The story is loosely based on the memoirs of the Florentine sculptor Benvenuto Cellini. The opera is technically very challenging and rarely performed, and is not part of the standard operatic repertoire. However, the overture to the opera features in symphony orchestra programs, as well as the concert overture Le carnaval romain that Berlioz composed from material in the opera. Ora Frishberg Saloman has discussed in detail the opera's characterisation of the historical figure of Cellini.
In 1834, Berlioz, de Wailly and Barbier devised a libretto in the opéra comique style, with spoken dialogue. However, the Paris Opéra-Comique company rejected it. The story was then reworked into more "conventional" opera format, without spoken dialogue. With actual composition starting in 1836, the opera was first performed at the Paris Opera on September 10, 1838, conducted by François Habeneck, and with Gilbert Duprez in the title role. At its premiere, the audience, disturbed by the radical new opera, rioted, and the musicians branded the work as impossible to play.
In 1851, Franz Liszt offered to revive the opera in a new production (and version) in Weimar, and suggested changes to the score to Berlioz. This version was performed in Weimar in 1852, where the title role was sung by Karl Beck, the same tenor who had created Wagner's Lohengrin in 1850, also under Liszt; and whose vocal powers were continuing to exhibit the same decline as was apparent two years earlier.
It was also performed in London in 1853. However, the London reception was poor. The final performances of the opera in Berlioz's lifetime were in Weimar in 1856, this time without Karl Beck, who had now retired from singing.
In 1856, the vocal score of the Weimar edition was published in Germany. A French publication of the Weimar version vocal score appeared in 1863 from Choudens. Thomasin La May has examined the Weimar edition of the opera. In 1996, a critical edition of the opera, edited by Hugh Macdonald, was published by Bärenreiter Verlag, as part of the New Berlioz Edition. The critical edition takes into account all of the available editions:
- the original version as Berlioz composed it, before changes demanded by the censors
- the version premiered in Paris, with the changes after evaluation by the censors
- the Weimar edition, after the changes suggested by Liszt.