Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Renaissance Man, Narcissist, Psychopath: The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini

“Though I know the angry words that passed between them I shall not report them, as I am not meant to be writing history. I shall concern myself only with my own affairs.”
--Benvenuto Cellini

“He's the greatest man his profession has ever known.”
Pope Clement VII on Cellini (allegedly)

One of the great godfathers of the memoir genre is arguably Benvenuto Cellini, a Florentine polymath of the High Renaissance, who penned his life story over five years between 1558 and 1563 when the sculptor was in his early sixties. No doubt one of the inspirations for the autobiography was to present his side of the story, a defense of lifestyle anticipating whatever disagreeable remembrances his many enemies (legion in numbers) might put down in writing. Though Cellini does his very best to portray himself as, at best, a respected genius, and at worst, a wronged innocent, he does admit to various offenses, most especially cold-blooded murder and hot-blooded sodomy. He is alternately lucid, pious, vain, psychotic, pretentious, delusional, and self-pitying. Somehow he is consistently charming despite being a prodigious name-dropper, an untiring braggart, and a master of invective and disrespect. But mostly his story regards the life of the artist and how, just as in the present day, it was incredibly difficult to be fairly compensated for commissioned work, even when your patrons were popes, kings, and dukes.

Cellini was born in Florence in 1500. Establishing his reputation early on as a talented goldsmith, he had ambitions for Rome, but a scandal involving the murder of an adversary expedited his departure from his native city. Cellini came of age when the Medicis of Florence were the most powerful family in Italy, and one of their own was Pope Clement VII. He gushed over Cellini's work and trusted him with his jewels and the defense of Rome when Spanish Imperialists sacked the city in 1527. Cellini turned out to be a talented soldier, as he has us believe he single-handedly saved the city from greater ruin by killing both The Duke of Bourbon and the Prince of Orange with his sharpshooting. Later, under a new papal chief, Pope Paul III, he would be imprisoned, but manage to escape in spectacular fashion. Leaving Rome persona non grata, his talents would flourish in the court of Fontainebleu under the patronage of King Francis I. His self-destructive tendencies never waning, Cellini was eventually chased out of Paris in a cloud of intrigue. Returning home, he worked for Cosimo I de Medici, the Duke of Florence, where he thrived and struggled, and less than a decade after completing his autobiography, died of pleurisy at the age of 71.

Cosimo de Medici, autocrat, Cellini's great patron in Florence in his later years

Cellini's prose style is jocular and conversational, almost as if he had dictated his life story to a scribe while busy designing the duke's profile on a silver coin. Of course, this being an autobiography, Cellini freely edits the story due the priorities of self-aggrandizement. Despite this, the narrative flows rather well, though unpleasant episodes are left out (most conspicuously absent were his imprisonments in his fifties for assault and sodomy). But Cellini is selling us an archetype of an artist (that when circumstances necessitate, makes both love and war), who doesn't trifle with (in his estimation) trivial details: “There was a suitable opportunity for me to speak of my daughter here, and I did so in order not to distract from other, more important matters. I shall say nothing more of her till the proper time.” In the instance when Cellini's parents die of the plague he doesn't remark or mourn their passing. Nevertheless, he waxes poetically on the mutual admiration he and his contemporary Michelangelo share, indulges us in his experiments in black magic with a necromancer, and describes in detail both times he was poisoned by his adversaries. And then there is his time in prison, where like so many before and after him, he finds salvation in God, and discovers in himself a halo of beatification: “From the time I had my vision till now, a light-- a brilliant splendor-- has rested above my head, and has been clearly seen by those very few men I have wanted to show it to.” And from finding and loving God, he then makes his famous prison break, the narrative never missing a beat.

What makes Cellini's prose such a delightful read are his prejudices, his asides, his brusqueness. He is a first-rate raconteur in the Italian tradition. Cellini on his courtship of a lady: “We had a very agreeable talk together, and it wasn't about things you can buy in a shop.” Cellini stereotyping: “I left Naples at night, with the money on my person, in case I fell victim to the usual Neapolitan custom and was attacked and murdered.” Cellini hot-tempered: “I was advised to seek redress by legal means, though my immediate impulse was to cut his arm off.” Cellini quoting the King of France: “I am certain that such beautiful work was never known to the ancients: I well remember having seen all the best works done by the finest craftsmen of all Italy, but I never saw any that moved me more than this.” Cellini traveling in the countryside: “It was an enjoyable journey, save for an incident near La Palice, when a band of robbers, the Adventurers, tried to murder us. But we fought them off boldly, and pushed on to Paris. We arrived there safely, singing and laughing all the way and not meeting the slightest accident.” Cellini describing a ploy of his French enemies: “They planned to have their revenge on me and they consulted a Norman lawyer, who advised them that she should say I had used her in the Italian fashion, that is to say, unnaturally, like a sodomite.” And Cellini insulting a rival artist and his rendition of a model of Hercules: “ can't be sure whether his face is that of a man or a cross between a lion and an ox; that it's not looking the right way; and that it's badly joined to the neck, so clumsily and unskillfully that nothing worse has ever been seen; and that his ugly shoulders are like the two pommels of an ass's pack-saddle; that his breasts and the rest of his muscles aren't based on a man's but are copied from a great sack full of melons...”

One of Cellini's great works, Perseus holding the head of Medusa

Taking offense at another sculptor's grandstanding, Cellini quipped, “Outstanding artists act as such, and brilliant men who create good and beautiful works of art are shown in a much better light when others praise them than when they praise themselves so confidently.” Very agreeable but a bit rich, of course, when the speaker seems to embellish his received accolades. But this is Cellini's story and so we should take him at his word because to repudiate the lavish praise is to doubt all the strange and horrible misadventures too. In the end, he is clearly a narcissistic psychopath, but a charming one, and so with the blood spilled long since washed away, we mostly forgive him. While mostly overlooked as one of the great Renaissance sculptors, Cellini's autobiography, almost five centuries later, remains a literary classic. No doubt his ghost, whether it be in heaven, hell, or lurking somewhere in the halls of Florence's splendid palace museums, is not displeased with this good turn in posterity.

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