Cellini Insults a Great Lady

From one of the world’s great books: The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini

Cellini’s great statue of Perseus in the Piazza della Signoria, Florence (public domain photo by Jrousso)

Benvenuto Cellini, goldsmith and sculptor, gets invited to France by its very king, Francis I, who gives him the commission for a colossal statue of Jupiter. This is Cellini’s funny report of the royal visit to his workshop:

“I told [King Francis] all I had been doing, and he was at once seized by a strong desire to have a look at the work. So after dinner he set out with Madame d’Étampes, the Cardinal of Lorraine, and several other lords including the King of Navarre (the King’s brother-in-law), and the Queen, Francis’s sister, as well as the Dauphin and the Dauphiness.  So that day all the flower of the court came to visit me.

King Francis and Madame d’Étampes visit Cellini in his workshop–an illustration by Comte (photo by Roger-Viollet)

“Meanwhile I had returned home and began working. When the King appeared at the door of my castle he heard the hammers going, and ordered everyone to keep quiet. Everyone in the shop was hard at it and as a result, not expecting the King, I was taken by surprise. He entered my hall, and the first thing he saw was me myself, standing there working on a great piece of silver, which I was using for the body of the Jupiter [the colossal figure commissioned by King Francis]. One man was beating out the head and another the legs, and the noise was deafening. While I was working I had a little French lad of mine helping me: he had annoyed me in some way or another and so I had given him a kick, and, as luck had it, catching him in the crutch I had sent him hurtling forward a few good yards. So as the King came in the little lad clung to him to keep his balance.

“His Majesty burst out laughing, while I stood there, dumbfounded. Then the King began to ask me what I was doing, and wanted me to go on working…”                   

Autobiography, Benvenuto Cellini, Penguin Classics, 1976, translated by George Bull, p.260

A medallion by Cellini with a portrait of King Francis I ( Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license photo by Sailko)

The King declares he has never been so pleased with an artist and calls him “mon ami” (my friend), a singular honor.  However, Cellini soon ruins his good fortune at court by inadvertently slighting the King’s mistress, Madame d’Étampes. And then by pointedly insulting her.
Here is what happened:

Hearing King Francis praise Benvenuto, Madame asks him to have Benvenuto create a beautiful fountain for the castle at Fountainebleau. Francis jumps at the idea and orders Cellini to get started on a model. “We must remember to do something great for this fine artist,” the King tells Madame d’Étampes. “I shall remind you,” she says.

After a few weeks, when he returns to Paris after a trip, the King hurries to see the model, unaccompanied this time by Madame d’Étampes. Cellini, who has everything ready, gives the King a detailed explanation of the model and the meaning of all its parts, and makes Francis almost delirious with delight. However…

“As my bad luck had it I was not warned to play the same act before Madame d’Étampes; and that evening, after she had learned from the King’s own mouth all that had happened, such poisonous anger accumulated in her breast that she burst out: ‘If Benvenuto had shown me his fine works of art he would have given me cause to remember him when the time comes.’
The King tried to make excuses for me, but it was useless. I heard about all this a fortnight later…”

And now the worst happens:

“So I took the beautiful little vase that I had made at Madame d’Étampes’ request, thinking that by giving it to her I would recover her favour.  I went to see one of her nurses, bringing the vase with me.
“I showed her the beautiful vase that I had made for her mistress, and explained that I meant to give it to her. She welcomed me with extraordinary kindness and said that she would have a word with Madame, who was not yet dressed, and that as soon as she had spoken to her I would be admitted. The nurse told Madame everything, and she replied contemptuously: ‘Tell him to wait.’

Madame d’Étampes (Anne de Pisselieu) by François Clouet (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license photo)

“When I heard this I submitted with a good grace—a thing I find very difficult—and waited patiently until after her dinner-time. Then, seeing how late it was, my hunger made me so angry that I could not endure it any longer and went away, devoutly saying to myself that she could go and rot. I went to the Cardinal of Lorraine and gave him the vase as a present…”

                                                             Autobiography, Benvenuto Cellini, Penguin Classics, 1976, translated by George Bull, p.272




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