Nonfiction > Harvard Classics > Lectures on the Harvard Classics
  Lectures on the Harvard Classics.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
III. Benvenuto Cellini
By Professor Chandler Rathfon Post
THE ITALIAN RENAISSANCE 1 produced many works, such as the polemics of the humanists upon subjects that have long since lost their significance, which are interesting rather as illustrations of cultural conditions than for their intrinsic value. Compositions like the pastoral romance of Sannazzaro, or the dramas based upon Senecan or upon Plautine and Terentian models, acquire importance as revivals of ancient literary types and as the seeds from which later great masterpieces were to be evolved. Much smaller is the number of works in which, as in the sonnets of Michelangelo, the absolute value preponderates over the historical. Still fewer, such as the writings of Machiavelli, 2 have the distinction of possessing an equal interest archæologically and in themselves, and to this class the “Autobiography” of Benvenuto Cellini 3 belongs. No other production of the period embodies more vividly the tendencies of the Renaissance or enjoys a more universal and enduring appeal. We can best appreciate it by considering it under these two aspects.  1

  Its great importance as a document for the study of contemporary Italian life is obvious to the reader, but its temper also is strikingly related to certain spiritual movements of the day. Of the two determinative characteristics of the Renaissance, humanism, or the devotion to antiquity, and individualism, or the devotion to self-development, Benvenuto emphasizes the latter. The very natural transition from a study of self to the study of other personalities gave rise to the genre known as biography, eminent instances of which are Vespasiano da Bisticci’s “Lives of Illustrious Men,” and Giorgio Vasari’s more renowned “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects.” Autobiography, however, is an even more pronounced manifestation of individualism, and as the composer of the first great and definite example of this literary form in modern times, Benvenuto stands forth as a brilliant exponent of his age. It is possible, doubtless, for an author to exhibit in an autobiography little of his own individuality, confining himself largely, like Trollope, to a narrative of events and a discussion of his books; but such was not the spirit of the sixteenth century, and Benvenuto even exceeds his time. He strips to the very soul. Unblushingly he lays bare alike his virtues and his vices, his public and his most private actions, his loves and hatreds. He seems unconscious of modesty’s existence, and takes a palpable delight, which, by the magic of his style, he causes the reader to share, in analyzing his own passions and in recounting his own deeds and misdeeds; typical and widely varying examples are the affair with the Sicilian girl, Angelica, 4 the terrible revenge for his brother’s assassination, 5 the celestial visions experienced in his long and gruesome incarceration. 6

  Hand in hand with this attitude struts an exalted opinion of his own charms, prowess, and artistic superiority. In his conceit (for it is only a heroic form of this defect), he embodies not only individualism but also the concurrent phenomenon of humanism, which resurrected from ancient Rome such self-appreciation as appears so disagreeably in Cicero. With his high estimate of his own art modern criticism does not unqualifiedly agree. Of his labor as goldsmith so little that is certainly authentic remains that judgment is difficult; the chief extant example, the saltcellar of Francis I. now in the Imperial Treasury at Vienna, is unpleasant in composition and too ornate. In his few plastic works on a large scale, one of which, the bronze bust of Bindo Altoviti, America is fortunate enough to possess in the wonderful collection of Mrs. John L. Gardner, Boston, he is perhaps less affected than most of his rivals by the degeneration into which Italian sculpture lapsed in the second and third quarters of the Cinquecento; but in comparison to the productions of the earlier Renaissance, or of his contemporary Michelangelo, his profound affection and admiration for whom form one of his noblest traits, he betrays too close a dependence upon the antique, a tendency to excessive nicety and elaboration, derived from his training as a jeweler but unsuited to the broader manner of monumental statuary, a leaning toward ostentatious and luxuriant decoration, and a fatal predilection for sacrificing æsthetic considerations to the display of virtuosity in composition and in processes. All these characteristics are exemplified in what remains from his work, and may also be read between the lines of the “Autobiography.” The inclination to a display of skill is especially evident in the absorbing and famous description of the casting of the Perseus. 7 Over his whole art, as indeed over most of the art of the later sixteenth century, there broods a certain deadness and a sense of the perfunctory, which are strangely contrasted with the spontaneity that runs from his pen. The somewhat unjustifiable braggadocio about this phase of his activity arouses suspicions as to the veracity of the tales about his courage and other achievements. Some of the details, such as the worm that he vomited forth after his long sickness, 8 or the sight of the demons in the Colosseum, 9 seem hardly credible, but it must be remembered that we are dealing with a man of a high-strung, nervous temperament, whose imagination easily materializes the visions of his mind. Other episodes, like the various brawls and homicides in which he engaged, or the escape from the Castel Sant’ Angelo, are improbable from our standpoint, but not in an epoch of extravagances like the Renaissance or for one of those supermen of Cellini’s caliber, in which the period was so rich. Much of the “Autobiography” receives confirmation from contemporary documents, and its main fabric is certainly trustworthy, though highly colored, doubtless to increase its artistic worth and to set off to advantage the central figure of the writer.
  I have spoken of Benvenuto as a superman, and herein, too he is a result of the astounding development of the individual witnessed by the Renaissance. In his versatility he is second only to such giants of universal talent as Leon Battista Alberti, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo. He excels equally as musician, goldsmith, and sculptor; he is an adept with the sword and with the musket; his skill as a diplomatist is paralleled only by his merriness as a jester; a languishing lover one day, he is a fierce murderer the next; a part of his imprisonment he spends in devising a miraculous escape, and the rest in mystic religious trances; he can write you passable occasional sonnets and respectable treatises on art; and finally he bequeaths to the world what is probably the most remarkable autobiography in existence.  4

  Much of his activity is far from Christian. Benvenuto vies with Pietro Aretino for notoriety as an exponent of that Paganism which was a consequence, on one hand, of the indiscriminate acceptance of all that was ancient, even the license of decadent Rome, and, on the other, of the inevitable degeneration of self-development into self-gratification. The loose morals of the Renaissance have been much exaggerated by such writers as John Addington Symonds, who base their assertions too confidently upon the prejudiced Protestant accounts of the north and upon the short stories or novelle of the period, which magnify current abuses for humorous purposes. The ethical condition of Italy had still remained fairly sound in the fifteenth century, and it was not until now in the sixteenth that a debased humanism and individualism were developed to the bitter end with an effect that was baneful, but not so entirely fatal as is very commonly supposed. Almost every page of the “Autobiography,” however, betrays the absence of any adequate moral standard. Cellini fathers an illegitimate child or cuts down an enemy as lightly as he sallies forth on a hunting expedition. There is little or no realization of sin; religion he has, but a religion which, however fervent, is divorced from morality and consists chiefly in an emotional mysticism and an observance of lovely and impressive ceremonies. He has shaken off the Christian curb upon the passions, and emulating the Paganism, not of the great days of antiquity, but of the Greek and Roman decline, he gives free rein to self.

  The historical importance of the work, then, lies, not only in its painting of contemporary life, but also in its lively presentation of the individualism, the versatility, and the Paganism of the late Renaissance; its intrinsic value is proved by an almost unique and widespread popularity from among so much Italian literature of the sixteenth century that is forgotten or known only to specialists. Benvenuto has succeeded in transfusing it with the magnetism of his own personality. So intimate is the manner which he adopts that we seem to be, not readers, but a company of boon companions listening to good tales, half the attraction of which is afforded by the very force and charm of the speaker’s genial character. The matter is often such as should be bruited only in this society; the style is distinctly that of an easy conversationalist, full of picturesque Tuscan idioms, colloquial to the last degree, frequently lapsing into the loose grammar that is permitted to the raconteur. Behind this apparent facility, however, is concealed the art of a supreme master of narrative, who knows how to choose the piquant episodes and details and to exclude the irrelevant; who dexterously avoids monotony by contrasts of high lights and shadows; who is all the greater because he nowhere reveals the methods of his craft, but appears always the clever and spontaneous entertainer.
Note 1. See Professor Potter’s lecture on the Renaissance in the course on History. [back]
Note 2. Harvard Classics, xxxvi, 7ff; and xxvii, 363 ff. [back]
Note 3. H. C., xxxi. The dates of his life are 1500–1571; the “Autobiography” was first published in 1568. [back]
Note 4. H. C., xxxi, 127–138. [back]
Note 5. H. C., xxxi, 98–106. [back]
Note 6. H. C., xxxi, 235, 241. [back]
Note 7. See frontispiece in H. C., xxxi, and pp. 376–383. [back]
Note 8. H. C., xxxi, 170. [back]
Note 9. H. C., xxxi, 127–128. [back]

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