Saturday, February 13, 2021

This Day in Art History (Death of Benvenuto Cellini, Celebrated, Scandalous Renaissance Man)

Feb. 13, 1571— Benvenuto Cellini, an Italian goldsmith, sculptor, draftsman, soldier, and musician who chronicled his multiple creative interests and tumultuous escapades in a frank and celebrated autobiography, died at age 70 of pleurisy in his native Florence.

“Renaissance man” has come to be shorthand for a prodigiously talented individual who engages in multiple pursuits. But, aside from Michelangelo, who wrote commendable poetry, and Giorgio Vasari, a pioneering biographer, no other great craftsman of the period besides Cellini left a literary record that could be mentioned in the same breath as his visual one.

Unlike Michelangelo (who wrote verses on an unnamed love) and Vasari (who focused on other artists), Cellini was a born raconteur, holding forth in characteristic hot-tempered, boastful, witty, and loyal fashion on himself and, to a lesser extent, his views on the theory of art. He vented about his adventures voluminously, over nearly a decade, in his La Vita di Benvenuto di maestro Giovanni Cellini (“The Life of Benvenuto Cellini”)—and still hadn’t completed the project at his death, as he interspersed this with more than one hundred poems, two treatises on goldsmithing and sculpture, and several discourses on art.

Ironically, while defending his visual primacy among his peers (at a time when his contentious personality had sidelined him from new commissions), Cellini furnished a strong counterargument: that his real talent lay with the written word, rather than with his products as a goldsmith and sculptor.

In one chapter of his autobiography, Cellini catalogues his meticulous preparation for his bronze “Perseus” sculpture, followed by a description of how he save his creation from destruction by fire and was congratulated by his assistants for helping them to have “learned and seen things done which other masters judged impossible.”  

But the artist can’t leave it at that: he must also write how the two men he suspected of trying to sabotage his latest masterwork said “was no man, but of a certainty some powerful devil, since I had accomplished what no craft of the art could do; indeed they did not believe a mere ordinary fiend could work such miracles as I in other ways had shown.”

At this late stage of the Renaissance, readers are beholding a new kind of artistic consciousness: a man unapologetically basking in his personal glory. Cellini has presented not just an advertisement for himself in his own time, but for his undying fame in the eyes of posterity.

His autobiography offers up a new persona: a creator passionately committed to his art, cynical in his fashion (“When the poor give to the rich, the devil laughs,” he recalled the wife of a rich Roman banker telling him), and defiant of conventional morality. He even surpassed Caravaggio, whose aggressiveness (hitting waiters, slandering rivals) climaxed in flight from Rome for killing a man in a street fight. Cellini openly admitted to three killings: of his brother’s murderer, a rival goldsmith, and an innkeeper. Only the protection of Popes Clement VII and Paul III saved him from punishment.

(There were some limits to Cellini’s alarming candor: contemporary mores meant that he could cop to vainglory and murder, but not to bisexuality, even though several indictments and even convictions for sodomy were path of his rap sheet in both Italy and France.)

Other Renaissance artists have inspired novels and/or films (Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy, Caravaggio in Derek Jarman’s 1986 movie named for the painter). But how many such figures have become the subject of operas?

Yet Cellini has—not once, but twice, in Camille Saint-Saëns’s Ascanio and Hector Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini. The dramatic, even over-the-top, elements of the artist’s personality lend themselves to the genre. Nevertheless, it would have disappointed the ego-driven Florentine that neither opera has entered the canon of musical theater (though the overture of Berlioz’s work is frequently performed in concert halls by orchestras, as seen in this YouTube clip).

For a fascinating overview of Cellini’s life, see Harold Sack’s November 2019 post from the blog SciHi (i.e., “Science, Technology and Art in History”).

(The self-portrait of Cellini in the image accompanying my post is a sketch now held in the Royal Library in Turin, believed to have been drawn sometime between 1540 and 1543.)

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