I have just spent the past week in the remarkable – if exhausting – company of the great Renaissance artist, Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571). Though many of the great Renaissance masters were equally famous for writing as well as the fine arts – Leonardo with his notebooks, Michelangelo with his sonnets, Vasari with his biographies – perhaps the great literary achievement of them all was Cellini with the story of his own life.
Cellini was a master goldsmith, creating many beautiful works of jewelry and coins, as well as being quite a formidable draftsman. But such work was often relegated to the realm of mere craftsmanship, and Cellini wished to create heroic sculptures, much like his mentor and artistic hero, Michelangelo.
Cellini would realize his ambition when he cast the heroic bronze figure Perseus with the Head of Medusa for the Duke Cosimo de Medici (see above), an undertaking that is vividly brought to life in his autobiography. Other works – including medallions, rings and busts -- have been lost to time, mostly because of their ephemeral nature, and also because the precious metals involved were often melted down and refashioned for other purposes.
But even if Cellini’s artistic works did not survive, he would still be vividly remembered today for his autobiography, arguably one of the most important (and vivid and bawdy and violent) documents to survive that remarkable era. There are several excellent translations, and perhaps the most poetic and decorous is that of Renaissance scholar and poet John Addington Symonds (1840-1893). Symonds, translating for a Victorian audience, was often unable to recreate Cellini’s earthy language. If you want all the “dirt,” I heartily recommend the translation by Peter and Julia Conaway Bondanella, available through Oxford World’s Classics.
Why has a week with Cellini left your correspondent exhausted? Well, imagine if you would, a Renaissance artist with a taste for swordplay, court intrigue, whoring, young boys, young girls, street brawling, litigation, illegitimate children, attempted homicide, and endless self-aggrandizing. Think of a murderous Errol Flynn on speed, and you get the idea. If he were alive today, he’d be the darling of the New York art scene.
Cellini’s story also has a curious circular quality – he will find the protection of an important patron (the Pope, the French King, a Medici), do everything he could to make himself impossible, and then end up once again on the run. He never seemed to learn from his past mistakes, and always portrayed himself as a victim. Here is a taste of Cellini, courtesy of the Bondanella translation:
I had no sooner dismounted when one of those fine people who take delight in uncovering evil came to tell me that Pagolo Micceri had taken a house for that little whore of a Caterina [his former girlfriend]and her mother, that he went there continually, and that in speaking about me he always said, with scorn: “Benvenuto set the geese to guard the lettuce, and he thought I wouldn’t eat it; it’s enough that he now goes around acting brave and believing that I’m afraid of him: I have strapped on this sword and this dagger by my side to give him to understand that my sword cuts too, and that I’m a Florentine just like him, from the Micceri family, a much better family than his Cellinis.” The scoundrel who brought me this story told it so effectively that I immediately felt a fever coming on – and I mean a real fever, not a figure of speech. And since I might have died from such a bestial passion, I found a remedy by giving it the outlet such an opportunity had afforded me, just as I wished. I told my worker from Ferrara, who was called Chioccia, to come with me, and I had my horse brought behind me by the servant, and when I reached the house where this spiteful man was living, I found the door half-closed and went inside. I saw that he had his sword and dagger by his side, and that he was sitting on a chest with his arm around Caterina’s neck. I had hardly arrived when I heard him joking with her mother about my affairs. I pushed in the door, and at the same time I put my hand to my sword and placed its point at his throat, not giving him time even to think about the fact that he had a sword too, and all at once I said: “Vile coward, commend yourself to God, for you are a dead man!” Paralyzed, he cried out three times: “Oh, Mother, help me!” I wanted to murder him no matter what, but when I heard his silly cries half of my anger left me. Meanwhile, I had told my workman Chioccia not to allow either Caterina or her mother to leave, for once I had attended to him, I wanted to do equal harm to these two whores.
No wonder Oscar Wilde found the rough men of the Wild West enamored of Cellini’s exploits. Cellini inspired a wonderful book by Alexandre Dumas, pere, an opera by Berlioz, movies and plays. But he also stands as an important reminder that the hand that crafts beautiful things is not always connected to a noble heart, and that the most gifted artist can also be the most loathsome human being.