Benvenuto Cellini’s fame rests as much on his Autobiography as on his art. Begun in Florence in 1558, it is filled with court gossip, attacks on fellow artists, and accounts of Cellini’s often riotous life. It could take him months, even years, to complete a single commissioned work of art, for he faced many distractions. One of his most famous works, a great figure of Perseus (son of Zeus in Greek myth), took an especially long time, interrupted as it was by other commissions, difficult working conditions, poor workmanship by some assistants, and the death of his brother-in-law.
While the workshop for executing my Perseus was in building, I used to work in a ground-floor room. Here I modelled the statue in plaster, giving it the same dimensions as the bronze was meant to have, and intending to cast it from this mould. But finding that it would take rather long to carry it out in this way, I resolved upon another expedient, especially as now a wretched little studio had been erected, brick on brick, so miserably built that the mere recollection of it gives me pain. So then I began the figure of Medusa, and constructed the skeleton in iron. Afterwards I put on the clay, and when that was modelled, baked it.
I had no assistants except some little shop boys, among whom was one of great beauty; he was the son of a prostitute called La Gambetta. I made use of the lad as a model, for the only books which teach this art are the natural human body. Meanwhile, as I could not do everything alone, I looked about for workmen in order to put the business quickly through; but I was unable to find any…
I set about to do my utmost by myself alone. The labour was enormous: I had to strain every muscle night and day; and just then the husband of my sister sickened, and died after a few days’ illness. He left my sister, still young, with six girls of all ages, on my hands….
So I went home with despair at heart to my unlucky Perseus, not without weeping…. At the end of three days news was brought to me that my only son had been smothered by his nurse, which gave me greater grief than I have ever had in my whole life. However, I knelt upon the ground, and, not without tears, returned thanks to God, as I was wont, exclaiming, “Lord, Thou gayest me the child, and Thou has taken him; for all Thy dealings I thank Thee with my whole heart.” This great sorrow went nigh to depriving me of reason; yet, according to my habit, I made a virtue of necessity, and adapted myself to circumstances as well as I was able… . Nevertheless, I felt convinced that when my Perseus was accomplished, all these trials would be turned to high felicity and glorious well-being.