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

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Benvenuto Cellini (1500–1571)

AMONG the three or four best autobiographies of the world’s literature, the ‘Memoirs’ of Benvenuto Cellini are unique as the self-delineation of the most versatile of craftsmen, a bizarre genius, and a typical exponent of the brilliant period of the later Italian Renaissance. As a record of the ways of living and modes of thinking of that fascinating epoch, they are more lively and interesting than history, more entertaining, if more true to fact, than a romance. As one of his Italian critics, Baretti, put it:—“The life of Benvenuto Cellini, written by himself in the pure and unsophisticated idiom of the Florentine people, surpasses every book in our literature for the delight it affords the reader.” This is high praise for the product of a literature that boasts of Boccaccio’s ‘Decameron,’ and gave birth to the novelle, the parent of modern fiction. Yet the critics of other nations have echoed this praise. Auguste Comte, the positivist philosopher, included it in his limited list for the reading of reformed humanity, and Goethe, laying aside his own creative work, deemed it worth his time and attention to translate into German.

Benvenuto Cellini was born at Florence in 1500. The father, Giovanni Cellini, a musician and maker of musical instruments, intended that the boy should likewise become a musician; but young Benvenuto very early showed strong leaning toward the plastic art, and detested the flute he was forced to practice. The first chapters of the ‘Memoirs’ are a most lively description of the struggles between the wishes of the father and those of the son, until the latter finally prevailed, and at fifteen years of age he was apprenticed to a goldsmith of Florence. He made rapid progress, and soon attracted notice as a skilled craftsman. At the same time, to please his father, toward whom he everywhere professes the most filial feeling, he continued “that confounded flute-playing” as a side issue. This accomplishment, however, did him a good turn at the Papal court later on. After various youthful escapades, street broils, and quarrels with his father, he fled in monk’s disguise to Rome in 1521. A vase made for the Bishop of Salamanca drew upon him the notice of Pope Clement VII., who appointed him court musician and also employed him in his proper profession of goldsmith. When the Constable de Bourbon attacked Rome, in 1527, Cellini was of great service to the Pope in defending the city. He boasts of having from the ramparts shot the Bourbon; and indeed, if one were to take him strictly at his word, his valor and skill as an engineer saved the castle of San Angelo and the Pope. However his lively imagination may have overrated his own importance, yet it is certain that his military exploit paved the way for his return to Florence, where for a time he devoted himself to the execution of bronze medals and coins. The most famous of the former are Hercules and the Nemean Lion, and Atlas supporting the world.

On the elevation of Paul III. to the Papacy we again find Cellini at Rome, working for the Pope and other eminent people. His extraordinary abilities brought him not only into the notice of the courts, but also drew him into the brilliant literary and artistic society of the Eternal City. With unrivaled vividness he flashes before us in a few bold strokes the artists of the decadent Renaissance, the pupils of Raphael, led by Giulio Romano, with their worship of every form of physical beauty and their lack of elevation of thought. In consequence of the plottings of his implacable enemy, Pier Luigi, natural son of Paul III., he was arrested on the charge of having during the sack of Rome embezzled Pontifical gold and jewels to the amount of eighty thousand ducats. Though the charge was groundless, he was committed to the castle of San Angelo. His escape is narrated in one of the most thrilling chapters of the ‘Memoirs.’ He went in hiding to the Cardinal Cornaro, but was delivered up again to the Pope by an act of most characteristic sixteenth-century Italian policy, and was cast into a loathsome underground dungeon of the castle. It was damp, swarming with vermin, and for two hours of the day only received light through a little aperture. Here he languished for many months, with only the chronicles of Giovanni Billani and an Italian Bible to solace him. Now at last his recklessness and bravado forsook him. He took on the airs of a saint, gave himself up to mysticism, grew delirious and had his famous visions—angels visiting him, who talked with him about religion.

In 1539 he was finally released at the intercession of the cardinal Ippolito d’Este, who came from France to invite him to enter the King’s service. Cellini’s account of his residence in France has great historic value as throwing vivid side-lights on that interesting period in the development of French social life, when Francis I. was laying the foundation of the court society which was later on brought to perfection by Louis XIV. Cellini was one among that crowd of Italian artists gathered at the court in Paris and Versailles, whose culture was to refine the manners of the French warrior barons. He worked for five years at Fontainebleau and in Paris. Among his works there, still extant, are a pair of huge silver candelabra, the gates of Fontainebleau, and a nymph in bronze, reposing among trophies of the chase, now in the Louvre. Among other marks of royal favor he was presented with a castle, Le Petit Nesle. His efforts to gain possession of this grant are among the amusing episodes of his narrative.

He had as usual numerous quarrels, and falling into disfavor with Madame d’Estampes, the King’s favorite, he suddenly left Paris and returned alone to Florence. The remainder of his life he passed mainly in the service of Duke Cosimo de’ Medici. The chapters of his narrative dealing with this portion give a most vivid picture of artist life at an Italian court in the sixteenth century. To this third and last period belongs the work on which his fame as sculptor rests, the bronze Perseus holding the head of Medusa, completed in 1554 and still standing in the Loggia de’ Lanzi in Florence. It is a typical monument of the Renaissance, and was received with universal applause by all Italy. Odes and sonnets in Italian, Greek, and Latin were written in its praise. His minute description of its casting, and of his many trials during that process, are among the most interesting passages of the narrative.

In 1558 he began to write his memoirs, dictating them for the greater part to an amanuensis; and he carried them down to the year 1562. The events of the remaining nine years of his life are to be gathered from contemporary documents. In 1558 he received the tonsure and first ecclesiastical orders, but married two years later, and died in 1571. He was buried with great pomp in the Church of the Annunciata in Florence.

Besides his ‘Memoirs’ he also wrote treatises on the goldsmith’s art and on sculpture, with especial reference to bronze-founding. They are of great value as manuals of the craftsmanship of the Renaissance, and excellent specimens of good Italian style as applied to technical exposition. And like all cultivated artists of his time Cellini also tried his hand at poetry; but his lack of technical training as a writer comes out even more in his verse than in his prose. The life of Benvenuto was one of incessant activity, laying hold of the whole domain of the plastic arts: of restless wanderings from place to place; and of rash deeds of violence. He lived to the full the life of his age, in all its glory and all its recklessness. As the most famous goldsmith of his time, he worked for all the great personages of the day, and put himself on a footing of familiar acquaintance with popes and princes. As an artist he came into contact with all the phases of Italian society, since a passion for external beauty was at that time the heritage of the Italian people, and art bodied forth the innermost life of the period. Furniture, plate, and personal adornments were not turned out wholesale by machinery as they are to-day, but engaged the individual attention of the most skilled craftsmen. The memory and the traditions of Raphael Sanzio were still cherished by his pupils when Cellini first came to Rome into the brilliant circle of Giulio Romano and his friends; Michelangelo’s frescoes were studied with rapturous admiration by the young Benvenuto, and later on he proudly recorded some words of praise of the mighty genius whom he worshiped; and at this time, too, Titian and Tintoretto set the heart of Venice aglow with the splendor and color of their marvelous canvases. The contemporary though not the peer of those masters of the brush and the chisel, Cellini, endowed with a keen feeling for beauty, a dexterous hand, and a lively imagination, in his versatility reached out toward a wider sphere of activity, and laid hold of life at more points, than they.

He reflected the Renaissance, not merely on its higher artistic aspect, but he touched it also on its lower darker levels of brute passion, coarseness, and vindictiveness. He had more than one murder to his account, and he did not slur over them in his narrative, for in his make-up the bravo was equally prominent with the artist. Yet we must remember that homicides were of common occurrence in those days, defended by casuists and condoned by the Church. Avenging one’s honor, or punishing an insult with the dagger, were as much a social custom as the adornment of the body with exquisitely wrought fabrics and jewelry. But just because Cellini was so thoroughly awake to all the influences about him, and so entirely bent on living his life, his ‘Memoirs’ are perennially fresh and attractive. They are the plain unvarnished annals of a career extraordinary even in that age of uncommon experiences; they were written, as he says, because “all men of whatever quality they be, who have done anything of excellence, or which may properly resemble excellence, ought, if they are persons of truth and honesty, to describe their life with their own hand; but they ought not to attempt so fine an enterprise till they have passed the age of forty.”

Cellini was past fifty-eight when he began writing, and going back to his earliest boyhood, he set down the facts of his long career as he remembered them. Of course he is the hero who recounts his own story, and like all heroes of romance he plays the leading part, is always in the right, and comes out handsomely in the end. Carping critics who tax him with lack of truth in dealing with his enemies, and with pleading his own cause too well, are apt to forget that he wrote long after the events were past, and that to an ever-active imagination ruminating over bygone happenings, facts become unconsciously colored to assume the hue the mind wishes them to have. Yet the fidelity and accuracy of his memory are remarkable, and his faculty for seeing, combined with his dramatic way of putting things most vividly, flashes before our eyes the scenes he recounts. He does not describe much; he indicates a characteristic feature, habit, or attitude; as for example, in referring to a man he disliked, as having “long spidery hands and a shrill gnat-like voice”—all that is needed to make us see the man from Cellini’s point of view. Again, he adds much to the vivacity of the narrative by reporting conversation as a dialogue, even if he has it himself at second-hand. So in his trenchant, nervous manner this keen observer, while aiming to recount only the facts of his own life and to set himself on a becoming pedestal in the eyes of posterity, gives us at the same time flash-lights of the whole period in which he played a part. Popes Clement VII. and Paul III., Cosimo de’ Medici and his Duchess, the King of France and Madame d’Estampes, cardinals, nobles, princes, and courtiers, artists of every description, burghers and the common folk,—all with whom he came in contact,—are brought before us in a living pageant. Looking back over his checkered career, he lives his intense life over again, and because he himself saw so vividly at the time, he makes us see now. We have here invaluable pictures, by an eye-witness and actor, of the sack of Rome, the plague and siege of Florence, the pomp of Charles V. at Rome. He withdraws the curtains from the Papal policies and court intrigues, not with a view to writing history, but because he happened to have some relations with those princes and wished to tell us about them. Again, he was no critic of the manners of his time, yet he presents most faithful pictures of artist life in Rome, Paris, and Florence. He was not given to introspection and self-criticism, but he describes himself as well as others, not by analysis but by deeds and words. He had no literary training; he wrote as he talked, and gained his effect by simplicity.

He was recognized as the first goldsmith of his time; yet as a man also his contemporaries speak well of him, for he embodied the virtues of his age, while his morals did not fall below the average code of the Renaissance. Vasari says:—“He always showed himself a man of great spirit and veracity; bold, active, enterprising, and formidable to his enemies; a man, in short, who knew as well how to speak with princes as to exert himself in his art.”

J. A. Symonds, that inspiring student of the Italian Renaissance, sums up his impressions of the book and the man as follows:—

  • “I am confident that every one who may have curiously studied Italian history and letters will pronounce this book to be at one and the same time the most perfect extant monument of vernacular Tuscan prose, and also the most complete and lively source of information we possess regarding manners, customs, ways of feeling, and modes of acting, in the Court. Those who have made themselves thoroughly familiar with Cellini’s Memoirs possess the substance of that many-sided epoch in the form of an epitome. It is the first book which a student of the Italian Renaissance should handle in order to obtain the right direction for his more minute researches. It is the last book to which he should return at the close of his exploratory voyages. At the commencement he will find it invaluable for placing him at the exactly proper point of view. At the end he will find it no less invaluable for testing and verifying the conclusion he has drawn from various sources and a wide circumference of learning. From the pages of this book the genius of the Renaissance, incarnate in a single personality, leans forth and speaks to us. Nowhere else, to my mind, do we find the full character of the epoch so authentically stamped. That is because this is no work of art or of reflection, but the plain utterance of a man who lived the whole life of his age, who felt its thirst for glory, who shared its adoration of the beautiful, who blent its paganism and its superstition, who represented its two main aspects of exquisite sensibility to form and almost brutal ruffianism. We must not expect from Cellini the finest, highest, purest accents of the Renaissance…. For students of that age he is at once more and less than his contemporaries: less, inasmuch as he distinguished himself by no stupendous intellectual qualities; more, inasmuch as he occupied a larger sphere than each of them singly. He was the first goldsmith of his time, an adequate sculptor, a restless traveler, an indefatigable workman, a Bohemian of the purest water, a turbulent bravo, a courtier and companion of princes; finally, a Florentine who used his native idiom with incomparable vivacity of style.”