|To what extent does Cellini's autobiography succeed in elevating his art to an intellectual status?
It is perhaps appropriate that Cellini's Vita remained forgotten and under-appreciated for more than two centuries, eventually rediscovered in a bookshop in 1805 after an obscurely sourced printing run in 1728. For Cellini himself lived his life acutely aware of the position he held in the eyes of his patrons, his critics and his contemporaries: he was late to the party, born in Florence in 1500, and knew of the need to assert himself upon the scene. His father was a musician and encouraged his son to follow him, before reluctantly allowing him into a goldsmith's apprenticeship. Yet Cellini was determined to become more than a gioielliere or orafo, he wanted to be seen as an artist an intellectual alongside writers, orators and philosophers, a man whose art could rival any other in depth. In 1550, however, Giorgio Vasari, often credited as the first art historian, published his work Le Vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori, a collection of biographies of eminent artists. Cellini did not feature amongst them. By the next edition of Vasari's text, Cellini had completed his autobiography and this contributed to his inclusion. How, then are we to reconcile the racy, often colloquial nature of Cellini's work with his desire to stand out as an artist, and how can this be seen to have contributed to his eventual standing as an intellectual?
It is evident from the opening lines of the autobiography that Cellini is keen to show a progression in his ability and that we should also not seek to use his personality to detract from his talents. But there lingers the sense of not quite having done enough to warrant a place amongst the intellectual elite: “Con tutto che quegli uomini che si sono affaticati con qualche poco di sentore di virtú hanno dato cognizione di loro al mondo, quella sola doverria bastare, vedutosi essere uomo e conosciuto”. He recognises those who have, in the past, worked hard and been satisfied with the results, but suggests that this is not quite sufficient for him. Now 58 – and he contrasts this with the idea that one shouldn't write such a text before reaching 40 – he feels in a position of adequate comfort to be able to try to extend the fruits of his labours and to reflect on his achievements. It is for this that “ci si interviene un poco di boriosità di mondo” in the work: he believes he has earnt the right to flaunt his talents and so too should we.
Throughout the book Cellini struggles with his identity as an artist, continually striving to be something more than his present occupation, and this can be seen as indicative of a tendency throughout the Renaissance to encourage talent in multiple fields rather than focusing on one particular art. Art and writing, for example, are strongly connected in Castiglione's Il Cortegiano: Ludovico Canossa at one point states that “basti solamente dire che al nostro cortegiano conviensi ancor della pittura aver notizia”2, for it would be foolish to disregard something that men of more honourable times appreciated. The whole book, indeed, serves as a tribute to art as Castiglione paints a vivid portrait of the court of Urbino (“mandovi questo libro come un ritratto di pittura della corte d'Urbino”), thereby inextricably linking art and literature. Alberti's De Pictura and De Statua had begun this connection a century before, investigating the theory of art as no one had before, and Vasari's biographies further strengthened the links between the two activities. These examples meant that, by the time Cellini came to write in 1558, there was already a tradition and encouragement of artists' involvement in literature, but autobiography remained comparatively untouched. He could therefore continue to grow in different fields of art (and, taking into account his Trattato dell'Oreficeria and Trattato della Scultura, both published after his autobiography, it seems obvious that he wished to do this) whilst proving to his contemporaries that his work up to that point had been of merit and had been worked hard for.
This can perhaps most clearly seen in the structure of the work for, written chronologically, the book effectively charts Cellini's progress as an artist from the very beginning (“Per tanto darò prencipio come a Dio piacque che io nascessi.”) right up to his situation in the years before he began writing. Thus we hear of every commission, every dispute and every success that he enjoyed. We hear of the incessant travel he undertook, be it fleeing or taking up new positions. Crucially, we hear of every relationship he held – romantic and professional – such that he is able to defend his reputation in every facet of his life. As we have recognised, the artist needed to attain mastery over every aspect of his being, and Cellini attempts this in depriving us of none of the fine details and in attempting to defend every one of his decisions. As a result he of course appears overly defensive and, at times, stubborn, brushing off any criticism levelled at him by employers or rivals because, crucially, he felt that his work warranted the trouble he underwent to achieve it. Moreover, despite the presence of numerous violent episodes – brawls, murders, battles – Cellini remains remarkably unemotional throughout the narrative. Certainly, this can be attributed to the years that had passed by the time he came to set words to paper, yet it remains a conscious decision on the author's part to withhold certain emotions and reactions and to prioritise professionalism. For example, following his brother's death at twenty-five, Cellini is evidently affected but does not spend pages mourning and does not allow the event to impact his work ethic. Rather, it prompts more work, for Cellini designs in his memory “una bellissima lapida di marmo, innella quale vi si fece alcuni trofei e bandiere intagliate”3, which he proceeds to return to twice rather than focus on eulogising his brother: “Tornando alla ditta lapida...”/”Tornando a quella che io feci nel sepulcro del mio fratello”. That is not to say that the event paints Cellini in a bad light; instead it ought to be seen as indicative of his desire to separate personality and profession, to retain his artistry as the focus of the work.
It is for this reason, then, that the autobiography can be seen to culminate in what was perhaps Cellini's greatest achivement, Perseo con la testa di Medusa. Commissioned by Duke Cosimo de' Medici, Cellini mentions that “questo era quanto lui aveva di già desiderato un pezzo”4. From the start Cellini sets the work up to have great potential, recounting the Duke's suggestion that “e tu conducessi, Benvenuto mio, cosí in opera grande questo piccol modellino, questa sarebbe la piú bella opera di piazza”, to which he knowingly responds that there are statues by Donatello and Michelangelo in the same place. Progress is slow, however, when construction of a suitable workshop begins slowly and Cellini is forced to admit that “I piccoli principii alcune volte hanno gran fine”. Using his own money and only a couple of apprentices, therefore, he began work. Problems with health, other projects and politics further delay the statue, however, and Cellini was tempted on more than one occasion to abandon the project. As it comes together, the Duke becomes concerned that “questa figura non ti può venire di bronzo, perché l’arte non te lo promette”5 to which Cellini declares that “e sol per queste mie intelligenzie l’è cosí ben venuta, la qual cosa non credette mai nessuno di questi pratici di questa arte”, flaunting his capability. His progression as an artist is made very clear as he mentions the important influences he drew from his work in France, despite the Duke's criticisms one after another that Cellini has overlooked some aspect of the work. Having batted these aside, Cellini observes that “il Duca, scotendo il capo, si andò con Dio”. It is important to note the tempestuous relationship Cellini held with his patrons, for he often accused them of not understanding art from an artist's perspective but from the patron's. Here then we can find another explanation for the style of the autobiography: by interweaving personal difficulties and struggles with professional duties, Cellini makes clear the divide between what a patron expects and what is realistic for the artist. On a metatextual level, we can link this to the reader's expectations of the Vita, for ultimately we are in the hands of the author. In any case, after further fire, fever and rain and a description that brings to mind not a garden workshop in Florence but the fiery domain of Hephaestus himself, the casting of the Perseus was finished. After more misfortune, it is completed and displayed to great acclaim. Most important to Cellini, however, is the satisfaction granted by the statue's reception amongst his fellow artists: “quello che mi dava maggior contento, con isperanza di maggior mia salute inverso ’l mio Duca, si era che quegli dell’arte, cioè scultori e pittori, ancora loro facevano aggara a chi meglio diceva”6. What Cellini achieved through his Perseus, then, was universal recognition. What seems most important to him, though, is the academic acclaim that it brings, for congratulatory notes from “tutti quei eccellentissimi dotti e gli scolari” are attached around the statue, confirming his ability to merge his artistic talents with his intellectual longings.
By the end of the autobiography, then, Cellini has succeeded in winning over the people – for they stop and stare at him as much as his Perseus – his patron, who promises anything he desires in return, and his contemporaries – he cites Jacopo da Pontormo and Bronzino, who send sonnets, as examples. This last point makes clearest the triumph of the Vita: one of the best indications of the purpose of the book is Cellini's happiness at receiving poetry from a painter for his sculpture. He has succeeded, then, in gaining recognition and bringing together the various art forms he appreciates. Most telling is his reaction to a joke of the Duke's in the final pages of the autobiography: at the suggestion that “Benvenuto è quel valente uomo che sa il mondo, ma ora lui non vuole piú lavorare”7, he furiously responds that it is the Duke's own idleness that left him to find his own work. In fact, the Duke just wanted to keep the sculptor for himself, but Cellini's reaction emphasises the progress he has made in the course of the book: now he is able to take himself seriously and approach his work from an artist's perspective rather than the direction his patrons wish. Whilst we must not forget that it is still Cellini writing, we must also appreciate how far he has come.
1La Vita di Benvenuto Cellini (Einaudi, 1973), p.2
2Il Libro del Cortegiano, Primo Libro, LII
Benvenuto Cellini: Autobiography – G. Bull (1956)