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The Life of Benvenuto Cellini

By  Edward J. Lowell

[Editor's Note:  The following article by Edward J. Lowell summarizes the enigmatic life of the accomplished Renaissance goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini.  The article was prompted by the publication of John Symonds' translation of Cellini's fascinating autobiography in 1889.

This article first appeared in the May, 1889 issue of Scribner's Magazine.]

The autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini may well be considered one of the masterpieces of general literature.  It is worthy to be named with Don Quixote,  or the Confessions of Rousseau.  The book,  however,  is not fit for all readers.  In Benvenuto's day the refined young lady and her excellent instructress,  who stand as salutary restraints before the eyes of the modern writer,  were quite unheard of.  The pen of Cellini is as free as his sword was ready,  or his chisel skilful.  A good deal of this freedom comes from the nature of the man,  a good deal from the license of the times.

The importance and interest of the autobiography,  in spite of all its faults,  are intrinsic.  Although the book receives some reflected glory from the artistic works of the author,  they borrow far more from it.  The place of Cellini among artists is peculiar.  He is first,  and most characteristically,  a goldsmith; indeed,  he is the most famous goldsmith that ever lived.  As a sculptor he occupies a far inferior place.  Yet,  if the reader will try to recall the principal works of Benvenuto,  he will probably find that the first that comes to his mind is the statue of Perseus,  and that he has some difficulty in remembering any authentic and important piece of jeweller's work.  It is well remarked by Mr.  Symonds,  in the introduction to the excellent translation which he has recently given us,  that artists who aspire to immortality should shun the precious metals.  The magnificent golden salt-cellar made for Francis I.,  and now at Vienna,  a few coins and seals,  are all the certain remnants of what was done in gold and silver by the best known of goldsmiths.  What other of the numerous objects attributed to him in this line really come from his hand,  who now shall say? It were too long to inquire here how the artistic works of a given time and place,  although done by different men,  come to have in common a style which is almost unmistakable to the expert,  and which presents almost insuperable difficulties to the forger of later date.  As a sculptor,  Benevenuto still proves himself a goldsmith.  He shows his training in his exquisite finish,  in his love of detail.  The pedestal of the Perseus,  with its bass-relief and its four little statues,  is admirable jewellery.  The Perseus himself,  that beautiful naked dandy,  standing elegantly on the writhing corpse of the slain monster,  and posing with exquisite grace while he holds up the bleeding head,  is goldsmith's work rather than great sculpture.  Contrast him for a moment with that other young warrior,  the large-handed peasant boy with his sling,  whom Benvenuto's master,  the great Michael Angelo,  had placed just across the street from where Perseus is set up.  Grim and solemn,  with the lankness of youth and the fervor of genius,  with the scowl of combat still on his brows,  young David stood alone,  though gazed on by all.  Opposite him Perseus,  too heavy and thick of limb and body,  yet light and airy in general effect,  awaits and invites the spectator.  What statue has been more fortunate in its place? The portico of the Lanzi filled,  but not crowded with the works of great artists.  The noble palace of the Signory towers on the left.  We catch a glimpse of the broad passage which forms a courtyard for the Uffizi.  Here is the central point of view for the Renaissance.  Here is the heart of Florence.

It is on the Perseus that Benvenuto's fame as a sculptor rests.  His other large works are comparatively insignificant.  With two spirited busts,  the graceful nymph of Fontainebleau,  now in the Louvre,  a crucifix in Spain,  the restored Ganymede of the Uffizi,  and a little bronze bass-relief of a dog,  the catalogue of his existing statues is ended.  It has been his good fortune to live in men's memory as a sculptor through his best work alone,  and to have that placed where no one that would be interested by it could fail to see it.

If the name Benvenuto Cellini is more to the world than that of a remarkable goldsmith and clever sculptor,  it is so on account of his autobiography.  This book gives him his personality in men's minds.  To write a good life of himself a man should be egotistical,  and none was ever more so than he.  Egotism is not necessarily associated with vanity,  but Benvenuto was childishly vain,  and outrageously conceited.  Praise is the meat he lives on,  and the dish cannot be over seasoned.  When he has never made a statue of life size,  he believes himself quite capable of equaling the best antique work.  He is always in the right,  and all who cross him,  and do not believe in his consummate ability,  are vile intriguers.  That he should call them "beasts" (his favorite expression),  that he should abuse and threaten them,  is only to be expected.  His enemies are lucky if he does not proceed from words to blows.  No one is so high as to escape his maledictions.  Popes,  cardinals,  princes,  are impartially objurgated.  His fellow-artists,  as is natural,  come in for a large share of his abuse.  He can speak generously of a rival's work if it please him,  and if the man has done nothing to offend his sensitive vanity; but we feel that no one can long be with him without exciting the distrust of his suspicious mind.

In spite of Benvenuto's quarrelsome nature,  there is a largeness,  a magnificence about him,  which we cannot help liking.  He is greatly boastful,  always ready to believe the best and the most extraordinary things of himself,  but not consciously untruthful.  He is guilty of many crimes,  some of them base enough,  but there is nothing small or cowardly about him,  and his very meannesses are done in a grand manner.  He commits murders,  but he carries his life in his hand.  His book,  with its downright,  exaggerated story,  bears us impetuously along.  The society of the sixteenth century lives around us as we turn his pages.  Popes and goldsmiths,  princes and painters,  cardinals,  and courtesans are jostling one another.  They love and practise the fine arts as no men and women of modern times have done.  They murder and intrigue.  They live in cities full of palaces,  glowing within and glorious without from the brushes and chisels of great masters; cities reeking with filth,  so that the plaque carries off its victims by thousands in a month.  Shops and clothes shine with gems and wrought gold,  while thieves and murderers walk the streets,  and rich men hire companies of cut-throats to protect them when times of especial disturbance are expected.  The pope,  Paul III,  has been in prison for forgery in his youth,  and when Benvenuto is lying sick in the Vatican he is warned by a cardinal,  a friend of his,  not to eat food provided for him from the papal kitchen,  for fear of poison; so his Eminence sends provisions to his Holiness's guest from his own house.  Painters and goldsmiths are gratified with pensions and sinecures; or are not paid for their wares,  as the case may happen.  Thus Sebastian "del Piombo," because he can paint pictures,  is given the office of affixing leaden seals to papal briefs,  for which service he gets more than eight hundred crowns a year,  and spends the rest of his life "scratching his paunch" in idleness.  Benvenuto had applied for the same place,  but has to content himself with that of papal mace-bearer,  whose function it is to walk before the pope in processions,  but from the labor of the place he is excused.  On the other hand,  the Bishop of Salamanca,  when our goldsmith refused to give up a vase he had made unless he were paid for it,  threatened to make mince-meat of him,  so that the largest piece left should be his ears.

Benvenuto was engaged in endless brawls and scuffles.  He confesses to three homicides in the course of his memoirs,  without counting lives taken in war,  but it was by good luck that the number was not more than doubled.  When irritated he is overcome by a blind fury,  and is more like a Malay running amuck than like a civilized man of the modern pattern.  He leaves Florence and takes up his residence in Rome in consequence of a quarrel in which he has used his dagger freely.  Such matters blow over in a little time,  but it is well to keep out of the way of the magistrates for a few days.  In the Eternal City he soon has both work and quarrels on his hands in plenty.  After a while comes the sack of Rome by the Spaniards,  and Benvenuto turns soldier.  He believes that it was his bullet that killed the Constable de Bourbon one foggy morning.  There appears to be no doubt that he wounded the Prince of Orange.  Besieged with Pope Clement VII in the castle of St.  Angelo,  he had charge of five guns,  and performed some extraordinary feat every day.  On one occasion his cannon-ball cut a Spanish captain "in two fair halves." The pope,  who was standing by,  derived great pleasure and amazement from the sight.  "Upon my bended knees,  I then besought him," says Benvenuto,  "to give me the pardon of his blessing for that homicide,  and for all the others I had committed in the castle in the service of the Church.  Thereat,  the pope,  raising his hand and making a large open sign of the cross upon my face,  told me that he blessed me,  and that he gave me pardon for all murders I had ever perpetrated,  or should ever perpetrate,  in the service of the Apostolic Church.  When I left him,  I went aloft,  and never stayed firing to the utmost of my power; and few were the shots of mine that missed their mark."

After the siege,  when things had got back to their normal conditions of irregular ruffianism,  Benvenuto resumed the practice of his art.  He had a younger brother,  a soldier in the service of Duke Alessandro de Medici.  This brother was killed in a scuffle with the city guard,  by an arquebusier whom he was attacking with his sword.  The young man's death filled Benvenuto with grief,  so that the pope noticed it,  and remonstrated with him on his want of philosophy.  " I took," says Cellini,  " to watching the arquebusier as though he had been a girl I was in love with.  The man had formerly been in the light cavalry,  but afterward had joined the arquebusiers as one of the Bargello's corporals; and what increased my rage was that he had used these boastful words: 'If it had not been for me,  who killed that brave young man,  the least trifle of delay would have resulted in his putting us all to flight with great disaster.' When I saw that the fever caused by always seeing him about was depriving me of sleep and appetite,  and was bringing me by degrees to sorry plight,  I overcame my repugnance to so low and not quite praiseworthy an enterprise,  and made my mind up one evening to rid myself of the torment.  The fellow lived in a house near a place called Torre Sanguigna,  next door to the lodging of one of the most fashionable courtesans in Rome,  named Signora Antea.  It had just struck twenty-four,  and he was standing at the house-door,  with his sword in hand,  having risen from supper.  With great address I stole up to him,  holding a large Pistojan dagger,  and dealt him a back-handed stroke,  with which I meant to cut his head clean off; but as he turned round very suddenly,  the blow fell upon the point of his left shoulder and broke the bone.  He sprang up,  dropped his sword,  half-stunned with the great pain,  and took flight.  I followed after,  and in four steps caught him up,  when I lifted my dagger above his head,  which he was holding very low,  and hit him in the back exactly at the junction of the nape-bone and the neck.  The poniard entered this point so deep into the bone that,  though I used all my strength to pull it out,  I was not able.  For just at that moment four soldiers sprang out from Antea's lodging,  and obliged me to set hand to my own sword to defend my life.  Leaving the poniard,  then,  I made off,  and fearing I might be recognized,  took refuge in the palace of Duke Alessandro,  which was between Piazza Navona and the Rotunda.  On my arrival I asked to see the duke; who told me that,  if I was alone,  I need only keep quiet and have no further anxiety,  but go on working at the jewel which the pope had set his heart on,  and stay eight days indoors.  He gave this advice the more securely,  because the soldiers had now arrived who interrupted the completion of my deed; they held the dagger in their hand,  and were relating how the matter happened,  and the great trouble they had to pull the weapon from the neck and head-bone of the man,  whose name they did not know.  Just then Giovan Bandini came up,  and said to them: 'That poniard is mine,  and I lent it to Benvenuto,  who was bent on revenging his brother.' The soldiers were profuse in their expressions of regret at having interrupted me,  although my vengeance had been amply satisfied."

"More than eight days elapsed,  and the pope did not send for me according to his custom.  Afterwards he summoned me through his chamberlain,  the Bolognese nobleman I have already mentioned,  who let me,  in his own modest manner,  understand that his Holiness knew all,  but was very well inclined toward me,  and that I had only to mind my work and keep quiet.  When we reached the presence,  the pope cast so menacing a glance toward me that the mere look of his eyes made me tremble.  Afterward,  upon examining my work,  his countenance cleared,  and he began to praise me beyond measure,  saying that I had done a vast amount in a short time.  Then,  looking me straight in the face,  he added: 'Now that you are cured,  Benvenuto,  take heed how you live.' I,  who understood his meaning,  promised that I would.  Immediately upon this I opened a very fine shop in the Banchi,  opposite Raffaello,  and there I finished the jewel after the lapse of four months."

This way of treating murder on the part of the pope did not tend to discourage murderers.  Benvenuto's second successful exploit in that line,  however,  took place in the season of anarchy between the death of Clement VII and the election of Paul III.  The chronic turbulence of the times became acute on such occasions as this.  Pompeo,  a rival goldsmith,  took the opportunity of the general confusion to come with ten armed men and try to pick a quarrel with Cellini.  The latter controlled himself for a time,  being unwilling to have his own friends drawn into the difficulty.  Shortly afterward,  however,  he followed and came up with Pompeo,  broke through the line of his defenders,  and stabbed him twice with a dagger.  He says he had not meant to kill him.  Pompeo's bravi ran up to the corpse,  but took no steps to avenge their master; the whole flower of the young men of the neighborhood,  except the Milanese,  who were townsmen of Pompeo,  came crowding in to help to save the murderer at the risk of their lives; a cardinal offered his palace as a place of refuge; and the new pope,  when appealed to by friends of the murdered man,  calmly assured them that the provocation was great,  and that "men like Benvenuto,  unique in their profession,  stand above the law."

There is no doubt that Cellini,  on account of his value to princes as the first goldsmith of his day,  found his faults condoned with especial facility.  But the fact remains that life was very cheap,  and laws but little observed,  in the time of the Renaissance.  In France,  where he served King Francis I,  our goldsmith accuses the royal treasurer of detaining him until evening,  when counting out gold to him by the king's order,  so that he might be safely robbed on his way home.  Benvenuto's courage and presence of mind brought him safe out of the scrape.  In litigious France he did not escape lawsuits,  and his method of conducting them must have been discouraging to the adverse party.

"When certain decisions of the court were sent me by those lawyers,  and I perceived that my cause had been unjustly lost,  I had recourse for my defence to a great dagger which I carried; for I have always taken pleasure in keeping fine weapons.  The first man I attacked was the plaintiff who had sued me; and one evening I wounded him in the legs and arms so severly,  taking care,  however,  not to kill him,  that I deprived him of the use of both his legs.  Then I sought out the other fellow who had brought the suit,  and used him also in such wise that he dropped it."

We have dwelt hitherto on the darker sides of the picture; they but set the brighter in more strong relief.  Benvenuto Cellini was an artist through and through,  honestly,  frankly,  passionately devoted to his art.  From his early youth,  when he diligently drew after the paintings of Michael Angelo and Raphael,  to his mature years when he leaped from a bed of fever to pile oak-wood on the fire,  and to fling all his pewter plates into the melting-pot,  in order to stop the caking of the molten metal for his Perseus,  he was ready to spend energy,  health and what came harder for him,  patience,  freely for his art.  His autobiography is primarily in his own mind the story of his work.  To be a goldsmith and a sculptor was all his ambition,  and he believed himself,  not without reason,  to be the first goldsmith,  and not less than the second sculptor of his day.  His restless spirit and his quarrelsome disposition drove him from place to place,  but in every one his first desire was to be doing something excellent. 

As a friend and as a lover Benvenuto was not much to be relied on.  His suspicious nature and the warm enthusiasm with which he was absorbed in the interests of the moment were obstacles to fidelity.  As a son and brother he was kind and true.  It is sometimes a compensation for a suspicious disposition that its possessor turns with especial warmth to those who are so near and dear to him that he cannot suspect them of hostility.  During his father's life Benvenuto was kind and attentive,  writing and sending money frequently when away from home.  Although unwilling,  at his father's request,  so to force his own bent as to turn to music instead of sculpture for his life's work,  he endeavored to cultivate the distasteful art,  and was truly gratified by every opportunity to give his parent pleasure in this way.  It was largely for the sake of helping his sister and her six daughters that,  later in life,  he abandoned his brilliant position in the service of King Francis and returned to Florence.

That Benvenuto should have been an enthusiastic artist,  a good son,  a kind brother,  is not surprising.  That he should have been a religious man is far more strange.  His religion was not of the kind that is closely connected with morality,  but was a firm and ardent faith in God,  and a conviction that in the trials of this world the Almighty was on his side,  and although he might chasten,  would yet save him.  Of the saints and the Virgin we hear in the book but very little.  And Benvenuto would probably be astonished to hear us say that his faith did not bear ample fruit in his life.  In our well-ordered nineteenth century,  and with our less passionate northern blood,  we have come to look on murder and lust as among the blackest of crimes.  In sunny Italy,  at the time of the Renaissance,  it is clear that they were held but venial sins,  as hardness of heart and covetousness - vices quite as much balmed by Christ - as held by some people today.  We have seen how two different popes treated homicide,  and although neither of them may have been model rulers,  they were governed to some extent by the received notions of morality of their time.  Benvenuto considered himself a good man,  and,  according to the standards of his age,  was not a bad one.  The only act of dishonesty to which he owns in his memoirs was committed under strong provocation,  was confessed to the offended person and freely forgiven,  and was,  indeed,  one of those acts which to an impetuous mind might seem rather the taking of his own than the stealing of another's.  It is probable that Benvenuto's contemporaries would have pronounced him an honorable and manly fellow,  only a trifle hasty and violent.  That the man's religion was true and fervent there can be no doubt whatsoever.  It sustained him in misfortunes which might well have broken even so elastic a spirit as his.  It was clearly a part of the sustenance of his daily life.

In an age in which the supernatural received as full belief as the natural,  it would have been strange had so imaginative a man as Benvenuto Cellini not seen visions.  On two separate occasions,  at least,  did such a thing happen to him.  On one was displayed his reckless courage,  on the other his ardent faith.

In the first instance we find Benvenuto going to the Coliseum at night with a Sicilian priest,  who is a necromancer,  and two other companions.  The priest,  in his magic robes,  "describes circles on the earth with the finest ceremonies that can be imagined." Cellini and one of his companions had for their task to look after the fire and the perfumes.  This lasted more than an hour,  "when several legions appeared,  and the Coliseum was full of devils." On a second night,  after incantations carried on with "art more admirable and yet more wondrous ceremonies," the vision was repeated,  and "in a short space of time the Coliseum was full of a hundred-fold as many as had appeared on the first occasion." Benvenuto asked them to reunite him to a certain Sicilian woman from whom he had been separated,  and the necromancer replied that in the space of one month he would be with her.  The prediction was afterward fulfilled.

This apparition has been made a ground for doubting the veracity of Benvenuto.  But,  even if we reject the hypothesis suggested by Mr.  Symonds,  that the necromancer may have used a magic lantern,  there is hardly a limit to the effect that may be produced on an imaginative mind by a little simple trickery.  Cellini tells the tale simply as of something interesting indeed,  but not extraordinary.  His principal motive was curiosity.  It is observable that he does not refer to this attempt to consult the fiends as to something wicked on his part; and that in spite of its success he never repeats the experiment.

Benvenuto's second experience of the supernatural was still more characteristic of the man and of the time.  He had been long in prison; at first on an unjust accusation,  and when that had been disproved,  on account of the malice of the pope's bastard.  Having broken his leg in an attempt to escape,  he had been sent back to the castle St.  Angelo,  and confined to a noisome dungeon,  where,  under the previous pope,  a monk who had incurred the wrath of the pontiff had been starved to death.  After his long imprisonment,  worn in body,  and tormented in mind,  Benvenuto was in a state religious exaltation.  At last,  having prayed to see the sun once more,  he believed that he was vouchsafed a vision.  He saw the crowd of those that have been born,  and that have died upon the earth.  He saw the great sun in its glory,  and on its surface Christ upon the cross,  with the aspect of divine benignity.  Then the vision changed to the Madonna,  with the child in her arms,  sitting enthroned on high between two angels,  and before her St.  Peter kneeling and pleading the cause of Benvenuto.  Can we wonder at such an illusion at a time when the very dreams of delirium were held to have an actual reality? Can we wonder that one so favored should forever afterward have held himself to be an especial favorite with the powers above,  and should have seen in the sunlight shining about his shadow on the grass the suggestion of a saintly aureole?

Of the vivid light thrown by Benvenuto's book on many famous persons we have no space to speak.  Let the reader who loves to travel far from his own time and country to a world where much is strange,  much new; where the sordid and the brilliant,  the terrible and the gay succeed each other with bewildering rapidity,  turn,  with expectation at the straining-point,  to the Life of Benvenuto Cellini.  He will not be disappointed.

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