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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Benvenuto Cellini

By Augustine Birrell (1850–1933)

From ‘Obiter Dicta’

WHAT a liar was Benvenuto Cellini!—who can believe a word he says? To hang a dog on his oath would be a judicial murder. Yet when we lay down his Memoirs and let our thoughts travel back to those far-off days he tells us of, there we see him standing, in bold relief, against the black sky of the past, the very man he was. Not more surely did he, with that rare skill of his, stamp the image of Clement VII. on the papal currency, than he did the impress of his own singular personality upon every word he spoke and every sentence he wrote.

We ought, of course, to hate him, but do we? A murderer he has written himself down. A liar he stands self-convicted of being. Were any one in the nether world bold enough to call him thief, it may be doubted whether Rhadamanthus would award him the damages for which we may be certain he would loudly clamor. Why do we not hate him? Listen to him:—

“Upon my uttering these words, there was a general outcry, the noblemen affirming that I promised too much. But one of them, who was a great philosopher, said in my favor, ‘From the admirable symmetry of shape and happy physiognomy of this young man, I venture to engage that he will perform all he promises, and more.’ The Pope replied, ‘I am of the same opinion’; then calling Trajano, his gentleman of the bedchamber, he ordered him to fetch me five hundred ducats.”

And so it always ended: suspicions, aroused most reasonably, allayed most unreasonably, and then—ducats. He deserved hanging, but he died in his bed. He wrote his own memoirs after a fashion that ought to have brought posthumous justice upon him, and made them a literary gibbet, on which he should swing, a creaking horror, for all time; but nothing of the sort has happened. The rascal is so symmetrical, and his physiognomy, as it gleams upon us through the centuries, so happy, that we cannot withhold our ducats, though we may accompany the gift with a shower of abuse.

This only proves the profundity of an observation made by Mr. Bagehot—a man who carried away into the next world more originality of thought than is now to be found in the Three Estates of the Realm. Whilst remarking upon the extraordinary reputation of the late Francis Horner and the trifling cost he was put to in supporting it, Mr. Bagehot said that it proved the advantage of “keeping an atmosphere.”

The common air of heaven sharpens men’s judgments. Poor Horner, but for that kept atmosphere of his always surrounding him, would have been bluntly asked “what he had done since he was breeched,” and in reply he could only have muttered something about the currency. As for our special rogue Cellini, the question would probably have assumed this shape: “Rascal, name the crime you have not committed, and account for the omission.”

But these awkward questions are not put to the lucky people who keep their own atmospheres. The critics, before they can get at them, have to step out of the every-day air, where only achievements count and the Decalogue still goes for something, into the kept atmosphere, which they have no sooner breathed than they begin to see things differently, and to measure the object thus surrounded with a tape of its own manufacture. Horner—poor, ugly, a man neither of words nor deeds—becomes one of our great men; a nation mourns his loss and erects his statue in the Abbey. Mr. Bagehot gives several instances of the same kind, but he does not mention Cellini, who is however in his own way an admirable example.

You open his book—a Pharisee of the Pharisees. Lying, indeed! Why, you hate prevarication. As for murder, your friends know you too well to mention the subject in your hearing, except in immediate connection with capital punishment. You are of course willing to make some allowance for Cellini’s time and place—the first half of the sixteenth century and Italy! “Yes,” you remark, “Cellini shall have strict justice at my hands.” So you say as you settle yourself in your chair and begin to read. We seem to hear the rascal laughing in his grave. His spirit breathes upon you from his book—peeps at you roguishly as you turn the pages. His atmosphere surrounds you; you smile when you ought to frown, chuckle when you should groan, and—oh, final triumph!—laugh aloud when, if you had a rag of principle left, you would fling the book into the fire. Your poor moral sense turns away with a sigh, and patiently awaits the conclusion of the second volume.

How cautiously does he begin, how gently does he win your ear by his seductive piety! I quote from Mr. Roscoe’s translation:—

“It is a duty incumbent on upright and credible men of all ranks, who have performed anything noble or praiseworthy, to record, in their own writing, the events of their lives; yet they should not commence this honorable task before they have passed their fortieth year. Such at least is my opinion now that I have completed my fifty-eighth year, and am settled in Florence, where, considering the numerous ills that constantly attend human life, I perceive that I have never before been so free from vexations and calamities, or possessed of so great a share of content and health as at this period. Looking back on some delightful and happy events of my life, and on many misfortunes so truly overwhelming that the appalling retrospect makes me wonder how I have reached this age in vigor and prosperity, through God’s goodness I have resolved to publish an account of my life; and … I must, in commencing my narrative, satisfy the public on some few points to which its curiosity is usually directed; the first of which is to ascertain whether a man is descended from a virtuous and ancient family…. I shall therefore now proceed to inform the reader how it pleased God that I should come into the world.”

So you read on page 1; what you read on page 191 is this:—

“Just after sunset, about eight o’clock, as this musqueteer stood at his door with his sword in his hand, when he had done supper, I with great address came close up to him with a long dagger, and gave him a violent back-handed stroke, which I aimed at his neck. He instantly turned round, and the blow, falling directly upon his left shoulder, broke the whole bone of it; upon which he dropped his sword, quite overcome by the pain, and took to his heels. I pursued, and in four steps came up with him, when, raising the dagger over his head, which he lowered down, I hit him exactly upon the nape of the neck. The weapon penetrated so deep that, though I made a great effort to recover it again, I found it impossible.”

So much for murder. Now for manslaughter, or rather Cellini’s notion of manslaughter.

“Pompeo entered an apothecary’s shop at the corner of the Chiavica, about some business, and stayed there for some time. I was told he had boasted of having bullied me, but it turned out a fatal adventure to him. Just as I arrived at that quarter he was coming out of the shop, and his bravoes, having made an opening, formed a circle round him. I thereupon clapped my hand to a sharp dagger, and having forced my way through the file of ruffians, laid hold of him by the throat, so quickly and with such presence of mind that there was not one of his friends could defend him. I pulled him towards me to give him a blow in front, but he turned his face about through excess of terror, so that I wounded him exactly under the ear; and upon repeating my blow, he fell down dead. It had never been my intention to kill him, but blows are not always under command.”

We must all feel that it would never have done to have begun with these passages; but long before the 191st page has been reached, Cellini has retreated into his own atmosphere, and the scales of justice have been hopelessly tampered with.

That such a man as this encountered suffering in the course of his life should be matter for satisfaction to every well-regulated mind; but somehow or other, you find yourself pitying the fellow as he narrates the hardships he endured in the Castle of St. Angelo. He is so symmetrical a rascal! Just hear him! listen to what he says well on in the second volume, after the little incidents already quoted:—

“Having at length recovered my strength and vigor, after I had composed myself and resumed my cheerfulness of mind, I continued to read my Bible, and so accustomed my eyes to that darkness, that though I was at first able to read only an hour and a half, I could at length read three hours. I then reflected on the wonderful power of the Almighty upon the hearts of simple men, who had carried their enthusiasm so far as to believe firmly that God would indulge them in all they wished for; and I promised myself the assistance of the Most High, as well through His mercy as on account of my innocence. Thus turning constantly to the Supreme Being, sometimes in prayer, sometimes in silent meditation on the divine goodness, I was totally engrossed by these heavenly reflections, and came to take such delight in pious meditations that I no longer thought of past misfortunes. On the contrary, I was all day long singing psalms and many other compositions of mine, in which I celebrated and praised the Deity.”

Thus torn from their context, these passages may seem to supply the best possible falsification of the previous statement that Cellini told the truth about himself. Judged by these passages alone, he may appear a hypocrite of an unusually odious description. But it is only necessary to read his book to dispel that notion. He tells lies about other people; he repeats long conversations, sounding his own praises, during which, as his own narrative shows, he was not present; he exaggerates his own exploits, his sufferings—even, it may be, his crimes: but when we lay down his book, we feel we are saying good-by to a man whom we know.

He has introduced himself to us, and though doubtless we prefer saints to sinners, we may be forgiven for liking the company of a live rogue better than that of the lay-figures and empty clock-cases labeled with distinguished names, who are to be found doing duty for men in the works of our standard historians. What would we not give to know Julius Cæsar one-half as well as we know this outrageous rascal? The saints of the earth, too, how shadowy they are! Which of them do we really know? Excepting one or two ancient and modern Quietists, there is hardly one amongst the whole number who being dead yet speaketh. Their memoirs far too often only reveal to us a hazy something, certainly not recognizable as a man. This is generally the fault of their editors, who, though men themselves, confine their editorial duties to going up and down the diaries and papers of the departed saint, and obliterating all human touches. This they do for the “better prevention of scandals”; and one cannot deny that they attain their end, though they pay dearly for it.

I shall never forget the start I gave when, on reading some old book about India, I came across an after-dinner jest of Henry Martyn’s. The thought of Henry Martyn laughing over the walnuts and the wine was almost, as Robert Browning’s unknown painter says, “too wildly dear;” and to this day I cannot help thinking that there must be a mistake somewhere.

To return to Cellini, and to conclude. On laying down his Memoirs, let us be careful to recall our banished moral sense, and make peace with her, by passing a final judgment on this desperate sinner; which perhaps after all, we cannot do better than by employing language of his own concerning a monk, a fellow-prisoner of his, who never, so far as appears, murdered anybody, but of whom Cellini none the less felt himself entitled to say:—

“I admired his shining qualities, but his odious vices I freely censured and held in abhorrence.”