THE LITERARY WORK
An autobiography set in Italy and France from 1500 to 1562; written from 1558-66; published in Italian (as la Vita di Benvenuto Cellini) in 1728, in English in 1771.
Cellini recounts his adventures and artistic endeavors, as well as his relations with contemporaries. Endeavoring to reshape his image, he writes to explain his life’s work as an artist and, in a violence- and sex-charged memoir, to justify his character and behaviors.
A celebrated goldsmith, sculptor, and writer, Benvenuto Cellini (1500-71) memorialized his notorious life in one of the world’s earliest surviving autobiographies. He was born November 3, 1500, in Florence to Giovanni Cellini and Elisabetta Granacci. His father, a musician and instrument maker, wanted his son to follow in his footsteps, and for years Cellini struggled between complying and heeding his own artistic ambitions. Finally at about age 14, against his father’s will, Cellini became apprenticed to a goldsmith. Within months he rivaled the most skilled goldsmiths in the field. Shortly thereafter, in 1516, Cellini experienced the first of many encounters with the law when he violently defended his brother in an attack. Thereafter, Cellini was three times accused of sodomy and twice penalized for the offense. He went to work in the studio of the well-known goldsmith, Ulivieri della Chiostra, in Pisa until Cellini killed a man and his legal troubles resurfaced. Convicted of the crime, Cellini fled to Rome to escape the death sentence. He remained there from 1519-40, working for Popes Clement VII and Paul II and for the cardinal in Ferrara, on medals, seals, coins, jewelry, chalices, and more. Cellini behaved brazenly in Rome too; here he was imprisoned on the false charge of stealing jewels from the papal coffers. He finally left to work in France (1540-45) at the court of King Francis I, where he won international fame for the pieces he produced, including a saltcellar adorned with an image of the Greek god Zeus. His tenure in France did not pass without incident; he became embroiled in sexual scrapes there and angered the king’s mistress, Madame d’Etampes (Anne d’Heilly). Upon his return to Florence, Cellini began work for the Duke Cosimo de’ Medici, producing the bronze statue Perseus, which took nearly a decade (1545-54) to complete and won renown as his masterpiece.
After his conviction for sodomy in 1557, Cellini’s career as a sculptor faded and he concentrated on his writings—more than 100 sonnets, two art treatises (on goldsmithing and sculpture), his autobiography, which also took nearly a decade (1558-66) to complete, and more. Cellini ends his autobiography in 1562, the year he married Piera di Salvatore de’ Parigi, a servant with whom he had five children (only three lived to adulthood). Having contracted syphilis earlier in life and in poor health during his final years, Cellini died at the age of 70, respected even by his enemies. He was buried as he himself directed, amid great fanfare in the Church of the Annunziata. The artist Giorgio Vasari (who hated and was duly hated by Cellini) wrote of him as a man of great spirit and veracity—bold, active, enterprising, formidable, as his autobiography indicates. Both his life story and efforts at self-promotion were in keeping with cultural practices of the day, particularly with respect to questions of honor. The ideal citizen of the Renaissance has been described as “knightly … still concerned with honour and reputation … [harboring] a highly developed concern with appearances; with matters of personal affront and vindication” (Anglo, p. 3). Passionate as a man and an artist, Cellini easily lives up to this definition.
Cellini and the concept of honor
Many literary works during the Renaissance defined contemporary standards of behavior. Francesco Guicciardini (Ricordi, 1512) explained how to be the perfect citizen, Baldassarre Castiglione (The Book of the Courtier, 1528) how to be the perfect courtier, Niccolo Machiavelli (The Prince, 1529) how to be the perfect prince, and Della Casa (Galateo, 1558) how to behave in general (both also in WLAIT 7: Italian Literature and Its Times). Cellini’s autobiography attempts to explain one man’s life and work as measured against contemporary standards. The autobiography has itself become a source from which later scholars glean some of those standards and is used as such in the discussion below.
In his lifetime, Cellini was accused of sodomy, murder, theft, counterfeiting, and slander. His autobiography, written while he was under house arrest for sodomy, provided a way for him to reestablish his honor and, from his point of view, set the record straight. The concept of honor and Cellini’s defense of it is a recurring theme in the autobiography. Verbal assault—failing to address someone on the street properly, attacking a friend or relative, or insulting one’s city—were considered as damaging as physical assaults. Duels and physical retribution served as ways to quickly resolve conflict and reestablish one’s honor, as illustrated by an incident from the autobiography:
A careless, swaggering young man … mockingly said many offensive things about the Florentine nation. … Quietly and without anybody seeing me, I came up to this fellow…. Confronting him, I asked if he was that impertinent man who was speaking ill of the Florentines. He immediately replied: ’I am that man.’ Upon these words, I raised my hand and gave him a slap in the face, saying: ’And I am this man!’
(Cellini, My Life, p. 40)
Some affronts were considered so grievous that they were regarded as criminal acts in sixteenth-century Florence, and in these cases violence was permissible in defense of honor. Cellini recalls how he vengefully murdered his brother’s killer; the officers who came to arrest Cellini backed down when they heard why he committed the crime.
In the case of an artist, another way to exact retribution was to decline a commission. After Cellini gained a reputation, he was offered a job in England but did not go, in part because the man who invited him, Piero Torrigiani, attacked Michelangelo, the artist Cellini revered above all. Torrigiani described breaking Michelangelo’s nose to Cellini, raising his ire: “These words generated so much hatred in me … that not only did I not have any desire to go to England … but I could not even bear to look at [Torrigiani]” (My Life, p. 21). Instead, Cellini went to Rome, where he quickly won fame and was ultimately named head of the papal mint. Here, as in Florence, his honor was again threatened, this time not by an insult but by an assault on the city in which he lived. On May 6, 1527, Rome was attacked and sacked by troops under the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, ruler of large tracts of Europe. Charles fought many wars against King Francis I of France. In Rome, Pope Clement VII, in league with some of the other Italian states, declared himself in favor of France. Charles, considering this a hostile act, struck Rome; unexpectedly, on the night of May 5, 1527, his general, the Duke of Bourbon, arrived with an army 40,000 strong. The following morning a brutal assault took place. Clement’s poorly armed troops had to retreat to Castel Sant’Angelo, a castle outside the Vatican. While the defenders stayed in the castle, Rome was looted and 40,000 were killed. Cellini, who fought in defense of Castel Sant’Angelo, claims to have defended it single-handedly, professing to have killed the Duke of Bourbon as he scaled the castle walls, for the sake not only of his land and leader, but also for his manhood.
More subtly, Cellini struggled with the honor given an artist by a patron. In Paris, King Francis I accorded Cellini high respect by giving him financial rewards and the utmost liberty to determine the particulars of a sculpture or other piece of commissioned artwork. By contrast, when Cellini returned to Italy he landed one of two salaried positions for artists given out by Cosimo de’ Medici, the ruling Duke of Florence. Ultimately, Cellini lamented this return many times, feeling that Cosimo did not treat him with the respect he deserved. Both patrons gave him homes. But Cosimo did not pay Cellini as generously as Francis I had. Nor, Cellini thought, did his new patron give him enough leeway to make artistic decisions or show enough trust in the works he produced. Cellini attributes this behavior to Cosimo’s ignorance about matters of art. Nevertheless, it was Cosimo who sponsored his Perseus, a sculpture that took nine years to produce and received much acclaim by fellow artists, who wrote sonnets to celebrate it and left them at the foot of the statue.
Male-male and male-female relations
Cellini’s account of his numerous amorous relationships give us insight into prevailing attitudes during his day. While it is difficult to determine if his relationships are typical of the times or more typical of a man whose character is consistently self-indulgent, a number of texts indicate that at least some of his behaviors conform to social norms of the day. Other texts, however, suggest that Cellini’s attitudes are remnants of medieval concepts about women and that their status had in fact risen much higher by the late Renaissance. Noblemen and progressive thinkers began to educate their daughters, and a few women became notable poets (for example, Gaspara Stampa and Veronica Franco, both covered in WLAIT 7:Italian Literature and Its Times).
One perception that still held sway in Cellini’s day was a highly negative image of women as materialistic and vain, jabbering and prattling, or downright evil. According to this view, women were not individuals but appendages; they existed to gratify the sexual, artistic, or social ambitions of a man. Such a mindset encouraged the rape of women in Cellini’s era, as in earlier and later times.
FROM THE ITALIAN TO THE EUROPEAN RENAISSANCE
Beginning in 1494, French invasions of the Italian peninsula brought the French into contact with the painting and sculpture of Italian artists. This contact led to invitations from French royalty, who sought to employ Italian artists. Besides Cellini, among those who came to France at the invitation of King Francis I were Leonardo da Vinci, Andrea del Sarto, Francesco Primaliccio, Rosso Fiorentino, and Niccoló dell’Abate. The king also collected paintings by Italian masters, including Titian, Raphael, and Michelangelo, promoting Italian styles. The Italian influence spread to northern Europe as well, in part because of trips taken by northern artists such as Albrecht Dürer and Pieter Brueghel (Pieter the Elder) to the Italian peninsula. The artists of the Italian peninsula found themselves in demand at courts as far-flung as those of the Ottoman Empire.
Cellini’s sexual encounters include both females and males, especially young boys. In his day, sodomy was considered an unnatural sexual act but was commonly practiced nonetheless, and Cellini wrote openly about it. For a man to engage in sodomy with young men was something of a rite of passage. But a man who made a habit of it was frowned upon, especially when he did so with young boys.
The aggressor was always seen as the “man” in the relationship (Cellini’s role). The passive recipient was sometimes considered a “woman,” even a “wife.” It was not unheard of for a man married to a woman to have affairs with young men and be considered a sodomite because of these affairs. Others, such as Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci, showed exclusive homosexual love for men and even wrote poems for their lovers. Neither married, although both had pla-tonic relationships with women.
Though it was often overlooked, sodomy carried some legal penalties. Standard punishment included mild fines or exile. In 1542, Cosimo de’
The Medici family came to power in Florence at the end of the fourteenth century and their domination, though not continual, ended with the death of Cosimo Ill’s grandson Gian Gastone in 1737. The family earned its fortune through banking, business, and marriages to influential families (one such match was the wedding in 1533 between 14-year-old Catherine de’ Medici and Henry of Orleans, a son to the French king Francis I). Cosimo il Vecchio (the elder) was the first Cosimo and is considered the founder of the family. He spent much of his wealth on charity, literature, and the arts, providing patronage to such luminaries as Brunelleschi, Donatello. and Alberti. Cosimo il Vecchio also promoted a resurgence of Greek and Latin classics, supporting their translations into the vernacular. He furthermore commissioned biographies of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. All this promoted a sense of Florentine identity, which strengthened the Medici family’s popularity.
After the French invasion of Florence in 1494, the Medicis lost power until it was restored some years later bv the Spanish. When the Spanish defeated the French, the Medicis were invited back to Florence and began to rule under Cosimo I. This is the Cosimo who controlled the city during Cellini’s life and became his patron, Cosimo quickly proved an effective economic and military leader, as well as a strong promoter of arts and letters. He is remembered as a calm, efficient ruler who raised the status of his family. Cellini comments in the autobiography about Cosimo’s lack of aesthetic and artistic knowledge. Interestingly, Cellini sculpted a bronze bust of Cosimo so realistic that it included a wart on his left cheek. Preferring the more perfect bust by Baccio Bandinelli, Cosimo sent off Cellini’s to Elba Island and retained Bandinelli’s for Florence.
Medici tightened the existing sodomy laws so that sodomy was regarded as a violent crime, one punishable by imprisonment and exile. Cellini’s arrest for sodomy therefore led to a four-year prison sentence, which he began to serve. After pleas to Cosimo, the duke finally agreed to let Cellini serve his sentence under house arrest. It was then, as noted, that Cellini began to write his autobiography and so justify his life. The image of “Cellini the sodomite under house arrest” was not the one he wanted to convey; it was antithetical to the manly, fearless, adventurous artist he claimed to be.
Apart from male sexual relations, male friendship and loyalty were highly valued in late Renaissance Italy. Cellini recounts his friendships as bonds of mutual admiration in which either party would go to any length to help his fellow, whether by forfeiting a coveted woman to him or defending him verbally or physically. As recounted in the Vita, his life story, Cellini forfeited his desire in one case for a Bolognese prostitute and in another for a pretty young woman out of loyalty to friends.
From apprentice to master
In Cellini’s era, Italy had two training systems. One was the intellectual-based system in Latin at the university; the other, the manual-based system in vernacular Tuscan in artists’ workshops. Artistic training involved five years as an apprentice and two years as a journeyman, or qualified worker for a master artist. Once an artist became a master himself, he generally got his own workshop, or bottega, which included a small group of men who produced a wide variety of objects in collaboration. While there were obvious differences in the two types of training—schooling and university-based Latin learning as opposed to apprenticeship and Italian-based learning—apprentices had to be literate to keep records, measure amounts, and draft bills. They also had to be learned enough to feature Latin subjects in their artwork. In any case, literacy was high in Renaissance Florence (about a third of its inhabitants could read and write in the fifteenth century [Gallucci, p. 10]), even though there was no proof of formal training for Florentine artists until the opening of an art academy (the Accademia del Disegno) in Florence in 1561. Painters and sculptors were still denigrated because of mid-sixteenth-century prejudices against manual labor, work that involved retail trade, and against artists themselves, who were often poor and lacked learning compared to intellectuals. To combat these prejudices, artists engaged in a great deal of self-promotion—to good effect. Their status began to rise in the Renaissance, thanks in no small part to their self-assertion through memoirs, about 100 of which have survived from Florence alone (Burke, p. 195). Artists became less like carpenters, more like intellectuals, and their writing of memoirs and treatises only enhanced this.
Compensation to the artists varied. Sometimes they received payment upon completion, sometimes in installments while a work was in progress. Assignments were parceled out by a patron, who might be a prince, guild, fraternity, committee, or merchant. Sometimes the patron commissioned a single work; sometimes he took an artist into his service on a more or less permanent basis, as Francis I and Cosimo I did with Cellini. Cosimo I had only two salaried artists at the Medici court in 1550, the other being Agnolo Bronzino. The duke gave Cellini a house, and the artist used its interior garden as his workshop. Despite his “permanent” employment by the duke, formal competitions for commissions sometimes occurred, and at the end of Cellini’s career he lost out on a number of these.
Cellini’s autobiography is divided into three parts, an introduction and two books. The introduction begins with a sonnet and continues with a short paragraph in which Cellini explains that he chose to dictate rather than write the autobiography to save time. He nevertheless imitates language, style, and stories of great writers in an attempt to be classified as one himself. Book One covers Cellini the man, from 1500 to 1562, including details of his child-hood, his personal and artistic relationships, and his work in Rome, in Paris, and again in Florence. Book Two focuses more on Cellini the artist, most notably giving a detailed account of his work on the Perseus. Overall the book is a brazen account of his life and artwork, in which he describes assaults and murders he commits without remorse or apology.
Cellini acknowledges his humble birth as a Florentine and admits to being well aware of the elevated status of those who write autobiographies. Elevating his status at the start, he lends luster to his birth by linking it to the illustriousness of Florence and of its founding by Julius Caesar. In explaining his family’s origins, Cellini confers glory onto a family’s ancestor, through whom he links himself to the great Caesar.
Cellini’s description of his birth and infancy sets the stage for an explanation of why he figures among those destined to chronicle their lives. He compares himself to the legendary Hercules, noting that, in the cradle, baby Hercules was already so strong he could strangle serpents. In Cellini’s case, at age three the baby takes a poisonous scorpion in hand, showing a fearlessness that becomes a recurring trait in the life story.
When Cellini becomes a teenager, his father insists that he dedicate himself to music, but Cellini has other ideas. Defying his father’s will, he begins work as an apprentice for a Florentine goldsmith. Cellini ventures from Florence to Siena, Pisa, and Bologna to learn the craft, then back to Florence to study the art of Michelangelo. During this period, the cultural Renaissance begins to spread to other countries, whose courts vie for Italian artists. Cellini at this point rejects an opportunity to work at the court of Henry VIII in England.
Instead Cellini moves to Rome, where he spends two years in the employ of various masters. Professionally, Cellini experiences extraordinary artistic success in Rome. He fashions silver for cardinals, alters the setting of jewels for ladies, binds prayer books, even ornaments swords. Cellini recounts how, regardless of what he works on, he does so with absolute conscientiousness, manipulating each piece with a fresh mind. Cellini’s success attracts the envy of other goldsmiths, leading to the first of his Roman quarrels. According to the autobiography, Gherardo Guasconti, a cousin of a goldsmith who had wronged Cellini, shoves a load of bricks at Cellini and laughs, which so enrages him that he knocks Guasconti out. The felled man’s relatives turn on Cellini, who, knife in hand, threatens to kill at least one of them. At this point Guasconti takes the matter to court, whereupon Cellini marches into the man’s home and stabs him, doing little harm, intending only to intimidate him.
Cellini shows a sense of entitlement that emerges from his description of such incidents. He presents himself as outside the realm of the average, corroborating this self-concept with the opinions of the pope and the king of France: “You should know that men like Benvenuto, unique in their profession, need not be subject to the law: especially not Benvenuto,” observes Pope Paul III to a friend (My Life, p. 125). The thinking is that men like Cellini are so unique in their creative capacity they ought not be subject to common rules.
Still in Rome, Cellini fights duels, has love affairs, defends his shop against robbers, becomes enmeshed in stabbings, and survives deathly fevers. The uninhibited artist yields to every impulse, pursues every pleasure, laying claim to an animal compulsion towards beauty. He speaks of love affairs with men and women. In general, his recounting mirrors a corrupt yet resplendent side of life in Renaissance Italy, depicting it as a land in which violence and the pursuit of honor are pervasive.
Cellini travels to France on occasion. In 1538, back in Rome, he describes being falsely accused of theft by a servant and arrested by Pope Paul III for stealing gold and jewels. He is imprisoned, despite the lack of incriminating evidence and his pleas of innocence, in the Castel Sant’Angelo. Cellini details his confinement and his failed attempt to escape. On his knees, he prays, refusing to turn around when a captain and some 20 guards arrive, his brazen sense of defiance intact: “To this God who bears me up, the One who rules the heavens, I’ve turned my soul, my contemplation, and all my vital spirits; and to you I’ve turned exactly what belongs to you” (My Life, p. 205).
The cardinal of Ferrara prevails upon the pope to free Cellini. Thereafter, the artist completes work on a fine chalice for the cardinal, then leaves Rome for France, where he spends five years (1540-45) in the service of King Francis I.
Cellini executes great works of art in France but encounters difficulties because of his ignorance of French habits, his pride, friction with the King’s mistress, and his ungovernable temper. The details of two lawsuits provide a graphic picture of French courts of justice. Here again, Cellini recalls taking the law into his own hands. He claims to have extricated himself from a dangerous trial by screaming, then beating and kicking people and threatening attorneys with his sword. In another case, he is accused of sodomy with his own mistress, Caterina, but is not convicted.
Cellini finally returns to Florence, a decision he regrets, since King Francis was generous with him and, as Cellini saw it, was the only patron to ever treat him with the esteem he deserves. He recalls Francis’s words, using them to add to the image of himself he tries through the life story to convey:
“Since … this man … is … slow to ask, I want him to be provided for without saying another word about it: for men such as these, who are not used to asking for anything, are certain that their works ought to ask a great deal on their behalf; take care, therefore, to provide him with the first abbey that becomes vacant with revenues worth up to two thousand scudi.”
(My Life, p. 279)
Back in Florence, Cellini creates art for the duke in control of the city, Cosimo de’ Medici. The artist portrays his patron as a cautious, small-minded, meddling Florentine, who loves to bar-gain, play tricks, and pretend to protect the arts without understanding his role as patron. Always short of money, Cosimo is surrounded by avaricious servants. He also has little faith in his own judgment as a connoisseur of art and so falls prey to the schemes of inferior artists.
It is during this period that Cellini sculpts Perseus, a statue of a legendary Greek hero. In Book Two there are long, detailed descriptions about this work and the many trials involved with its execution. Upon completing Perseus, Cellini congratulates himself. No man on earth, he raves, could have achieved as much, though he concedes that Michelangelo could have sculpted such a statue when he was younger. Cellini’s Perseus, exposed to public view in the great square, meets with universal acclaim, as is reported in the autobiography. An invitation to work in Sicily follows, but Cellini refuses to quit the duke’s service. Problems ensue, however, when Cosimo fails to value Perseus as Cellini does. Cellini enlists the help of a friend to entreat Cosimo to pay a fair amount, and the duke sends a rival sculptor, Baccio Bandinello, to examine and value the Perseus statue, planning to pay exactly what Bandinello says it is worth. This only leads to more trouble, until the duchess steps in to resolve the problem.
Cellini continues to work until he falls ill and is replaced at Cosimo’s court by the artist Bartolommeo Ammanato. Thankfully Cellini recovers, but sadness follows. The Cardinal de’ Medici dies, which fills Cellini with grief. At this point, the artist sets out for Pisa, and abruptly the autobiography ends.
Fortune during the Renaissance
Two millennia before the Renaissance, the Greek scholar Aristotle connected fortune to “external goods”—noble birth, wealth, power, friends, fine children, personal appearance, good luck and bad luck. He also tied fortune to chance, conceiving of the former as the power that distributes external goods among human beings in ways that affect their happiness. His explanations would enjoy renewed popularity during the Italian Renaissance. For two centuries, its writers produced texts wholly or partly devoted to a discussion of the role of fortune in man’s life.
1354 Remedies for Both Kinds of Fortune by Francesco Petrarch (De remediis utriusque fortunae)
1396 On Fate and Fortune by Coluccio Salutati (De Fato etfortuna)
1448 On the Vicissitudes of Fortune by Poggio Bracciolini (De Varietate fortunae)
1529 The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli (II Principe)
Fortune surfaces repeatedly in Cellini’s auto-biography, and to some degree his attitude to fortune echoes Machiavelli in The Prince (also in WLAIT 7: Italian Literature and Its Times). Machiavelli believes that man can exercise his power to achieve at least a degree of control over fortune. As people shifted from a medieval preoccupation with God’s role in man’s fate, to a view concerned more with the power of man—his intellect, talent, and strength—fortune stopped being held responsible for all that happened. Human effort gained new importance. In keeping with this emphasis, Cellini suggests that a man’s will can impact his fortune, at least to a degree. He believes himself to be persecuted by bad fortune in all he undertakes. Yet he struggles against it. Arriving in Venice one day, the sculptor decides to “fence” with her (fortune was traditionally conceived of as a woman, sometimes blindfolded to indicate her own ignorance with respect to why she distributes “external goods” as she does): “On … pondering upon the divers ways my cruel fortune took to torment me, yet at the same time feeling myself none the less sound in health and hearty, I made up my mind to fence with her according to my wont” (Cellini, The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, p. 340).
Born under the sign of Scorpio, Cellini believed that his body was dominated by a devil that provoked him to behave as he did. He gave much credence to this explanation, blaming the stars and never taking responsibility for his actions. Others in the society of his day, from wise men to the unschooled, might easily have reacted the same way. The court astrologer was a familiar figure among Renaissance nobles and even around religious scholars. One real-life astrologer of Cellini’s day, Luca Gaurico, had a particularly distinguished career, making a number of predictions that came true, forecasting in 1493, for example, that Giovanni de’ Medici would become pope within 20 years (he indeed became pope as Leo X in 1513). Gaurico wrote a famous work, published in the vernacular in 1539 and after 1540 published and republished in Latin (Tractatus astrologiae). The work was a collection of aphorisms backed up by six books of horoscopes: 1) of towns and cities; 2) of popes and cardinals; 3) of kings and princes; 4) of great artists and scientists, including Michelangelo, whose fate, like that of others, is said to have been shaped by the stars; 5) of those who died violently; and 6) of monsters and the deformed. An appendix after each book “showed” how the predictions came true. As astrology spread, the practice of it fell under frequent attack. Treatises that railed against astrology in the sixteenth century gave rise to many defenses of the “art.” So pundits of the day argued about how useful or damaging or misguided it was. Thus, while Cellini may have been self-serving when he blamed the stars for his behavior and fashioned an image of himself as an honorable man, he was indeed in tune with his times.
Sources and literary context
Virtue in the Renaissance meant the capacity to do important things. Cellini himself explains that he wrote his autobiography because any virtuous man ought to do so after a certain age: “All men of any condition who have done something of special worth … should … write in their own hands the story of their lives, but they should not begin … until they have passed the age of forty” (My Life, p. 5).
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a sense of progress and individualism inspired self-representation and the representation of others. Families, artists, individuals began to chronicle their lives by writing life histories. Among artists, many of the life stories were written by others. A notable set of collected biographies by Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists, appeared in 1550, followed by a second, much expanded edition in 1568. Today the work remains one of the most important sources of information on the major artists of the age. Cellini was distinct in writing his own life story.
Much discussion has centered on the accuracy of information in Cellini’s Life. Whether he seems a braggart, or even a liar, his accounts resound with sincerity. Studies have shown that he does not invent the facts and that his historical data is for the most part accurate. There are some in-accuracies, such as the reference to Julius Caesar when Cellini speaks of his heritage. He mentions a high-ranking captain of Caesar, Fiorino of Cellino, alleging that this captain played an essential role in the formation of Florence. Scholars dismiss this as false information and there are undoubtedly other inaccuracies, especially in excerpts entailing self-praise on Cellini’s part. A number of inaccuracies may have crept in because Cellini dictated rather than wrote the manuscript. He employed two scribes, depending mostly on a 13-year-old boy with excellent hand-writing. The writing style is thus a consequence of the fact that Cellini was speaking when its content was set down.
Cellini set out to be counted among the greatest of writers as well as greatest of artists. He thus employs language used in the vernacular literary tradition and in many instances imitates the language and writing styles of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. Most importantly, Cellini is devoted to describing truth as he sees it, fearlessly and without worrying about the consequences. His criticisms of his patron Cosimo de’ Medici as ignorant in artistic matters is in keeping with his personality.
Publication and reception
To this day, it is not clear if Cellini ever corrected his manuscript. He is known to have asked Benedetto Varchi to correct it, but Varchi declined, thinking it better to leave it in its original form. In any case, 156 years passed before the work was published; Cellini intended but failed to have it published in his own lifetime. The first edition appeared in 1728. Some recent scholarship finds that “the lack of signs of true dictation in this manuscript, such as backtracking, restatements, or jumbled chronology, suggest that a text first dictated was subjected to later editing; perhaps this is a clean copy prepared for the printer and the actual first draft (or drafts) of the Vita was lost or destroyed” (Gallucci, p. 13).
Cellini’s Vita has always had a varied reader-ship, appealing to doctors, musicians, artists, historians, even scholars of crime. Two commentaries led the way for reviewers: that of Giuseppe Baretti in La frusta letteraria (The Literary Whip, 1763-65) and that of the great Romantic poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in his preface to the German translation of the autobiography. Baretti influenced those scholars who wanted to study the work from a textual point of view (its literary qualities, its language), in the belief that the language represented spoken Florentine. Goethe’s interpretation, which focused heavily on Cellini’s humor, was the basis for many scholars who proceeded to study the sculptor’s character.
Like Goethe, Baretti considered the autobiography a unique document of Italian life in the 1500s. Baretti, however, criticized Cellini’s manner of writing, calling it the product of one who speaks before he thinks. This view foreshadowed that of the early 1800s Romantics, who saw Cellini as a man governed entirely by instinct. In their eyes, he was the exemplary immoderate Italian who wavered between genius and insanity, a precursor to the hero of their own age. The concept of genius and immoderateness was taken up later in the 1800s by, among others, the Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso, who considered a genius to be someone who was sick, who was to some degree pathological.
The modern critic tended to associate Cellini the writer with Cellini the artist. There was, according to this view, an excess in style in both media that gave way to mannerist art (a reaction against proportion rules of the classical style, favored in the high Renaissance, mannerism featured figures that were disproportionate and longer than usual). Today some critics see Cellini as a mannerist writer who was fully conscious of the style he employed. Some attribute his anarchy to a joyful spontaneity; others, to a lack of dexterity on his part.
One of the most all-encompassing descriptions of Cellini as a man and an artist comes from the English translator John Addington Symonds (1840-98). Symonds saw Cellini as the typical Italian of the 1500s. His “passions were the passions of his countrymen; his vices were the vices of his time; his eccentricity and energy and vital force were what the age idealized as virtu. Combining rare artistic gifts with a most violent temper and a most obstinate will, he paints himself at one time as a conscientious craftsman, at another as a desperate bravo … The mixture of these qualities … renders Cellini a most precious subject for the student of [the] Renaissance” (Symonds, p. 475). Scholars who followed him have concurred: “[La vita] describes the whole man … with marvelous truth and completeness. It does not spoil the impression when the reader often detects him bragging or lying; the stamp of a mighty, energetic, and thoroughly developed nature remains … a significant type of the modern spirit” (Burckhardt, p. 330).
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