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Cellini, Benvenuto (1500-1571)  

Sculptor, goldsmith, memoirist, and flamboyant , Benvenuto Cellini is one of the greatest artists in the history of Western art. He was the ultimate--that is to say, the last--Renaissance artist, for the free exploration and celebration of the sensual (particularly the ) that inspired his genius and was a hallmark of Renaissance Florentine culture were soon aborted.

Benvenuto Cellini was born in Florence at the peak of the Italian Renaissance. Apprenticed to a goldsmith, he excelled in that art. In fact, he was so successful that he was called upon to fulfill major commissions throughout Italy and France. Indeed, he traveled so much that until he was forty-five years old, he never lived longer than five years in any one place.

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The reasons for his sometimes abrupt departures ranged from political upheavals and plague to outbursts of temperament, including murder. His contemporary Vasari described him as "spirited, proud, vigorous, most resolute, and truly terrible."

At nineteen, Cellini went to Rome, where over the years he worked for Popes Clement VII and Paul III, for whom he made jeweled ornaments, coins, and medallions. In 1536, he traveled to France, where he made the famous salt-cellar for King François I and sculpted decorations for the palace at Fontainebleau.

In 1545, Cellini returned to Florence, where he lived the rest of his life. Florence was notorious in the Renaissance as "Sodom City": in German slang, "Florenzer" meant "." In the late fifteenth century, one in two Florentine men had come to the attention of the authorities on suspicion of sodomy by the time they were thirty.

In 1432, the "Office of the Night" was created to eliminate sodomy, but after seventy years it was disbanded as the task was deemed hopeless. About ninety percent of the cases reported involved boys under the age of eighteen. Sexual activity between men and boys was an integral feature of Florentine culture in the sixteenth century.

Cellini himself was convicted of homosexual sodomy in Florence in 1523 and in 1557. He was prosecuted but absolved of charges of heterosexual sodomy in France.

In Florence, Cellini was supported by his appreciative patron Duke Cosimo I de'Medici. Cosimo's first commission was for a large bronze Perseus holding Medusa's severed head. This magnificent nude figure in the Piazza della Signoria is a gay icon for its depiction of a beautiful young man.

Cellini's subsequent works, including the marble statues of Ganymede and the Eagle, Narcissus, and Apollo and Hyacinth are particularly appealing to men who love boys. In Ganymede and the Eagle, the young Trojan boy lovingly ruffles the neck feathers of his seducer, while in Apollo and Hyacinth, the mature Apollo ruffles the tousled curls of an expectantly receptive Hyacinth, on his knees at the god's feet.

The homoerotic spirit that nourished Cellini's art was soon to be crushed in Florence. In response to the Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Trent (1545-1563) adopted policies designed to make the Church even more austere than the Protestants. It also embarked on a campaign to crush heresy.

It established the Index of Prohibited Books and it proscribed carnality in art. In 1559, Pope Paul IV ordered draperies painted on the nudes in Michelangelo's Last Judgment. The Council's decrees were enthusiastically enforced through the sadistic power of the Inquisition.

In this context, Cellini was convicted of sexual relations with a young man in 1557 and sentenced to four years in prison. Thanks to the intervention of Duke Cosimo, the sentence was commuted to four years' house arrest.

During his years of house arrest, Cellini attempted to rehabilitate his reputation. Not only did he devote himself to religious art (including a deeply religious marble crucifix), but he also took minor holy orders and fathered a son in 1560 by his servant Piera, whom he married in 1563. They subsequently produced three more children.

Most importantly, however, during his period of house arrest, Cellini began his celebrated Vita. In this autobiography, the artist recounts his acquaintanceships with princes and popes and his great achievements as sculptor and goldsmith, while disavowing, with wounded innocence, his reputation as a pederast.

He implies that he is a ladies' man, but cannot resist bragging that once he took his apprentice Diego in drag to a party of artists and their whores. The boy was voted the most beautiful prostitute in Florence, which nearly caused a riot when one of the girls groped Diego and discovered the truth of his sex.

Although the Vita attempts to present an appearance of orthodox morality and fails to mention Cellini's gay affairs or his convictions for sodomy, it nevertheless repays interest for its homosexual content. Especially significant in this context is Chapter 71 of Book Two, which may be read as a defense of sodomy, that "noble practice" indulged in by "the greatest emperors and the greatest kings of the world."

Cellini says that he lacks the knowledge or means to meddle in the "noble practice," but he nevertheless commends it as "a marvelous matter." Whether these passages can be taken seriously or in jest is a matter of debate; certainly the context in which he was writing--under house arrest for having had sex with a young man--is an important consideration in interpreting the autobiography.

Douglas Blair Turnbaugh

     

 
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Top: A portrait of Benvenuto Cellini.
Above: Perseus by Cellini.

  
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   Related Entries
  
arts >> Overview:  European Art: Renaissance

The various cultural patterns, especially the conditions of artistic production and the types of subjects and themes represented, provide a great deal of evidence about Renaissance sexuality and art.

social sciences >> Overview:  Inquisition

In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the Inquisitions of Aragon and Portugal prosecuted almost 1500 trials for sodomy of various kinds.

social sciences >> Overview:  Roman Catholicism

Historically, the Roman Catholic Church may be the institution most responsible for the suffering of individuals involved in same-sex sexual relationships.

arts >> Overview:  Subjects of the Visual Arts: Ganymede

Since antiquity Ganymede, the beautiful Phrygian youth abducted by Jupiter, has served as an artistic expression for homosexuality.

arts >> Overview:  Subjects in the Visual Arts: Narcissus

Although the myth of Narcissus was originally intended as a moral fable against excessive pride, Narcissus has functioned in the arts as a symbol of same-sex passion, as well as of masturbation and effeminacy.

arts >> Michelangelo Buonarroti

The most famous artist who ever lived, Michelangelo left an enormous legacy in sculpture, painting, drawing, architecture, and poetry; while the artist's sexual behavior cannot be documented, the homoerotic character of his drawings, letters, and poetry is unmistakable.


    Bibliography
   

Cellini, Benvenuto. The Life of Benvenuto Cellini Written by Himself. John Addington Symonds, trans. John Pope Hennessy, intro. and illus. London: Phaidon Press, 1949.

Rocke, Michael. Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Saslow, James. Ganymede in the Renaissance: Homosexuality in Art and Society. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Turnbaugh, Douglas Blair  
    Entry Title: Cellini, Benvenuto  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated September 4, 2006  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/arts/cellini_b.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  
 

 

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