The Life of Benvenuto Cellini/Artist And Writer

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CEL V01 D021 Decorative character I.jpg N "La Cousine Bette" Balzac has an illuminating note on one phase of the artistic temperament. He is speaking of Wenceslas Steinbock, the sculptor, and of the way in which his statue of Marshal Montcornet somehow fails to get itself turned into a masterpiece. Describing the Pole as wasting a large proportion of his time in talking about the statue instead of working at it, he thus continues: "He talked admirably about art, and in the eyes of the world he maintained his reputation as a great artist by his powers of conversation and criticism. There are many clever men in Paris who spend their lives in talking themselves out, and are content with a sort of drawing-room celebrity. . . . At the same time, these half artists are delightful; men like them and cram them with praise; they even seem superior to the true artists, who are taxed with conceit, unsociableness, contempt of the laws of society. "Benvenuto Cellini was a kind of Steinbock. He had an immense amount of energy, but he did not concentrate it and send it through the right channels with the devoted instinct of the great artist. The parallel is not to be overdone. Indeed, if we carry it too far, it is bound to break down, for Cellini was every inch a man, and there is a deplorably effeminate weakness about Wenceslas. But there is no denying that where the Italian was vulnerable was in just that foible which Balzac, in his penetrating way, hits off so well. He talked too much. He was of too impulsive a habit to make immortal statues. There was too much vehemence about him, he used too many gestures, and it seems the most natural thing in the world that his fame should be preserved in a work of literature rather than in a work of art. The Autobiography is his best monument, better even than the Perseus. Nevertheless, it is a mistake to allow this fact to obscure the very interesting question of his relation to Italian art. Too often has eagerness to get at the Autobiography inclined writers to pass indifferently over Cellini's achievements as a goldsmith and sculptor. It is true that M. Plon's book does not err im this direction, and that only eight years ago Mr. C. R. Ashbee took the pains to translate Cellini's technical "Trattati," and to print his version in luxurious form. But when the Autobiography is at all to the fore it seems to abate discussion of the things for which Cellini himself had, after all, the most concern. I think it is worth while, therefore, to speak of those things on the present occasion.

One of the most delightful of the many paradoxes of the Italian Renaissance is its treatment of the professional idea. Never was there a time in which men were keener on preserving the integrity of their various guilds; the youth apprenticed to anyone of the numerous branches of art that had then each its clearly fixed status was impelled by all the influences of the period to make the independence and the importance of his chosen branch a point of honour. It was a time of intense personal pride. Yet it was a time, too, of extraordinary give and take in the arts. The architect and the sculptor, for example, met one another halfway. It is significant that in the very dawn of plastic art in Italy it is an entirely utilitarian project that stirs creative genius to activity. It is as an architect, no less than as a sculptor, that Niccola Pisano undertakes to construct the hexagonal pulpit for the baptistery at Pisa, and it would be difficult to say where the architect leaves off and the sculptor begins in the transformation of this tribune, made for a practical purpose, into an essentially decorative object. In other words, when the journeyman stone-carver subsides into the background and the sculptor—which is to say the stone-carver of individual genius—takes his place, the change is effected amid conditions which keep sculpture a craft as well as an art; and this situation endures for generations, modified in many ways as different types of personal force arise, but true, in the main, to the broad instinct at which we have just glanced. That instinct was a sound one. The man of the Renaissance knew that art embraced not only the greater but the lesser, and that it was as much worth his while, when the chance offered, to do an ordinary bit of craftsmanship as to produce some elaborate tour de force. Thus you find the pulpits of the Pisani, their Fonte Maggiore at Perugia, or Jacopo della Quercia's Fonte Gaia at Siena, succeeded by triumphs of pure craftsmanship like the pulpit at Prato which Donatello and Michelozzo did together, or like any of those countless sepulchral monuments of which Desiderio's tomb for Cardinal Marsuppini, in Santa Croce, is perhaps the most conclusive type. Verrocchio, with the power in him to do a thing like the Colleoni at Venice, approaches with the same creative ardour, the same impassioned feeling for beauty, not only that heroic equestrian statue, but the Medici tomb in the sacristy of San Lorenzo at Florence, a tomb of wholly formal decoration. The point of view is in each case the same. "Make the work beautiful," he says, "no matter what its form may be." He makes it so, and incidentally he helps to establish a tradition. The spirit of the man of genius was shared, in a measure, even by the mediocrity, and as you look over the whole mass of Renaissance work in stone, metal, or, for that matter, any material, you are struck by the way in which craftsmanship is raised to a higher power. A certain largeness of feeling is in the air, and a lantern wrought by some Florentine to-day unknown, a setting given to a jewel at a shop whose proprietor, even in his lifetime, never had any celebrity whatever, bears the same stamp that you find on the noblest productions of the era. Why was that stamp not recaptured by Cellini? He had the sincerity of his predecessors, and their zeal. What he lacked was that something, next to impossible to define, which seems more the property of an age than of any one individual.

It is the fashion in these scientific days to put the "document" in the foreground and leave "the spirit of things "to take care of itself, as a volatile, tricksy quality, full of danger for the unwary. "There never was an artistic period," said Mr. Whistler. "There never was an art-loving nation." That kind of a remark wears a convincing air. For a moment one hesitates to contradict. But he who hesitates in this matter is unquestionably lost. You cannot put your finger on some unmistakable source of inspiration in fifteenth-century Italy and say that it acted automatically, making masters out of all the artists coming within the range of its influence. But you can discern at this time an element which presently disappears, a general atmosphere, dominant in Italian life, which, for the artist, serves both as a stimulus and as a check upon his professional conscience. This atmosphere dies down as the great body of creative artists shrinks in size, and in all things, in politics and in social life as well as in art, Italy begins to show signs of exhaustion, of decadence. Traditions survive, but in a sadly debilitated condition. Cellini cherishes the highest ideals of goldsmithing, and it is plain from the opening pages of his treatise on that subject that he considered himself as one of the line of Ghiberti, Pollaiuolo, Donatello and Verrocchio; but he was nothing of the sort. The gods had begun to withdraw their gifts from Italy when Cellini saw the light in 1500. In truth they had lingered in lavish mood for a long time. They had given Italy the Pisani and Jacopo della Quercia. Then had come Ghiberti, Brunelleschi, Donatello and Luca della Robbia and his kin, and, as though this were not enough, man after man was sent into the world to make Italian sculpture worthy of Italian painting. Besides artists cast in giant mould like Donatello or Verrocchio, there were any number of sculptors so accomplished that they can scarcely be dismissed as forming, in a colourless way, the rank and file. Higher praise than that must go to Desiderio da Settigano or the Rosellini; to Mino or to Pollaiuolo; to Matteo Civitali or to Benedetto da Maiano. Nor was Tuscany alone thus bountifully endowed. Pisanello and Matteo de Pasti had been showing at Verona how the Renaissance medal might be made to rival the antique coin. Other masters might be cited from other regions. The country everywhere had more or less reason to congratulate itself on its sculptors. Then the effort seems to be too much of a strain, a kind of blight falls upon plastic art, and only one figure, that of Michael Angelo, continues to illustrate the grand style down into the sixteenth century.

It is as though fate had done all that could be done to place models of what sculpture should be before Cellini, but had grudged him the voiceless whisper, the invisible spark, the impalpable something in the air, which had thrilled the generations just preceding his own, and had caused masterpieces to appear before men as nature causes fruits and flowers to issue forth from the sun-warmed earth. In a word, Cellini's limitations, which are to be ascribed first and last to the caprice of destiny, are understood the better if we remember the character of the period into which he was born. It needed a fiercer, more masterful nature than his—and his was masterful and fierce enough in all conscience—to conquer the deadening tendency of the time. One might say that it was pathetic, too,—if pathos had not a certain incongruity where Cellini is concerned,—to observe the depth and strength of his faculty of appreciation. He knew the right thing when it was put before him, and there is nothing more ingratiating about him than the gusto with which he lauds a great artist. He alludes to Leonardo as "a veritable angel incarnate;" and of "that divinest painter," Michael Angelo,he speaks with positively passionate warmth. The treatment of the moving soldiers in the famous cartoon of "The Bathers M moves him to this outburst: "He drew them at the very moment the alarm is sounded, and the men all naked run to arms; so splendid is their action that nothing survives of ancient or of modern art which touches the same lofty point of excellence." When Cosimo de Medici asked him to model a Perseus for the Loggia dei Lanzi, which was already adorned by Donatello's "Judith" and Michael Angelo's "David," he replied after this fashion: "Most excellent, my lord, upon the piazza are now standing works by the great Donatello and the incomparable Michael Angelo, the two greatest men who have ever lived since the days of the ancients. But since your Excellence encourages my model with such praise, I feel the heart to execute it at least thrice as well in bronze." Precisely—he had the heart, but that was not enough. For his readiness to apprehend the true stature of a Michael Angelo, a Donatello or a Leonardo he is to be honoured, especially as the taste of his contemporaries, while still impressed with a sense of Michael Angelo's grandeur, steadily drifted, all through the sixteenth century, toward such types as Bandinelli, Ammanati, John of Bologna and the like, as though the stars in their courses were fighting to prepare the way for the seventeenth-century poseur, Bernini. But Cellini's superior judgment was not matched by his abilities, and even in his admirations he was not always as fortunate as he was enlightened. There is a kind of tragic irony in the enthusiasm that swept him to the feet of Michael Angelo, who, breathing the airs of an apocalyptic world, was just the mighty exemplar for a delicate craftsman like Cellini to avoid.

That is what, as an artist, Cellini was, a delicate craftsman, with one great difference between himself and those fifteenth-century masters with whom, as I have indicated, art and craftsmanship were often made one and the same thing. He could not give to his work, even at its finest, that exquisiteness in grain, that subtle beauty of surface, that haunting personal note, which the earlier men achieved simply because, as it seems to me, their whole natures, their very souls, were in harmony with the tremendous inspiration prevailing in the life about them. Pisanello can give one of his portrait medals the massive dignity of an antique sculpture or of a painting by Mantegna. Verrocchio, making the Medici tomb of San Lorenzo, has some magic in his fingers which saturates in beauty the simple leafage of bronze with which he embellishes the porphyry sarcophagus, and that touch of his performs the same mysterious office for the network of bronze rope that fills up the rest of the opening in the design. Cellini could not have made one of those medals, he could not have made that net of twisted rope, though his life had depended on it. It was his genius, instead, to be supremely clever. Read the pages in which he tells how to do filigree work, how to set an emerald or to tint a diamond, how to make a seal or a medal, and you can almost catch the flash of the shrewd eye, you can almost hear the self-confident, dogmatic voice as it exposes to you some of the secrets of the trade. He was the Rue de la Paix in excelsis, an inspired shop-keeper, not an inspired artist. He could do anything he liked—with his hands. It was when qualities less ponderable were needed that he was at a disadvantage. Intellect, spirituality, fine feeling, these are the resources that he lacked as an artist. When he produces the famous salt-cellar for Francis I., now at Vienna, he makes the first stage of the work an affair of reasonably just proportions, but then he models the figures in the round on too large a scale, and in style as well as in bulk detaches them from the spirit of the design considered as a goldsmith's design. He is both goldsmith and sculptor in this renowned piece, but awkwardly, and to the advantage of neither the one nor the other. A master of the early Renaissance would have known how to exploit both professions, on an occasion like this, in perfect harmony. Cellini is without the necessary poise. Let him do pure jeweller's work, let him design a casket or a chalice, and he is tolerably sure of himself. Give him a commission permitting him a wider scope, and, in his impetuous way, he flings himself upon the task, works like a demon, and never realizes, as he gazes upon the finished object, that he has just missed striking twelve. Possibly his ill luck is thrown into sharper relief for us through the very fact that his more ambitious productions form such a small group—there is little chance for flaws to be overlooked. The Perseus is, of course, the salient member of that group, but before alluding to it I must refer to the work which has always seemed to me, more than any other, to reflect upon Cellini the kind of credit which doubtless he most craved, the kind that goes to the sculptor in the strict sense. This is the bust of Bindo Altoviti. It is a work of simple dignity, conceived in a virile mood, and executed without that teasing of the surfaces which is elsewhere so apt to be characteristic of Cellini. Michael Angelo thought well of it, writing to Cellini a note which the latter quotes with undisguised satisfaction. "My dear Benvenuto," he says, "I have known you for many years as the greatest goldsmith of whom we have any information; and henceforward I shall know you for a sculptor of like quality. I must tell you that Master Bindo Altoviti took me to see his bust in bronze, and informed me that you made it. I was greatly pleased with the work; but it annoyed me to notice that it was placed in a bad light; for if it were suitably illuminated, it would show itself to be the fine performance that it is." One does not need to give Michael Angelo's polite expressions to a junior an exaggerated value in order to find in them the evidence that Cellini had surpassed himself in this bust. For once he seems to have fitted his style to his theme and to have carried on a piece of work from beginning to end in an unqualifiedly sculptural vein. The bust of Cosimo de' Medici is less successful because it is less simple. The ornamentation is overdone, and the whole work has an artificial, even theatrical air. When he was portraying Bindo Altoviti it is obvious that he worked from nature, endeavouring merely to get a good likeness in a straightforward way. When he undertook the bust of Cosimo we cannot help but feel that there was hovering in the back of his mind a notion that he would make his patron look as much as possible like a Roman emperor. How often was he betrayed by this confusion of mind! Nature should have had her chance, if anywhere, in that large Nymph of Fontainebleau of his, in which the opportunity to model a nude female figure at full length should have put him on his mettle, but the figure is painfully untrue to life, and leaves not only an artificial but even a somewhat vulgar impression. The crucifix in the Escurial escapes this last danger, but, to the critical eye, its actual value as a work of religious art is far below its repute. Neither as a study of anatomical structure nor as an interpretation of a tragic theme does it rise above an ordinary level. There remains the bronze in the Loggia dei Lanzi,—the bronze which probably meant more to him than anything he did in the course of his whole career.

He seems to have been attracted at once by the subject when Cosimo proposed it to him, and, as we have seen from the words to the Duke already quoted, he was fired with the desire to show that he could produce a statue worthy of association with works by Donatello and Michael Angelo. The history of the enterprise is sufficiently traversed in the Autobiography and so need not be further dealt with here, nor, for that matter, need we pause very long upon the Perseus itself. The wax model, which is still preserved at Florence, shows that Cellini started with a capital idea, producing a lithe, slender figure of good proportions, and arranging it, with the headless body trampled under foot, in a composition both picturesque and graceful. If we look at the figure in the Loggia, enlarged, and marked everywhere with the signs of Cellini's

CEL V01 D035 wax model for the perseus.jpg

wax model for the perseus
( florence )


meticulous craftsmanship, and if, as we look, we deliberately put out of mind the whole dramatic story of its casting, so that no elements of personal sympathy are left to affect our view of the matter, we are constrained to admit that the sculptor lost his grasp on his original idea as the work went on. The Perseus should have been executed in silver on a modest scale, it should have been made not a statue but a statuette. As it is, Cellini strove in vain to rise to the level of his great opportunity. Once more the sculptor and the craftsman in him were antipathetic where they should have worked together, and he fell, as it were, between two stools. The Perseus is brittle, finikin, where it should be heroic, and at the same time it is badly proportioned and heavy where it should have been light and elegant. Cellini was in his prime when he put forth this dearest work of his ambition, and by it his rank as an artist may fairly be fixed. It is the subordinate rank of a temperament that paid the penalty of its own ingratiating vivacity. Cellini himself, in his account of his life, suggests that he was not steadfast enough to reach perfection in any form of art, that he relied too much on the sudden jet of emotion, on the excitement which goes with the tour de force. One suspects that he would sometimes take up a task in a fury of interest and then execute it with doubtful success, largely for the reason that it had ceased to appeal to him, only a sort of burning pride keeping him at it. It was not for him to penetrate gravely, tenderly, into the heart of things, to explore the secrets of nature in a passion of awed delight, and then to realize some splendid conception with the noble authority of a Donatello, a Verrocchio or a Michael Angelo. But he was to win his reward when, in his fiftyeighth year, he crowned his lifelong indulgence in what he himself called "natural bragging" with the writing of his Autobiography.

There are half a dozen different points of view from which this famous book appears in a good light. To begin with, in interesting the world in Cellini, it has interested the world in his works, and has thus fostered the fame of the latter. Secondly, these pages are invaluable for the pictures they contain of Italian society in the author's day. He touched life at many points, mingling not only with artists but with princes and prelates. He had a "devouring" eye and a good memory. A thing once seen stayed in his mind; a thing once heard by him was well remembered, and when he dictated his memoirs he gave them the vitality of a daily journal. Moreover, he was of the race of Boccaccio, which is to say that he was a born story-teller, a man who naturally dramatised his experiences as he came to relate them, making the most of a personality or a situation, and, above all, flinging over everything an air of reality, of movement. How far did he swerve from the facts, if he swerved at all, in the framing of this wonderful narrative? It is practically impossible to say, but I am not sure that the point is, in the last resort, of any serious consequence. The late John Addington Symonds was at some pains to demonstrate that Cellini was neither base nor a liar. He made out an excellent case for his hero, and it were ungracious to quarrel with his conclusions, for Symonds not only made the best translation of the Autobiography that has ever been produced, but was so saturated with his subject through years of preoccupation with Italian art and history that his opinion necessarily carries great weight. Yet there are passages in Cellini's life which it is idle to estimate as having any justification whatever in morals, and I cannot for the life of me see why, in the circumstances, we should assume that he was not, when occasion demanded, a rousing good liar. Why should he not have been a liar? Is a man who is capable of malicious mischief, of murder, and of ways of living which are perhaps better left unmentioned, any the better company because he always told the truth, or any the worse because he now and then lied? The question is immaterial. It is not by a careful balancing of his virtues and his vices that we get nearer to Cellini, and the more willing to enjoy his book. The only thing to do is to accept once and for all the fact that manners and morals in the sixteenth century were totally different from morals and manners in our own, and then to approach Benvenuto Cellini as a human being. Our examination of his work as an artist has shown clearly enough that he was no demi-god. Perusal of the Autobiography only makes us the more sure of this. No, this book is to be read for what it is, a work in the same category with the memoirs of Casanova, "Gil Bias," and those other classics which, whether they be made of history or of fiction, appeal to the reader as being all compact of the very blood and bone of human experience.

Cellini is a master of picaresque literature. He loves adventure, and nothing in the world gives him quite the joy that he gets from a hand-to-hand fight. He is happy when he is at work; happy when he is foregathering with Giulio Romano or some other boon companion in Florentine Bohemia, when the day's task is done; happy when he is arguing with a patron; happy when he is driving his dagger up to the hilt in the neck of his enemy; happy, in short, whenever anything is toward that convinces him that he is alive and playing the part of a man. As he looks back over it all, his being thrills with an ineffable gusto, and small blame to him if the story loses nothing in the telling. Take, for example, the fracas which is soon reached in his narrative, the one following Gherardo Guasconti's insult. Benvenuto swoops down upon Gherardo in the midst of his family like an avenging flame. "I stabbed him in the breast," he says, "piercing doublet and jerkin through and through to the shirt, without, however, grazing his flesh or doing him the least harm in the world." He is promptly set upon in the street by "more than twelve persons," all of them crudely but effectively armed, and the fight waxes Homeric. "When I got among them, raging like a mad bull, I flung four or five to the earth, and fell down with them myself, continually aiming my dagger now at one and now at another. Those who remained upright plied both hands with all their force, giving it me with hammers, cudgels, and anvil." Incredible as it may seem, Cellini and all of his adversaries emerged from this tremendous conflict absolutely unscathed. Cellini attributes this to the merciful intervention of a divine power. We know better. We know that the fight was, of course, not anything like so fierce as Cellini represents it to be. But would we have the record changed? Not for worlds! It is just this rich, full-bodied quality in him that makes him the absorbing narrator that he is. He persuades you, too, because he puts what he has to say in such an artless manner. If he lies it is not in cold blood, but with the perfect good faith of a Tartarin. His story of the sack of Rome and of his achievements on the beleaguered walls of the city is superb. Perhaps he did indeed fire the shot that killed the Constable of Bourbon. Perhaps he lied about the shot, and knew he lied. But he tells of the incident with a simple sincerity that all but disarms the sceptic. It is the same with his description of his labours in the lodging to which he withdrew to melt down the gold settings—some two hundred pounds of them—from which he had, under the direction of Clement, detached the Papal jewels. According to the Autobiography, Cellini would put a quantity of gold into the pot, and then, turning to his guns, cause "all sorts of unexpected mischief in the trenches." Again we say "Perhaps," and again, in the next moment, we grant that whether Cellini served as artilleryman and goldsmith in the same moment or not,—a pretty tall order,—he draws a picture of the scene that for vividness and dramatic interest is unimpeachable. Curiously, too, his picture apparently causes him no trouble in the painting. This maker of literature was never a literary man, never for even the smallest fraction of a second. It was probably with no very definite consciousness of just what he was doing that he gave his recollections their extraordinarily tangible form. You could not say of him that he understood the art of omission, for that implies a professional faculty, the instinct of the man of letters; yet one of the great sources of Cellini's charm is this gift for painting an episode without a superfluous touch. The commentator selecting an illustration is tempted, as a matter of course, to take one showing Cellini in a crisis of some sort, to choose the "important" passage; but I think we do him better justice if we take him in more familiar mood, if we take him when he is treating of some ordinary affair in his daily life. There is the tale of his meeting with Madonna Porzia at the Farnesina, and of her giving him a jewel to set. Flaubert himself, slaving his hardest, could not have approached the lucidity and the vitality of those three or four pages. The way in which the artist and the lady met, the tone she used toward him, and her exit from the room in which he stayed on to finish the drawing he was making from a figure in the famous ceiling decoration—all this is sketched with the animation of life itself; and Benvenuto's succeeding labours over the jewel, and his rivalry with Lucagnolo, are handled with the same power. Very little space is given to the subject, but we are made, within that little space, to live a part of Cellini's life. Glance, too, at the note, less than a page long, in which he tells of going to see Michael Angelo in Rome, and suggesting that the great man return to Florence and the service of Duke Cosimo. Little is said. Michael Angelo looks his interlocutor hard in the face and briefly answers him with a question, smiling sarcastically the while. Cellini is pressing, whereupon Michael Angelo creates a diversion by turning to his simple-minded servant. The visitor gives up his mission in despair, but he laughs as, without saying farewell, he goes from the house. It is odd, but somehow this casual fragment, which tells practically nothing, yet tells everything. The leonine head of Michael Angelo turns toward us in the dusk of the studio, and we see that sarcastic smile.

This, then, is the supreme merit of the Autobiography—that it has the dramatic reality for which we look, as a rule, only to the creative artists in literature. As for the stuff of the narrative, Cellini may have been born too late to witness the richest developments of the Renaissance, but there were still great spirits on earth sojourning when he was born, and even those public figures that were not precisely great had characteristics, or filled positions, significant to the modern reader. Cellini fills his canvas with a generous hand. He is himself his best theme, but he draws a friend or an enemy with the same care that he bestows upon his own traits or mischances, and though he has a due sense of the powers of the great ones with whom he comes in contact, it is with a quite unhampered brush that he introduces Pope or mundane potentate upon the scene. He speaks of artists and their work with the intimate accent of Vasari, and with a robuster, warmer, more roughly human element of appreciation in his voice. He is, as I said at the beginning, every inch a man, and it is a man's report of what he did and felt and saw that he gives us,—a report wanting in the niceties of literary form, darkened by prejudice and passion, but, in its spirit, a thing genuine as the man himself was genuine.