The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini

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Benvenuto Cellini (1500- 1571) was an extraordinary personality. As a goldsmith, a warrior, a musician and a writer, he certainly did not lack skills. But I shall refer to him as Benvenuto, Mister Welcome. He was named so after a wait of eighteen years by his parents, but if he becomes congenial to us also it is because after reading his memoirs one feels so much closer to him. He started writing his Life at the age of fifty-eight but he ended it abruptly, for unknown reasons, about five years later. It was not his death that halted it.

To situate Benvenuto well and clearly in his times it is apt to remember that he was an exact contemporary of the Emperor Charles V but died at an older age (by about twenty three years). This will help in realizing that the Emperor together with this dialectical nemesis, the King of France Francis I, changed the map of forces in the Italian peninsula. Milan, Florence, Rome, Naples gravitated around these two foreign monarchs during a good part of the sixteenth century.

Following his peripatetic life we see that he witnessed it all. Benvenuto welcomed and embraced his age in all its expansion and destruction. He was there in the middle of the imbroglio and he played not just the flute, but also a part in the determinant political and artistic events. With his bloody and treasured metals and precious stones he served the Medici pope, Clement VII. During the Sack of Rome, Benvenuto, from the tower of Sant'Angelo and while melting the pope's jewels from the Apostolic Camera to save the gold, shot with his falconet the very Prince of Orange. He had also served the attacker, Charles V, with his exquisite creations, but claimed to have killed one of his militant arms, the Duke of Bourbon. Later he served Francis I, and his lover the Duchesse d'Étampes. He leaves us a disparaged and amusing image of this woman, while he left in Fontainebleau some of his preciosities. Amongst others, he had managed to convince the French Monarch of the beauty of his Salt Cellar, the Saliera, one of Benvenuto's most famous concoctions and which previous patrons had failed to realize its exquisiteness.

He served Duke Alessandro de Medici, and his version of Lorenzaccio, the cousin who killed the Duke, is not like the romanticized interpretation of the Romantic Alfred de Musset, who got the inspiration of his play during his romance with George Sand. Indeed, Benvenuto is the source of the revelation (gossip) for historians that this Medici was the illegitimate son of the Pope Clement. Benvenuto also served the Grand Duke of the Medici, Cosimo the First who was not the first of the Medici Cosimos. Whirling in this court, in which the Duchess Eleanor of Toledo gave free rein to her addiction to luxury, was a fruitful (and dangerous) enterprise.

Reading this biography one cannot believe one's eyes and that this book actually exists and how lucky we are to have it. It is such a treat to handle a primary source that is as enthralling and entertaining and action-packed as a novel by Dumas père. For a reader now, familiar with the uncanny tricks of Modernism, Benvenuto's visions and accounts of miracles seem almost a parody of Dante and his Paradiso. This version however, instead of ecstasy, elicits merriment. For a reader now, his occasional bloody brutality can only seem repugnant. But we have to remember that for a man of his period, to walk around with one's sword hanging from the belt or the dagger concealed in the leg was as necessary for positioning oneself in the world as it is for us now to carry a mobile phone. For a reader now, his views of women can also repel, but for a reader now, his views of young men would seem liberating.

For his boasted life was full of all kinds of arts, the art of the precious object and the stunning sculpture; the art of promoting himself (is there a more effective practice of representation); the art of killing the enemy or the art of defending one's life. And in no life as in Benvenuto's do we see so ironically how metals and precious stones can be so dangerous. Like a cat of many lives he survived, amongst other attempts, one in which he was made to swallow pulverized diamonds.

Dante's Contrapasso or sculptural Contrapposto shake hands in these memoirs.

His views on art and craftsmanship are fascinating too. He grew artistically under the shadow of his master Michelangelo, but he vilified Bandinelli. He was then clairvoyant, for it seems that Florentines now disparage over the presence of the latter's Hercules and Cacus in the Piazza della Signoria. But most important, we have to be aware of the rarity of having a direct account on the difficulty in the actual making of some of the art works whose existence we take for granted. We follow with great suspense when Benvenuto finally casts out his Perseus with a similar triumphal gesture as that displayed by his creation. Perseus holds out the severed head of the Medusa. Benvenuto held out his Perseus for posterity to behold.

But to me it was his layers of humour, with his insistent persistence on the veracity of his claims, that have made some of his quotes so memorable:

.. Without further provocation he retorted that I was a donkey; whereupon I said that he was not speaking the truth; that I was a better man than he in every respect, but that if he kept on irritating me I would give him harder kicks than any donkey could.
In this account, and thanks to the electrifying conductivity of Cellini's life written out of the materials he handled so well, we have been bequeathed with a scintillating conduit to the first half of the 16C in Italy.

Violent Metals - Precious Life. Precious Metals - Violent Life.

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