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To please his old father, Cellini did not discontinue his musical studies, and became for a time a member of Pope Clement's band of musicians, but all his energies were given to the goldsmith's art. He became "unique in his profession" (Pope Paul III). He began his studies under Marcone and Francesco Salimbene in Florence, and continued them at Rome under Giovanni, called "Il Firenzuola", with whom he quarrelled, choosing, later, Pagolo Arsago as a master. With Arsago he remained two years and then went back to Florence and his old master Salimbene. He wrote treatises on the goldsmith's art, sculpture, and bronze-casting; he composed verses, and acquired world-wide fame by his minute and lengthy autobiography. In his "Life" he shows himself, with intense reality of self-delineation, to be a vain and boastful man, and while the style is simple, even plebeian, there abound dramatic movement and Florentine wit, which make the book "more amusing than any novel" (Walpole). This wonderful romance has great historical value, and sixteenth-century Rome and Florence are therein vividly portrayed. Goethe translated it into German.
Cellini was a soldier, and did yeoman duty at the sack of Rome in 1527; it was claimed he aimed the gun that killed the enemies' leader, Constable Bourbon. Accused of stealing the Church's funds, Cellini was arrested and imprisoned in the Castle of Sant' Angelo from 1537 until 1539, when he made his escape. After his recapture he was treated with a harshness out of all proportion to the crime. Indeed, the evidence distinctly pointed to his innocence, and in 1540 the pope granted him a full pardon. Cellini was admitted to the Florentine nobility in 1554. Without pledging himself to enter into religion, he took the first tonsure in 1558, but gave up his aspirations to the priesthood two years later. At the age of sixty-four he married Piers, daughter of Salvadore Parigi who, with a son and daughter, survived him. In 1564 occurred the obsequies of Michelangelo, and, with Ammanati, Cellini represented Sculpture in the funeral procession. Beset with many worries and physical ills he died, and was buried with public honors in the church of the Annunziata, an oration being then delivered "praising him for his life and work". He was a man of sincere faith and, as he says, "took all his difficulties to God".
Cellini's marvellous work in precious metals made him famous throughout Europe. His services in gold, his flagons, rings, and jewels exhibit the highest skill, the perfection of execution, and the widest range of invention. Cellini made the dies for the mints of Pope Paul III and Pope Clement VII, and designed the coins for Duke Alessandro de' Medici of Florence. Everything minted under his direction attained the highest artistic excellence. And, too, his work in alto-rilievo was as fine as that in basso-rilievo. His small figures in gold are beautiful, a morse for Pope Clement's cope, on which the figure of God the Father surmounts a diamond, surrounded by a group of cherubs, and a foil for the pope's diamond being two of his greatest achievements. If there be any fault in his productions, it is a tendency to be luxuriant.
In 1540 Cardinal Ferrara, his benefactor, who obtained his release from prison, took Cellini to Paris, to the Court of Francis I. Here he made a colossal statue of Mars and a silver Jupiter. He began casting life-size and gigantic figures in bronze, and was supremely successful. He consummated his career in 1545, when he returned to Florence to model and cast in bronze for Cosimo de' Medici, the famous "Perseus". The sturdy demi-god, with tense muscles, stands firmly, holding aloft in his left hand the head of Medusa, his right tightly gripping a short sword. His calmly triumphant gaze rests on the torso prostrate beneath his foot. In the wax model the body of Perseus is not so short and thick, and his limbs are not as coarse as in the finished bronze. The casting of this celebrated statue, which is still in Florence, was the acme of technical dexterity, "the metal filling the mould from the head of Medusa to the foot of Perseus". Cellini's last important work was the crucifix in white marble presented to Philip II of Spain by the Duke of Florence, and now in the Escorial. Among his other works still preserved are a golden salt-cellar (Vienna) and a shield, elaborately wrought (Windsor Castle).