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The Lies of Cellini

December 17th, 2007

Benvenuto Cellini was a 16th Century Florentine sculptor and goldsmith, a contemporary of Michelangelo Buonaratti, a steely-handed, dead-eyed, sword-swinging, swashbuckling rake, misogynist, hothead, egomaniac, occult dabbler, holy ascetic and consummate craftsman. Or so he would have us believe.

My edition of his Autobiography was published in 1940, obviously by someone with Errol Flynn on the brain:

The book was a gift from my grandfather, a man not averse to embellishing a tall tale himself now and again—who actually had me convinced throughout much of my youth that, Cellini being my grandmother’s maiden name, Benvenuto Cellini was an ancestor of mine. My grandfather quoted from the Autobiography all the time, as often as not claiming Cellini’s wisdoms for his own—yet he also kept insisting that I read it. Eventually, I caved. “Measure twice, cut once,” my grandpa always said, so frequently that I believed these words to be inscribed upon his very soul. As I hauled bricks and mixed mortar, helping him build the chimney for my uncle’s new house: “Measure twice, cut once.” Cutting up balsawood with a razor for a seventh grade science project, or considering the layout of a chessboard: “Measure twice, cut once.” Think before you step. Words to live by.

Imagine the shock to my system when I came across these very words in the writings of the madman Benvenuto Cellini.

During the sack of Rome by the Bourbons in 1521, Cellini claims to have shouldered his way forward through hordes of fleeing cowards to more or less singlehandedly gun down the commander of the Bourbon army and save the Palace of St. Peter from certain capture. Having taken impromptu command of a battery of artillery:

I went on firing under the eyes of several cardinals and lords, who kept blessing me and giving me the heartiest encouragement. In my enthusiasm I strove to achieve the impossible; let it suffice that it was I who saved the castle that morning…

Cellini’s relationship with God and His representatives in pointy hats is bizarre and convoluted; on the one hand, his business as goldsmith and minter of coin places him in the service of a succession of corrupt, paranoid popes, bishops, and secular leaders, for whom he makes no effort to conceal his distaste. On the other, the above passage, among many others, attests to his unswerving belief in a higher power. Above, he seems not only to be taking credit for the blessing of God in guiding his aim, but at the same time heartily criticizing the earthly cowardice of the clergy. He even goes so far as to mock us, his readers, for not having had the luck and divine fortune to witness Rome’s destruction firsthand:

Night came, the enemy had entered Rome, and we who were in the castle (especially myself, who have always taken pleasure in extraordinary sights) stayed gazing on the indescribable scene of tumult and conflagration in the streets below. People who were anywhere else but where we were could not have formed the least imagination of what it was. I will not, however, set myself to describe that tragedy…

But it isn’t only the power of God in which Cellini places his faith. Not much later, having fallen in with a Sicilian necromancer-priest, he shows no hesitation in goading the priest to a demonstration of his black powers.

We went together to the Coliseum; and there the priest, having arrayed himself in necromancer’s robes, began to describe circles on the earth with the finest ceremonies that can be imagined. … This lasted more than an hour and a half; [at which point] several legions appeared, and the Coliseum was all full of devils. I was occupied with the precious perfumes, and when the priest perceived in what numbers they were present, he turned to me and said: “Benvenuto, ask them something.” I called on them to reunite me with my Sicilian Angelica.

An entire Coliseum full of demons, and what does he ask for? The chance to get back with yet another of his bawdy strumpets! But the demons are not so easily ordered about, and they demand that he return the next night with “a little boy of pure virginity”, apparently in order to drive him out of his mind:

…the boy, who was beneath the pentacle, shrieked out in terror that a million of the fiercest men were swarming round and threateining us. He said, moreover, that four huge giants had appeared who were striving to force their way inside the circle. Meanwhile, the necromancer, trembling with fear, kept doing his best with mild and soft persuasuions to dismiss them. … Though I was quite as frightened as the rest, I tried to show it less, and inspired them all with marvellous courage; but the truth is that I had given myself up for dead. … The boy had stuck his head between his knees, exclaiming: “This is how I will meet death, for we are certainly dead men.”

But in the end, it seems only the poor little virgin boy who is doomed, while the demons promise Cellini to reunite him with his strumpet in the space of one month. And lo and behold, a month later:

I stayed with her from even-fall until the following morning, and enjoyed such pleasure as I never had before or since; but while drinking deep of this delight, it occurred to my mind how exactly on that day the month expired, which had been propesied within the necromantic circle by the devils. So then let every man who enters into relation with those spirits weigh well the inestimable perils I have passed through!

Indeed, Benvenuto does not go unpunished—albeit for what he perceives to be unrelated sins. He spends the majority of the next fifteen years and 150 pages of his life languishing for various political crimes in a papal prison, plotting his escape, escaping only to be recaptured, dodging assassination attempts both real and imagined, lamenting his fate, watching all his teeth fall out of his head, and eventually, seeing God:

During the following night there appeared to me in dreams a marvellous being in the form of a most lovely youth, who cried, as though he wanted to reprove me: “Knowest thou who lent thee that body, which though wouldst have spoiled before its time?” I seemed to answer that I recognized all things pertaining to me as gifts from the God of nature. “So, then,” he said, “thou hast contempt for His handiwork, through this thy will to spoil it? Commit thyself unto His guidance, and lose not hope in His greatness!”

Thus does Benvenuto Cellini get Saved. He reads his bible cover to cover, composes hosannas in an ink made of brick dust and spit, and by Providence is at last Delivered from his life of swashbuckling and debauchery to a harried but peaceful middle age.

God sure is one forgiving dude.

“Measure twice, cut once.” Cellini’s entire life seems one long, convoluted contradiction of that very adage. With the exception of his achievements as a craftsman, he seems to have ignored his own advice completely. Now, granted, he pays for it in blood, venereal disease and teeth. But I spent a long time wondering what lessons my grandfather intended me to take from the fictionalized life of my not-actual-progenitor (whose hereditary sins I thankfully need not atone for, since it turns out Benvenuto Cellini outlived all his progeny). Was he actually concerned that I might become an egomaniacal debaucherous demon-worshipping lech? Did my grandfather wish he himself had been given the opportunity to learn Cellini’s lesson before doing things he would regret? Maybe he just wanted me to read about this stuff so I wouldn’t be tempted to try it.

If that’s the case, well, lesson learned. I have absolutely no intention of invoking any demons, insulting any popes, or consorting with any bawdy strumpets. On the other hand… I wouldn’t complain if I could sculpt a Perseus.

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