obvious exaggerations of his own importance in the histories of the Rome of Clement VII, the Paris of Francis I, and the Florence of Cosimo de' Medici. Not only does it unrepentantly tell all (and more) about Benvenuto's Cellini's own life, but it also is the clearest window we have into Italian and French court life in the Sixteenth Century. The biography was not published until 1728 (in Italian), 158 years after Cellini's death at age 70. Publication in other languages was even later: English in 1771, German in 1796, and French in 1822. Despite the long delay it was "immediately popular" wherever and whenever published and remains a staple in university history courses covering the period. The most accessible English version, in terms of readability, price and availability is the Penguin Classics Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, George Bull translation, which is available at better bookstores in Rome and from all of the usual on-line booksellers.
"Art Images on the Web" Cellini
links (includes a bio link):
Life and works:
The Saliera (salt cellar):
Perseus and the Head of Medusa (This
is in Florence, as noted above. The vastly inferior statue in the Vatican
Museum is by Canova):
Hector Berlioz's 1838 Opera "Benvenuto Cellini" (seldom performed, but the overture is a well known concert piece):
Libretto (in French):