three pairs of lovers with space

THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF BENVENUTO CELLINI

 

Benvenuto Cellini (3 November 1500 – 13 February 1571) was a leading Florentine sculptor and goldsmith. He began dictating his autobiography to a boy of fourteen in 1558 (while under house arrest for sodomising another boy) and it carried on down to 1562. It was first published in Naples in 1728, and first translated into English in 1771.

Often considered both the most colourful and the most important autobiography to survive from the Renaissance, it is critically important for the insights it offers into the prevalence of Greek love then and its likely social and cultural effects.

As the chance survival of detailed court records concerning sodomy from 15th century Florence demonstrate,[1] a large majority of Florentine men then were implicated in sex with boys (which was not seen as conflicting with their heterosexual tastes), and there is no reason to suppose the 15th century was peculiar in this respect. Cellini was one of a number of great Florentine artists whose sexual involvement with boys has chanced to be recorded.[2]

The hard evidence for this is that he was at least thrice charged with sodomising them and twice convicted for it. This is to be the subject of another article. The soft evidence consists, first, of his preoccupation with making sculptures of the beautiful boys most renowned in antiquity for being loved by gods, Ganymede, Hyakinthos and Narkissos, and secondly, of the things he said in his autobiography which are presented here.

Unsurprisingly, considering the gruesome punishments that could and occasionally did await those convicted of sodomy, Cellini never came nearer to admitting his sexual involvement with the boys he admitted he “loved” than rhapsodising about their beauty. Though what he did say about his feelings for them is remarkably passionate considering the strong need to be circumspect in public, his only mention of sodomy is scathing denials of accusations that he practised it. Whether or not he had sex with a particular boy can only therefore be guessed, taking all the circumstances into consideration. The passages presented here are selected on the basis that they are merely likely to concern Greek love relationships.

Three passages are also included that describe Cellini’s liaisons with girls. Not only are these useful in illustrating that in the Renaissance genuine enthusiasm for both boys and girls was commonplace and not seen as involving a contradiction, but, since there was nothing to stop Cellini being frank in describing the sexual character of his heterosexual liaisons, they are also useful in evaluating the likelihood that his involvement with the boys he describes was similar in character. The three girls were of similar age to the boys, one 13 or 14, one 15 and the other unspecified but emphatically young. One was a visiting prostitute’s maid, while the other two were girls taken on by him as maidservants and models, suggesting both that in employing youngsters he took into strong consideration their aesthetic potential as both models and lovers, and that he saw nothing discreditable about bedding pubescent employees. The three boys concerned here were all similarly taken on as “assistants” (presumably apprentices) and models.

Of far wider significance are the questions this poses about the likely general character of the relationships between artists and their apprentices in the homeland of the Renaissance, and indeed of the whole master/apprentice relationship that lay at the heart of professional urban life in Europe in the mediaeval and early modern periods.

The following excerpts are taken from the translation by George Bull in 1956 for Penguin Classics. There are no chapters in the autobiography and the headings adopted here have been improvised for the reader’s convenience.

 

THE LIFE OF BENVENUTO THE SON OF GIOVANNI CELLINI WRITTEN BY HIMSELF IN FLORENCE

 

Paulino

A very young Hyakinthos kneeling at his lover Apollo's feet from Cellini's statue of them

At the end of 1523, when Cellini had just come to live and work in Rome:

While I was working hard on the Bishop’s beautiful vase I had only one small boy helping me. I had taken him on as my assistant, giving in to the pressure of friends and half against my own will. His name was Paulino and he was about fourteen; he was the son of a Roman citizen who lived on a private income. This Paulino had the most perfect manners, the most honest character, and the prettiest face of any I have ever come across in all my life. His honest way of behaving and his incredible beauty and the great love he showed me made me love him in turn almost more than I could bear. I loved him so passionately that I was always playing music for him, in order to see his lovely face, which was normally rather sad and serious, brighten up when he heard it. Whenever I took up the cornet such a frank, beautiful smile came over his face that I am not at all surprised at those silly stories the Greeks wrote about their gods. In fact if Paulino had been alive in those days he might have unhinged them even more.

He had a sister called Faustina who was even more beautiful, I think, than the Faustina the ancient books are always babbling about.[3] Sometimes I used to visit their vineyard and from what I could judge it appeared to me that Paulino’s father, a thoroughly worthy man, would have liked me as a son-in-law. All this made me play a great deal more than usual.

 

Faustina’s Little Maid

In 1523, while Cellini was living and working in Rome:

One evening one of my associates happened to bring home to supper a Bolognese prostitute called Faustina. The woman was very beautiful, but she was about thirty. However she had with her a little maid of about thirteen or fourteen. As Faustina belonged to my friend I would not have touched her for all the gold in the world. Although she declared that she was madly in love with me I never betrayed my friend’s trust. But when they went to bed I had the little maid, who was as fresh as fresh; and it would have been worse for her if her mistress had known it. I had a wonderful time that night and was much more satisfied than I would have been with Faustina.

 

Diego

A little later, in 1524, Cellini was involved in an artists’ club founded in Rome then by the sculptor Michelagnolo di Bernardino di Michele, and which “also included Giulio Romano, the painter, and Gianfrancesco, two splendid pupils of the great Raphael of Urbino.”

After we had been meeting time and time again, our admirable president decided that the following Sunday we would all meet for supper at his house, and each of us was to bring what Michelagnolo called his ‘crow’ along with him. Whoever failed to do so would have to stand all the others a supper.

The front of Cellini's statue of Hyakinthos and Apollo, 1545-48

Those of us who did not know any women of the town had to go to no little trouble and expense to get hold of one, in order to avoid being disgraced at our brilliant supper-party. […]

When it was nearly time for us to appear at our brilliant meeting and present our crows I was still without one, but I decided it would be wrong to fail over such a silly thing. What gave me most worry was that I had no wish to have that distinguished gathering see me bring in under my wing some bedraggled old scarecrow. So I hit on a trick that would amuse everyone enormously.

I made up my mind as to what I would do, and then I called in a young lad of sixteen who lived next door, the son of a Spanish coppersmith. He was studying Latin, and was very studious. His name was Diego. He was a handsome boy, with a wonderful complexion, and his head was even more beautifully modelled than that of the ancient statue of Antinous. I had drawn him very often and he brought me a great deal of honour. He never went out with anyone and so he was completely unknown. Also, he dressed very badly and slovenly and all he loved was his precious studying.

When he came in I asked him to let me dress him up in the woman’s clothes I had got ready. He was quite willing and put them on at once. Then I quickly improved even his beautiful face by the attractive way I arranged his hair, and I put two little rings in his ears. They had two beautiful large pearls, and as the rings were split I just clipped them on, which made it look as if his lobes were pierced. After that I arranged some beautiful gold and richly jewelled necklaces round his neck, and adorned his lovely hands with rings.

Then with a smile I took him by the ear and led him in front of my large mirror. When he saw himself he blurted out: ‘Help! is that Diego?’

‘It most certainly is,’ I said. ‘It’s the Diego I have never yet asked for anything, but now I want him to do me one harmless favour, which is that I want him to come out to supper, in the same clothes he has on now, with that famous society I’ve often told him about.’

Now, he was a good-living, thoughtful young man, and very intelligent. He quietened down, stared at the floor, and stood for a while without saying a word. Then, all at once, he looked up at me and said: ‘If it’s with Benvenuto, I’ll come. Let’s be on our way.’

I put a large scarf round his head – the sort that in Rome is called a summer-cloth – and when we reached the meeting-place everyone was already there to welcome us. Michelagnolo was standing between Giulio and Gianfrancesco. When I took the scarf off my pretty young man’s head, Michelagnolo, who as I’ve said before was the pleasantest, wittiest man imaginable, stretched out his hands, placed one on Giulio and one on Gianfrancesco, and with all his strength forced them to bow down. Then he himself, falling on his knees, pretended to cry for mercy and shouted out to everyone:

‘Look at this! Look what the angels of paradise are like. Though they are called angels, some of them are women.’

The rear of Cellini's statue of Hyakinthos and Apollo, 1545-48

Then he added:

     ‘Angel of grace and beauty,
     Bless me and protect me.’

At this, the graceful creature starting laughing, lifted his right hand, and, talking gracefully, gave him a Papal blessing. Then Michelagnolo stood up and said that one kissed the feet of the Pope but the cheeks of angels – and when he suited the action to the words the young man blushed furiously and looked more beautiful than ever. After this introduction, we discovered that the room was full of sonnets that we had written and sent to Michelagnolo. My young companion began to read them, and as he spoke them aloud – every one of them – his incredible beauty was so enhanced that I find it impossible to describe. Then there was a great deal of comment and conversation, which I shall not give in detail as that is not my purpose. But I shall just report one thing, because it was said by that splendid painter, Giulio. He looked round shrewdly at everyone present, staring most of all at the women, and then he turned to Michelagnolo and said:

‘My dear Michelagnolo, your name, crows, fits this crowd only too well today. But they haven’t even the beauty of crows when they’re set by the side of one of the most beautiful peacocks imaginable.’

When the food was ready and served and we were about to sit down at table, Giulio asked as a favour that he should be allowed to decide on our places. His request was granted, and, taking each woman in turn by the hand, he arranged them all round the inside, with my one in the middle. Then he put all the men round the outside, with me in the middle as he said that I deserved the highest honour. There was a beautiful trellis of natural jasmines behind where the women sat, and with this background their beauty, and my partner’s especially, was so wonderfully set off that words fail to describe it. So we all set to with a will on that splendid and sumptuous feast.

After we had eaten, we heard some wonderful singing and music. They were playing and singing from written music, and my lovely companion asked permission to take part. His performance was so much better than almost all the others’ that everyone was astonished. In fact Giulio and Michelagnolo stopped talking about him in the joking way they had done at first, and their praise became grave and serious and showed the wonder they felt. When the music was finished a man called Aurelio Ascolano, who was marvellous at improvisation, began to praise the women. While he was reciting his heavenly, beautiful words, the two women who were sitting on either side of my lovely companion never left off chattering. One of them told how she had come to take the wrong turning, the other one started asking my companion how it had happened to her, and who were her men friends, and how long she had been in Rome, and other questions of that sort.

[…] Now the chatter of those beastly women began to annoy my companion – to whom we had given the name of Pomona – and so Pomona, in her anxiety to get away from their stupid babbling, began turning now to one side and now to another. The woman whom Giulio had brought asked if there was something wrong with her, and she said, yes, there was, that she thought she was pregnant by several months and felt a pain in her uterus. At once, in their concern for her, the two women started feeling Pomona’s body and discovered she was a male. They drew their hands away quickly, shot up from the table, and began insulting him, in words usually reserved for pretty young men. Immediately uproar broke out, and everyone started laughing and crying out in amazement. The stern Michelagnolo asked permission to give me the penance he thought proper and, when it was granted, with loud cries from everyone else he lifted me up and shouted: ‘Long live Benvenuto: long live Benvenuto.’

Then he added that that was the sentence I deserved for such a perfect trick. In this way, with day coming to an end, that charming supper-party finished; and we all went home.

The sack of Rome in 1527

 

A very beautiful young maidservant

Describing his life in Rome in 1529:

As it happened, at that time, as was only fitting at the age of twenty-nine, I had taken a charming and very beautiful young girl as my maidservant; I used her as a model, and also enjoyed her in bed to satisfy my youthful desires. Because of this, I had my room at quite a distance from where the workmen slept, and also some way from the shop. I kept the young girl in a tiny ramshackle bedroom adjoining mine. I used to enjoy her very often, and although I am the lightest sleeper in the world, after sexual pleasure I sometimes used to sleep very heavily and deeply.

 

 

Ascanio de’ Mari

Unlike with the boys Paulino, Diego and Cencio, the excerpts presented here with respect to Ascanio do not include all the references to him. There are several brief allusions to his presence that are of no Greek love interest, and also, as briefly summarised at the end, his continued to make appearances in the autobiography after 1542, the date of his last mention copied here, by when he was eighteen and the character of his relationship with Cellini sounds changed.[4]

In early 1537, Cellini finished some work in Rome for the Pope:

In the meantime I prepared to set off for France; I wanted to go by myself, but this proved impossible because of a young man I had, called Ascanio.[5] He was extremely young, and he was the most splendid servant imaginable; when I took him in he had just left a Spanish goldsmith called Francesco. I had been reluctant to take him, for fear of crossing the Spaniard’s path, so I said to him: ‘I don’t want you, because I may offend your master.’

Benvenuto Cellini (German School, 19th century)

But he so arranged matters that his master wrote me a note saying that I was quite free to have him. So he had been with me for a good few months. When he first came to me he had been very thin and pale, and we called him ‘the little old man’; and in fact that was how I regarded him, because he was such a capable assistant and because he was so knowing that it hardly seemed credible for a boy of thirteen, which he said was his age, to be so intelligent.

To return to what I was saying: in the few months he was with me he filled out and became so robust that he ended up the most handsome young fellow in Rome. He was such a good assistant, as I said before, and he made such progress at the trade, that I began to love and look after him as if he were my own son. When he saw how his fortunes had mended he reckoned himself very lucky to have come my way. Very often he used to go along and thank his former master for having been the cause of this good fortune of his. As it happened this Spaniard was married to a very beautiful young girl, who on one of these occasions said to him:

‘Surgetto,’ (that was what they used to call him when he stayed with them) ‘what have you been doing to become so handsome?’

Ascanio replied: ‘Madonna Francesca, that’s my master’s doing, and he’s made me much more good, as well.’

Her spiteful character was such that what he said made her furious; besides this she had the reputation of being a loose woman, and so she knew how to fondle him in a way that was probably far from decent. I began to notice that he was going along to see her far more than he used to. Then one day it happened that Ascanio gave one of the shopboys a beating; and when I returned home, with tears in his eyes the boy complained that Ascanio had waded into him for no reason at all.

When I heard this I turned to Ascanio and said: ‘With or without reason, don’t you ever set about anyone in my household, or you’ll have me to deal with.’

He answered me back; and at that I immediately threw myself on him, and with plenty of punches and kicks gave him the severest beating he had ever had. As soon as he could escape he ran out without his hat or coat, and for two days I had no idea where he was, let alone go and look for him. But then a Spanish gentleman, called Don Diego, came to see me. He was the most generous-hearted man I’ve ever known. I had already done some work for him and I was doing some at the time, so we were on very good terms. He told me that Ascanio had gone back to his old master, and asked me, if I would, to send along the coat and hat I had given him. My reply to this was that Francesco had behaved very badly, just like a boor; for if he had told me as soon as Ascanio had gone back to his house, I would have been only too pleased to let him go; but as he had kept him for two days without saying a word I had no intention of letting him stay, and he should take care that I did not catch sight of the boy in his house. Don Diego reported what I had said, and Francesco made a joke of it.

The following morning I saw Ascanio, at his master’s side, working on some trifling rubbish in wire. As I walked past Ascanio bowed to me and his master started sneering. Then he sent word through that nobleman Don Diego, asking if I would be kind enough to let Ascanio have the clothes I had given him; but he added that he didn’t care one way or the other, seeing that Ascanio would never want for clothes. When I heard this I turned to Don Diego and said:

‘Signor Don Diego, you yourself show in everything you do that you’re the most generous and upright man I’ve ever come across; but this Francesco – this disreputable renegade – is completely the reverse. Tell him from me that if before vespers he himself hasn’t brought Ascanio back to my shop, I shall certainly kill him; and tell Ascanio that if he doesn’t quit his master by that time, he’ll get pretty well the same treatment.’

Don Diego said nothing, but he went along and so put the fear of God into Francesco that he was at his wits’ end what to do. Meanwhile Ascanio had gone off to look for his father, who had come to Rome from his native place, Tagliacozzo: and when his father heard about the row he too advised Francesco to take Ascanio back to me.

Francesco cried: ‘All right, go off of you own accord, and let your father go with you.’

Don Diego added: ‘Francesco, I can see some terrible trouble brewing; you know better than I do what sort of man Benvenuto is: be bold and take Ascanio back yourself, and I shall come with you.’

Cellini's bronze Ganymede, ca. 1549 (Bargello, Florence)

Back at the shop, I was all ready, and I was walking up and down waiting for vespers to sound and feeling in the mood for one of the most violent deeds I had ever done in my life. Then, in the middle of this, Don Diego, Francesco, Ascanio, and Ascanio’s father – whom I had never met before – all appeared on the scene. When Ascanio came in I stared at them with my eyes blazing, and then Francesco, pale as death, said:

‘See, I’ve brought Ascanio back. I had no idea I was annoying you by keeping him.’

Then Ascanio said, very respectfully: ‘Sir, forgive me: I’ve come to do all you order.’

‘Have you come to finish the time you promised to put in?’

He said, yes, that he had, and that he would never leave me again. At this I turned to the boy he had beaten and told him to hand Ascanio his bundle of clothes: at the same time I said:

‘Here are all the clothes I gave you; take your freedom along with them and go wherever you like.’

Don Diego, who had expected anything but this, was completely astonished. And then Ascanio, and his father as well, begged me to forgive him and take him back. I asked who the man was who was pleading on his behalf, and he told me it was his father. So after some further entreaty I said:

‘Since you’re his father, I shall take him back for your sake.’

Just afterwards, on 1 April 1537, resolved to leave Rome for France the next morning, Cellini’s Perugian assistant persuaded him to let him come too:

Ascanio, who was present when this took place, was almost in tears, and he began saying: ‘When you took me back I said I wanted to stay with you as long as I lived; and so I shall.’

I answered that I would not agree on any condition; and then the poor young lad started making his preparations to follow after me on foot. When I saw what he had decided to do I got a horse for him as well.

Towards the end of 1537, Cellini and Ascanio followed the French court to Lyons:

When we reached Lyons I fell ill, and my young Ascanio was attacked by the quartan fever: as a result I found myself growing sick of the French and of their court, and it seemed an eternity before I could be back in Rome.

Having returned to Rome, in 1538 Cellini was imprisoned by the Pope in the Castel Sant’ Angelo on a false accusation of theft:

Self-portrait of Cellini, ca. 1543

[...] my apprentice, Ascanio, used to visit the castle and bring me things to work on. […]

Meanwhile when my enemies saw that my workshop had been closed down not a day went past without their insulting and jeering at my servants and friends, who used to visit me in prison. On one of those occasions it happened that Ascanio, who was in the habit of coming to see me twice a day, asked me if he could have a jacket made for himself out of a blue satin cloak of my own that I never used: I had only once made use of it when I wore it in that procession. In reply I told him that neither the time nor the place was suitable for wearing such clothes. The young fellow was so hurt at my not giving him the wretched stuff that he said he wanted to go home to Tagliacozzo. I lost my temper and said that I would be glad to get rid of him; and he swore vehemently that he would never set eyes on me again. While we were arguing we were strolling round the keep of the castle. The castellan also happened to be taking a walk there, and when we ran into him Ascanio said:

‘I’m leaving you then – for ever!’

‘I hope you’re right,’ I replied, ‘and that it is for ever. I shall tell the guards never to let you in here again.’

Then I turned to the castellan and begged him urgently to order the guards never to let Ascanio through again.

‘My troubles are bad enough already,’ I said, ‘and this silly little peasant only comes to add to them: so I beg you, my lord, never let him in again.’

The castellan was very upset at this, because he knew that Ascanio was wonderfully talented, and besides this the young man was so handsome that it seemed impossible for anyone to set eyes on him without immediately being greatly attracted towards him. The young fellow went away with tears in his eyes. He was carrying with him the little scimitar that he sometimes wore hidden under his clothes.

As he left the castle, his face wet with tears, he ran into two of my worst enemies, the Perugian, Jeronimo, whom I’ve mentioned before, and a certain Michele: they were both goldsmiths. This Michele, who was a friend of that Perugian ruffian and an enemy of Ascanio’s, said:

‘What’s Ascanio crying for? Perhaps his father is dead? You know – his father is in the castle.’

‘He’s alive,’ shouted Ascanio, ‘but you’re going to die this instant.’

Then he lifted his hand and aimed two blows with the scimitar, straight at his head. The first knocked him down, and with the second, though he was aiming at his head, Ascanio cut three fingers off his right hand. He lay stretched out as if dead. The Pope was at once informed of what had happened, and he said in a terrible fury:

‘Since the King wants him to be tried, go and tell him he has three days to prepare his case.’

The Pope’s order was carried out at once; and then straight away that admirable castellan went along to the Pope and made it clear that I knew nothing of what had taken place, and that I had just driven Ascanio away. He defended me so skilfully that he averted that tremendous fury and saved my life. Ascanio fled home to Tagliacozzo, and from there he wrote to me begging forgiveness a thousand times, saying that he had been wrong to add to my troubles, but that if God allowed my release from prison he would never leave me again. I wrote back saying that he must carry on learning his trade, and that if God gave me my freedom I would certainly send for him.

Description of the City of Rome by Hugues Pinard, 1555

Soon after Cellini’s release from prison the next year, 1539:

I left Rome and made my way towards Tagliacozzo in the hope of finding my pupil, Ascanio, there; and when I arrived I found Ascanio himself, together with his father and brothers and sisters and stepmother. It is impossible to convey how well I was looked after and how affectionately they treated me. Then after two days I started back towards Rome, taking Ascanio with me. On the way we began discussing matters of art, with the result that I was burning to get back to the city and begin work again.

Staying in Siena on Good Friday 1540, Cellini was warned that the postmaster there intended violence against him:

I had also accustomed my young men to wear mail coats and sleeves and I had every confidence in the young Roman, who while we were in Rome had never, as far as I could see, left his off; while Ascanio, young as he was, also used to wear them.

The postmaster and his sons having then attacked Cellini, his Roman apprentice Pagolo, his friend Cherubino, Ascanio and their Milanese travelling companion, and wounded Pagolo and the Milanese:

Ascanio was well armed, and so unlike the Milanese he stood his ground. So he and Cherubino weren’t touched. As for me, I had clapped spurs to my horse and while I was galloping away I quickly prepared and loaded my gun; and then I turned back, almost choking with rage. I had been treating the matter as a joke, but now, I thought, it was time to take it seriously. Under the impression that my young lads had been killed I determined to die myself. But my horse had not galloped back far when I met them coming towards me and asked if they were hurt. Ascanio replied that Pagolo had been mortally wounded by a halberd.

Narkissos by Cellini, 1548 (Bargello, Florence)

‘Pagolo, my dear son,’ I said, ‘then the halberd pierced your coat of mail?’

‘No,’ he answered, ‘I packed it in my bag this morning.’

‘So coats of mail are worn in Rome to please the ladies, but when there’s danger and they have a purpose to serve they’re packed away? You deserve all you’ve got – and it’s your fault that I’m riding to my death as well.’

While I was saying this I continued to ride back recklessly along the road. Both he and Ascanio implored me for the love of God to save myself along with them, since I was certainly going to my death. Then I met Cherubino together with the wounded Milanese. He at once shouted out that no one had been hurt and that Pagolo had only been grazed, adding that the old postmaster lay dead, that his sons and a crowd of others were getting ready for us, and that we would certainly all be cut to pieces.

‘So Benvenuto,’ he cried, ‘seeing how fortune has saved us from the first storm, don’t tempt her again or she’ll desert us.’

‘If that’s how you want it,’ I replied, ‘I’m satisfied too.’

Then I turned to Pagolo and Ascanio and said: ‘Spur your horses on. We’ll ride to Staggia without stopping, then we’ll be safe.’

Already in France, late in 1540, Cellini told his patron, Cardinal Ippolito d’Este that he was leaving because the annual payment the Cardinal had arranged for him to receive from the King was grossly inadequate:

I arrived at my quarters and found Pagolo and Ascanio there. Seeing that I was upset they made me tell them what was wrong. Then, when I realized how dismayed they were, I said:

‘Tomorrow morning I shall give you more than enough money to get you home with ease. I shall go off by myself to see about some very important business that I’ve been meaning to attend to for a long time.’

Only one wall separated our room from the secretary’s, and it is quite likely that he wrote to the Cardinal telling him all I meant to do, though I never found out for certain.

I had a sleepless night, and it seemed an eternity before day came and I could carry out what I had resolved. At dawn I had the horses led out, prepared myself quickly, and gave the two young men all I had brought with me, and fifty gold ducats besides. I kept as much for myself, and also the diamond that the Duke had given me. I took only two shirts and the rather worn riding-clothes that I was wearing. But it was impossible to get away from my two young men, who were set on coming along with me no matter what happened. So I had to treat them harshly, saying:

by Ulisse Cambi, 1845

‘One of you has grown his first beard, and the other is just about to do so, and you’ve learnt from me as much of my poor art as I could teach you. As a result you’re the foremost young craftsmen of all Italy. Aren’t you ashamed you haven’t the courage to do without your leading-strings? It’s too pitiful for words. If I let you go without any money what would you say then? Now, be off with you – and God give you a thousand blessings. Good-bye!’

I turned my horse and rode off, leaving them with tears in their eyes.

Later that day, a company of horsemen approached Cellini from behind:

When they came nearer I recognized one of the King’s messengers, along with Ascanio; and when he caught up with me he said:

‘On the King’s orders you are to return to him without delay.’

I replied that he came from the Cardinal, and so for that reason I refused to come back. He answered that since I refused to yield to persuasion he had authority to call on the local people and get them to bind me like a prisoner. Ascanio as well began pleading with me as earnestly as he could, reminding me that once a man had been made a prisoner it was at least five years before the King would release him.

Discussing the youths in his service in France in around 1542:

The Italians I mentioned were, first and dearest, Ascanio, from a place called Tagliacozzo in the Kingdom of Naples; the other was a Roman of very low birth, called Pagolo, who didn’t know who his own father was. These two were the ones I had brought with me from Rome, and who had been living with me in Rome.

The next substantial reference to Ascanio is to his love affair with a girl in Paris in 1544. The remaining ones after that relate how in 1545 Cellini entrusted his goods and his workshop to Ascanio and Pagolo on leaving France with intent to return, but they treacherously tarnished his name with the King so that Cellini could not return and end their independence.

 

Gianna “Scorzone”

In 1543, while Cellini was still in France:

Then, as I wanted to put the finishing touches to my Fontainebleau which was already cast in bronze, and also to make a good job of the two Victories which were meant for the side angles in the half-circle of the door, I found myself a poor young girl, about fifteen years old. She was very beautifully formed, and rather swarthy. Since she was inclined to be wild, spoke very little, was swift in her movements, and had brooding eyes, all this led me to give her the name Scorzone;[6] her real name was Gianna. With the help of this delightful girl I finished the Fontainebleau to my satisfaction in bronze, as well as the two Victories for the door.

This young girl was untouched, and a virgin, and I got her pregnant. She bore me a daughter on the seventh of June, at the thirteenth hour of the day, 1544; and that was just the forty-fourth year of my own life.

 

Cencio Gambetta

In 1545, Cellini returned to Florence and began work on a statue of Perseus for the Duke, Cosimo de’ Medici:

The head of Cellini's statue of Perseus, 1545-54, for which Cencio was the model

I had only one or two little apprentice lads, one of whom was very pretty; he was the son of a prostitute called Gambetta. I used this boy as a model,[7] seeing that nature is the only book from which we can learn art.

[… Soon afterwards, the Duke’s majordomo determined to ruin Cellini]:

Anyhow, as I was saying, he was always on the look-out for some way of harming me, and after he had been unable to find any pretext for bringing an accusation against me he then thought up a way of achieving his end. He went along to the mother of my shopboy, Cencio[8], and the two of them – that dishonest whore Gambetta, and that villain of a pedagogue – plotted together to give me such a fright that I would pack my bags and go. Gambetta, using the methods of her own profession, followed in the wake of that mad, wicked schoolmaster of a majordomo, and they were also leagued with the chief constable (who was a certain Bolognese the Duke later on banished for this sort of behaviour).

Well, one Saturday evening, getting on for three hours after sunset, this Gambetta came to me with her son and told me that because of me she had kept him locked in for several days. I answered that she should not keep him shut up on my account; and, laughing at her prostitute’s tricks, I turned to the boy in her presence and said:

‘You know, Cencio, if I’ve done anything wrong with you.’

He said very tearfully, no.

Then the mother, shaking her head, said to the boy: ‘Ah, you little villain, then I don’t know what’s been going on?’

Then she turned to me and said that I should keep him hidden in my house, since the chief constable was looking for him and was determined to seize him if he was found outside, but would not touch him if he were in the house. I replied that my widowed sister with six pure little girls was in the house with me, and that I wanted no one else there. At this she said that the majordomo had given orders to the chief constable and that they would arrest me no matter what happened: but since I refused to take her son into the house, if I gave her a hundred crowns, she said, I needn’t worry any more, because the majordomo was such a close friend of hers that I could rest assured she would be able to make him do whatever she liked, provided I gave her the hundred crowns.

Cellini's statue of Perseus in the Loggia del Lanzi, Florence, 1545-54

By this time I had fallen into a tremendous rage and I shouted at her:

‘Get out of here, you shameless bitch. If it weren’t for my not wanting to cause a scandal and for the innocence of that unhappy boy you have there, I’d already have cut your throat with this dagger: I’ve put my hand to it two or three times already.’

With these words, and a good few nasty blows, I drove her and her son out of the house.

Then, after I had pondered on the wickedness and power of that evil pedagogue, I decided that the best thing would be to let that devilish business blow over; and so early next morning, having consigned to my sister some jewels and odd belongings worth nearly two thousand crowns, I mounted my horse and set off towards Venice, taking with me my friend Bernardino of Mugello.

[… Apparently only a few weeks later, anyway by now 1546] I set off towards Florence. Meanwhile the devilish business had come to a head, since I had written telling the great Duke all the circumstances that had led to my moving to Venice. He received me with his usual reserve and severity when, without making any fuss, I went to visit him. He acted coldly for a while, and then he turned to me pleasantly and asked where I had been. I replied that my heart had never strayed a finger’s breadth from his Most Illustrious Excellency although for certain understandable reasons I had been forced to let my body roam a little way. Then, unbending still more, he began to ask me about Venice, and so we chatted for a while. Then finally he said that I should get on with my work and that I should finish his Perseus. So I went happily back home, with a light heart, and brought comfort to my family, that is my sister and her six daughters.

 

Bandinelli’s accusation of sodomy

In 1547, Cellini was still working in Florence on commissions from Duke Cosimo, while the jealous rival sculptor, Baccio Bandinelli was constantly trying to blacken his name with the Duke:

One feast day or other I went along to the palace, after dinner, and arriving at the Clock Hall noticed that the door of the wardrobe was open. I approached nearer and then the Duke called out, greeting me pleasantly:

‘You’re welcome! Look at that little chest that the lord Stefano of Palestrina[9] has sent me as a present: open it and let’s see what it is.’

Cellini's marble Ganymede, 1540s

I opened it at once and said to the Duke: ‘My lord, it’s a statue in Greek marble, and it’s a splendid piece of work: I don’t remember ever having seen such a beautiful antique statue of a little boy, so beautifully fashioned. Let me make an offer to your Most Illustrious Excellency to restore it – the head and the arms and the feet. I’ll add an eagle so that we can christen it Ganymede. And although it’s not for me to patch up statues – the sort of work done by botchers, who still make a bad job of it – the craftsmanship of this great artist calls me to serve him.’

The Duke was tremendously delighted that the statue was so beautiful, and he asked me a multitude of questions, saying:

‘Tell me, my dear Benvenuto, exactly what is the achievement of this artist that makes you marvel so much?’

So then, as far as I could, I did my best to make the Duke appreciate such beauty, and the fine intelligence and rare style that it contained. I held forth on these things for a long time, all the more willingly as I knew how much his Excellency enjoyed my doing so.

While I was entertaining the Duke in this agreeable way a page happened to leave the wardrobe and, as he went out, Bandinello came in. When he saw him the Duke’s face clouded over and he said with an unfriendly expression: ‘What are you after?’

Bandinello, instead of replying at once, stared at the little chest where the statue was revealed and with his usual malignant laugh, shaking his head, he said, turning towards the Duke:

‘My lord, here you have one of those things I have so often mentioned to you. You see, those ancients knew nothing about anatomy, and as a result their works are full of errors.’

I remained silent, taking no notice of anything he was saying; in fact I had turned my back on him. As soon as the beast had finished his disagreeable babbling, the Duke said:

‘But Benvenuto, this completely contradicts what you have just been proving with so many beautiful arguments. Let’s hear you defend the statue a little.’

Self-portrait of Bartollomeo Bandinelli

In reply to this noble little speech of the Duke’s, so pleasantly made, I said:

‘My lord, your Most Illustrious Excellency must understand that Baccio Bandinello is thoroughly evil, and always has been. So no matter what he looks at, as soon as his disagreeable eyes catch sight of it, even though it’s of superlative quality it is at once turned to absolute evil. But for myself, being only drawn to what is good, I see things in a more wholesome way. So what I told your Illustrious Excellency about this extremely beautiful statue is the unblemished truth; and what Bandinello said about it reflects only the badness of his own nature.’

[Cellini went on to describe Bandinelli’s sculpture, Hercules and Cacus, in very disparaging terms….]

And then, seeing how the Duke and the others were looking, and outraged at their attitude and expressions, he let his insolence get the better of him, turned his foul, ugly face towards me and burst out: ‘Oh, keep quiet, you dirty sodomite!’

At that word the Duke frowned angrily, and the others tightened their lips and stared hard at him. In the face of this wicked insult I choked with fury, but instantly found the right answer and said:

‘You madman, you’re going too far. But I wish to God I did know how to indulge in such a noble practice: after all we read that Jove enjoyed it with Ganymede in paradise, and here on earth it is the practice of the greatest emperors and the greatest kings of the world. I’m an insignificant, humble man, I haven’t the means or the knowledge to meddle in such a marvellous matter.’

At this no one could restrain himself: the Duke and the others raised a great shout of laughter which shook the whole place. But for all that I took the incident jokingly, I can tell you, my kind readers, my heart was bursting at the thought that this man, the most filthy scoundrel ever born, was bold enough – in the presence of such a great prince – to hurl at me an insult of that kind. But, you know, it was the Duke, not me, whom he insulted. For if I had not been in such noble company I’d have struck him dead.

Cosimo I Duke of Florence by Agnolo Bronzino, 1544-45

When the filthy, ruffianly blockhead saw that those noblemen couldn’t stop laughing, in order to prevent their mocking him so much he began to change the subject.

 

[1] See the exhaustive study of this by Michael Rocke, Forbidden Friendships. Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence, (Oxford, 1996).

[2] As Rocke puts it (Forbidden Friendships, p. 139) ‘Of course, the presumed "homosexuality" of some Florentine artists and its possible neo-Platonic affinities have attracted a great deal of attention, both scholarly and popular. Although often interpreted in the anachronistic light of modern experience, the homoerotic inclinations (alleged or well confirmed) of Donatello, Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, Michelangelo, and Benvenuto Cellini are by now well known.’

[3] The wife and cousin of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (AD 121–80) notorious for her lust and beauty. [Translator’s note]

[4] In the last passage quoted here, Cellini significantly said of him and his other assistant, Pagolo, “One of you has grown his first beard, and the other is just about to do so, and you’ve learnt from me as much of my poor art as I could teach you. As a result you’re the foremost young craftsmen of all Italy. Aren’t you ashamed you haven’t the courage to do without your leading-strings?”. The next reference to Ascanio that is more than cursory is about his love affair with a girl.

[5] Ascanio de’ Mari, from Tagliacozzo, later followed Cellini to Paris where he stayed to become one of the court goldsmiths to Henri II. He married Costanza, a daughter of one of the della Robbia family. [Translator’s note]

[6] ‘Little serpent.’ [Translator’s note]

[7] Gambetta was a Margherita di Maria di Jacopo da Bologna who later, as Cellini reports (below) made against him an unsubstantiated accusation of having sodomized her son. [Translator’s note]

[8] Cencio was a diminutive of Vincenzo.

[9] Stefano Colonna (d. 1548), from one of the famous families providing condottieri to successive rulers. After a hectic career in the service of several powers, Colonna was appointed Lieutenant-General by Duke Cosimo in 1542. [Translator’s note]