Cellini, Benvenuto (1500–1571)

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Benvenuto Cellini, Renaissance artist, author of a famous autobiography, and perhaps the most famous goldsmith in history, added coinage to the lists of arts he practiced. He won praise from popes and political figures for the beauty of his coins and his writing on the techniques of coinage. His work and reputation aided the spread of advanced techniques of coinage to the rest of Europe.

Cellini, notorious for a boastful and self-confident disposition, tells a story in his autobiography of how newly elected Pope Paul III sought him out to strike coins for the mint at Rome. After receiving word of a murder charge lodged against Cellini, the pope, not to be discouraged, ordered that Cellini be given safe conduct to Rome. When a friend of the murdered man objected, saying, “In the first days of your papacy it were not well to grant pardons of this kind.” The pope answered: “You know less about such matters than I do. Know then that men like Benvenuto, unique in their profession, stand above the law, and how far more he, then, who received the provocation that I have heard of” (Cellini, 1931).

During the Renaissance a passion for beauty made itself felt in the practice of coinage as it had never been felt before. Before this episode with Pope Paul III, Cellini had served a stint as stamp master of the mint during the papacy of Clement VII. He tells a delightful story of how he landed the position at the mint:

So I went off, and very quickly made two dies of steel; then I stamped a coin in gold, and one Sunday after dinner took the coin and the dies to the Pope, who, when he saw the piece, was astonished and greatly gratified, not only because my work pleased him excessively, but also because of the rapidity with which I had performed it. For the further satisfaction and amazement of his Holiness, I had brought with me all the old coins which in former times had been made by those able men who served Popes Giulio and Leo; and when I noticed that mine pleased him far better, I drew forth from my bosom a patent, in which I prayed for the post of stamp-master of the Mint. The Pope took my patent and handed it to the Datary, telling him to lose no time in dispatching the business. The Datary began to put it in his pocket, saying: “Most blessed Father, Your Holiness ought not to go so fast; these are matters that deserve some reflection.” To this the Pope replied: “I have heard what you have to say; give me here the patent.” He took it, and signed it at once with his own hand; then, giving it back, added: “Now, you have no answer left; see that you dispatch it at once, for this is my pleasure; and Benvenuto’s shoes are worth more than the eyes of all other blockheads.”

(Cellini, 1931)

Cellini wrote treatises on goldsmithing and sculpture, translated into English as The Treatises of Benevenuto Cellini on Goldsmithing and Sculpture. Chapter XIV of the work, entitled “How to Make Steel Dies for Stamping Coins,” describes some of the coins that Cellini struck. One coin had the head of the pope on one side and on the other side it had “St. Peter, just the moment after he has plunged into the sea at the call of Christ, and Christ stretches out his hand to him in the most pleasing wise” (Cellini, 1967).

Cellini traveled to Paris, where he struck medals for Francis I, king of France, and transmitted his techniques for stamping medals and coins to France, from which it passed to the other capitals of Europe.