The King and the Craftsman

Few works of art are as closely linked to history as the gold salt cellar commissioned by Francis I of France in 1541 from the Florentine goldsmith and sculptor, Benvenuto Cellini. Its theft three years ago from an Austrian art gallery is a major loss to world heritage as Robert Knecht explains.

About 4 am on Sunday May 11th, 2003, thieves broke into the Kunsthistorischesmuseum in Vienna and carried off one of the greatest treasures produced by the Italian Renaissance: the gold salt cellar made by Benvenuto Cellini for the French king, Francis I. Although the theft caused a stir in the Austrian capital, it received scant attention in the British press. The theft of  Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ from the gallery in Oslo attracted far more attention, as did the theft of Leonardo’s ‘Madonna of the Yarnwinder’ from Drumlanrig castle, yet it can be argued that the salt cellar is an infinitely greater loss on account of its uniqueness. It was almost the only surviving work made by Cellini during his stay in France. It has been described as ‘one of the finest and most characteristic achievements of its period in any medium’.


Cellini, Florentine goldsmith and sculptor (1500-71), occupies a special place among the artists who worked at the court of Francis I (1515-47) on account not only of the works that he produced, but also of the immensely readable autobiography that he dictated mostly between 1558 and 1562. That said, Cellini was a dreadful man: boastful, greedy, jealous, hot-tempered, violent, and promiscuous. Murders, fights and daring escapes filled his life. He it was who broke the nose of the sculptor Torrigiano, who, more famously, broke Michelangelo’s nose. ‘One day’, writes Cellini

... he [Torrigiano] provoked me so much that I lost my temper more than usual, and, clenching my fist, gave him such a punch on the nose that I felt the bone and cartilege crush like a biscuit. So that fellow will carry my signature till he dies.

An incident, which occurred to Cellini and a friend as they travelled from Venice to Florence, is typical of the man. Offended by an inn-keeper, who asked for payment in advance, Cellini decided  to teach him a lesson:

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