Benvenuto Cellini (1500–1571). Autobiography.
Vol. 31, pp. 62-72 of The Harvard Classics
Taking offense at a soldier who made advances toward his favorite lady, Cellini jumped from the window, knife in hand, to avenge himself. This incident was recorded with characteristic conceit by Cellini in his amazing diary.
I SHALL be obliged to digress a little from the history of my art, unless I were to omit some annoying incidents which have happened in the course of my troubled career. One of these, which I am about to describe, brought me into the greatest risk of my life. I have already told the story of the artists’ club, and of the farcical adventures which happened owing to the woman whom I mentioned, Pantasilea, the one who felt for me that false and fulsome love. She was furiously enraged because of the pleasant trick by which I brought Diego to our banquet, and she swore to be revenged on me. How she did so is mixed up with the history of a young man called Luigi Pulci, who had recently come to Rome. He was the son of one of the Pulcis, who had been beheaded for incest with his daughter; and the youth possessed extraordinary gifts for poetry together with sound Latin scholarship; he wrote well, was graceful in manners, and of surprising personal beauty; he had just left the service of some bishop, whose name I do not remember, and was thoroughly tainted with a very foul disease. While he was yet a lad and living in Florence, they used in certain places of the city to meet together during the nights of summer on the public streets; and he, ranking among the best of the improvisatori, sang there. His recitations were so admirable, that the divine Michel Agnolo Buonarroti, that prince of sculptors and of painters, went, wherever he heard that he would be, with the greatest eagerness and delight to listen to him. There was a man called Piloto, a goldsmith, very able in his art, who, together with myself, joined Buonarroti upon these occasions. 1 Thus acquaintance sprang up between me and Luigi Pulci; and so, after the lapse of many years, he came, in the miserable plight which I have mentioned, to make himself known to me again in Rome, beseeching me for God’s sake to help him. Moved to compassion by his great talents, by the love of my fatherland, and by my own natural tenderness of heart, I took him into my house, and had him medically treated in such wise that, being but a youth, he soon regained his health. While he was still pursuing his cure, he never omitted his studies, and I provided him with books according to the means at my disposal. The result was that Luigi, recognising the great benefits he had received from me, oftentimes with words and tears returned me thanks, protesting that if God should ever put good fortune in his way, he would recompense me for my kindness. To this I replied that I had not done for him as much as I desired, but only what I could, and that it was the duty of human beings to be mutually serviceable. Only I suggested that he should repay the service I had rendered him by doing likewise to some one who might have the same need of him as he had had of me.
The young man in question began to frequent the Court of Rome, where he soon found a situation, and enrolled himself in the suite of a bishop, a man of eighty years, who bore the title of Gurgensis. 2 This bishop had a nephew called Messer Giovanni: he was a nobleman of Venice; and the said Messer Giovanni made show of marvellous attachment to Luigi Pulci’s talents; and under the pretence of these talents, he brought him as familiar to himself as his own flesh blood. Luigi having talked of me, and of his great obligations to me, with Messer Giovanni, the latter expressed a wish to make my acquaintance. Thus then it came to pass, that when I had upon a certain evening invited that woman Pantasilea to supper, and had assembled a company of men of parts who were my friends, just at the moment of our sitting down to table, Messer Giovanni and Luigi Pulci arrived, and after some complimentary speeches, they both remained to sup with us. The shameless strumpet, casting her eyes upon the young man’s beauty, began at once to lay her nets for him; perceiving which, when the supper had come to an agreeable end, I took Luigi aside, and conjured him, by the benefits he said he owed me, to have nothing whatever to do with her. To this he answered: “Good heavens, Benvenuto! do you then take me for a madman?” I rejoined: “Not for a madman, but for a young fellow;” and I swore to him by God: “I do not give that woman the least thought; but for your sake I should be sorry if through her you come to break your neck.” Upon these words he vowed and prayed to God, that, if ever he but spoke with her, he might upon the moment break his neck. I think the poor lad swore this oath to God with all his heart, for he did break his neck, as I shall presently relate. Messer Giovanni showed signs too evident of loving him in a dishonourable way; for we began to notice that Luigi had new suits of silk and velvet every morning, and it was known that he abandoned himself altogether to bad courses. He neglected his fine talents, and pretended not to see or recognise me, because I had once rebuked him, and told him he was giving his soul to foul vices, which would make him break his neck, as he had vowed.
Note 1. Piloto, of whom we shall hear more hereafter, was a prominent figure in the Florentine society of artists, and a celebrated practical joker. Vasari says that a young man of whom he had spoken ill murdered him. Lasca’s Novelle, Le Cene, should be studied by those who seek an insight into this curious Bohemia of the sixteenth century.
Note 2. Girolamo Balbo, of the noble Venetian family, Bishop of Gurck, in Carinthia.
NOW Messer Giovanni bought his favourite a very fine black horse, for which he paid 150 crowns. The beast was admirably trained to hand, so that Luigi could go daily to caracole around the lodgings of that prostitute Pantasilea. Though I took notice of this, I paid it no attention, only remarking that all things acted as their nature prompted; and meanwhile I gave my whole mind to my studies. It came to pass one Sunday evening that we were invited to sup together with the Sienese sculptor, Michel Agnolo, and the time of the year was summer. Bachiacca, of whom I have already spoken, was present at the party; and he had brought with him his old flame, Pantasilea. When we were at table, she sat between me and Bachiacca; but in the very middle of the banquet she rose, and excused herself upon the pretext of a natural need, saying she would speedily return. We, meanwhile, continued talking very agreeably and supping; but she remained an unaccountably long time absent. It chanced that, keeping my ears open, I thought I heard a sort of subdued tittering in the street below. I had a knife in hand, which I was using for my service at the table. The window was so close to where I sat, that, by merely rising, I could see Luigi in the street, together with Pantasilea; and I heard Luigi saying: “Oh, if that devil Benvenuto only saw us, shouldn’t we just catch it!” She answered: “Have no fear; only listen to the noise they’re making; we are the last thing they’re thinking of.” At these words, having made them both well out, I leaped from the window, and took Luigi by the cape; and certainly I should then have killed him with the knife I held, but that he was riding a white horse, to which he clapped spurs, leaving his cape in my grasp, in order to preserve his life. Pantasilea took to her heels in the direction of a neighbouring church. The company at supper rose immediately, and came down, entreating me in a body to refrain from putting myself and them to inconvenience for a strumpet. I told them that I should not have let myself be moved on her account, but that I was bent on punishing the infamous young man, who showed how little he regarded me. Accordingly I would not yield to the remonstrances of those ingenious and worthy men, but took my sword, and went alone toward Prati:—the house where we were supping, I should say, stood close to the Castello gate, which led to Prati. 1 Walking thus upon the road to Prati, I had not gone far before the sun sank, and I re-entered Rome itself at a slow pace. Night had fallen; darkness had come on; but the gates of Rome were not yet shut.
Toward two hours after sunset, I walked along Pantasilea’s lodging, with the intention, if Luigi Pulci were there, of doing something to the discontent of both. When I heard and saw that no one but a poor servant-girl called Canida was in the house, I went to put away my cloak and the scabbard of my sword, and then returned to the house, which stood behind the Banchi on the river Tiber. Just opposite stretched a garden belonging to an innkeeper called Romolo. It was enclosed by a thick hedge of thorns, in which I hid myself, standing upright, and waiting till the woman came back with Luigi. After keeping watch awhile there, my friend Bachiacca crept up to me; whether led by his own suspicions or by the advice of others, I cannot say. In a low voice he called out to me: “Gossip” (for so we used to name ourselves for fun); and then he prayed me for God’s love, using the words which follow, with tears in the tone of his voice: “Dear gossip, I entreat you not to injure that poor girl; she at least has erred in no wise in this matter—no, not at all.” When I heard what he was saying, I replied: “If you don’t take yourself off now, at this first word I utter, I will bring my sword here down upon your head.” Overwhelmed with fright, my poor gossip was suddenly taken ill with the colic, and withdrew to ease himself apart; indeed, he could not buy obey the call. There was a glorious heaven of stars, which shed good light to see by. All of a sudden I was aware of the noise of many horses; they were coming toward me from the one side and the other. It turned out to be Luigi and Pantasilea, attended by a certain Messer Benvegnato of Perugia, who was chamberlain to Pope Clement, and followed by four doughty captains of Perugia, with some other valiant soldiers in the flower of youth; altogether reckoned, there were more than twelve swords. When I understood the matter, and saw not how to fly, I did my best to crouch into the hedge. But the thorns pricked and hurt me, goading me to madness like a bull; and I had half resolved to take a leap and hazard my escape. Just then Luigi, with his arm round Pantasilea’s neck, was heard crying: “I must kiss you once again, if only to insult that traitor Benvenuto.” At that moment, annoyed as I was by the prickles, and irritated by the young man’s words, I sprang forth, lifted my sword on high, and shouted at the top of my voice: “You are all dead folk!” My blow descended on the shoulder of Luigi; but the satyrs who doted on him, had steeled his person round with coasts of mail and such-like villainous defences; still the stroke fell with crushing force. Swerving aside, the sword hit Pantasilea full in nose and mouth. Both she and Luigi grovelled on the ground, while Bachiacca, with his breeches down to heels, screamed out and ran away. Then I turned upon the others boldly with my sword; and those valiant fellows, hearing a sudden commotion in the tavern, thought there was an army coming of a hundred men; and though they drew their swords with spirit, yet two horses which had taken fright in the tumult cast them into such disorder that a couple of the best riders were thrown, and the remainder took to flight. I, seeing that the affair was turning out well, for me, ran as quickly as I could, and came off with honour from the engagement, not wishing to tempt fortune more than was my duty. During this hurly-burly, some of the soldiers and captains wounded themselves with their own arms; and Messer Benvegnato, the Pope’s chamberlain, was kicked and trampled by his mule. One of the servants also, who had drawn his sword, fell down together with his master, and wounded him badly in the hand. Maddened by the pain, he swore louder than all the rest in his Perugian jargon, crying out: “By the body of God, I will take care that Benvegnato teaches Benvenuto how to live.” He afterwards commissioned one of the captains who were with him (braver perhaps than the others, but with less aplomb, as being but a youth) to seek me out. The fellow came to visit me in the place of by retirement; that was the palace of a great Neapolitan nobleman, who had become acquainted with me in my art, and had besides taken a fancy to me because of my physical and mental aptitude for fighting, to which my lord himself was personally well inclined. So, then, finding myself made much of, and being precisely in my element, I gave such answer to the captain as I think must have made him earnestly repent of having come to look me up. After a few days, when the wounds of Luigi, and the strumpet, and the rest were healing, this great Neapolitan nobleman received overtures from Messer Benvegnato; for the prelate’s anger had cooled, and he proposed to ratify a peace between me and Luigi and the soldiers, who had personally no quarrel with me, and only wished to make my acquaintance. Accordingly my friend the nobleman replied that he would bring me where they chose to appoint, and that he was very willing to effect a reconciliation. He stipulated that no words should be bandied about on either side, seeing that would be little to their credit; it was enough to go through the form of drinking together and exchanging kisses; he for his part undertook to do the talking, and promised to settle the matter to their honour. This arrangement was carried out. On Thursday evening my protector took me to the house of Messer Benvegnato, where all the soldiers who had been present at that discomfiture were assembled, and already seated at table. My nobleman was attended by thirty brave fellows, all well armed; a circumstance which Messer Benvegnato had not anticipated. When we came into the hall, he walking first, I following, he speak to this effect: “God save you, gentlemen; we have come to see you, I and Benvenuto, whom I love like my own brother; and we are ready to do whatever you propose.” Messer Benvegnato, seeing the hall filled with such a crowd of men, called out: “It is only peace, and nothing else, we ask of you.” Accordingly he promised that the governor of Rome and his catchpoles should give me no trouble. Then we made peace, and I returned to my shop, where I could not stay an hour without that Neapolitan nobleman either coming to see me or sending for me.
Meanwhile Luigi Pulci, having recovered from his wound, rode every day upon the black horse which was so well trained to heel and bridle. One day, among others, after it had rained a little, and he was making his horse curvet just before Pantasilea’s door, he slipped and fell, with the horse upon him. His right leg was broken short off in the thigh; and after a few days he died there in Pantisilea’s lodgings, discharging thus the vow he registered so heartily to Heaven. Even so may it be seen that God keeps account of the good and the bad, and gives to each one what he merits.
Note 1. The Porta Castello was the gate called after the Castle of S. Angelo. Prati, so far as I can make out, was an open space between the Borgo and the Bridge of S. Angelo. In order to get inside Rome itself, Cellini had to pass a second gate. His own lodging and Pantasilea’s house were in the quarter of the Bianchi, where are now the Via Giulia and Via de’ Banchi Vecchi.
THE WHOLE world was now in warfare. 1 Pope Clement had sent to get some troops from Giovanni de’ Medici, and when they came, they made such disturbances in Rome, that it was ill living in open shops. 2 On this account I retired to a good snug house behind the Banchi, where I worked for all the friends I had acquired. Since I produced few things of much importance at that period, I need not waste time in talking about them. I took much pleasure in music and amusements of the kind. On the death of Giovanni de’ Medici in Lombardy, the Pope, at the advice of Messer Jacopo Salviati, dismissed the five bands he had engaged; and when the Constable of Bourbon knew there were no troops in Rome, he pushed his army with the utmost energy up to the city. The whole of Rome upon this flew to arms. I happened to be intimate with Alessandro, the son of Piero del Bene, who, at the time when the Colonnesi entered Rome, had requested me to guard his palace. 3 On this more serious occasion, therefore, he prayed me to enlist fifty comrades for the protection of the said house, appointing me their captain, as I had been when the Colonnesi came. So I collected fifty young men of the highest courage, and we took up our quarters in his palace, with good pay and excellent appointments.
Bourbon’s army had now arrived before the walls of Rome, and Alessandro begged me to go with him to reconnoitre. So we went with one of the stoutest fellows in our Company; and on the way a youth called Cecchino della Casa joined himself to us. On reaching the walls by the Campo Santo, we could see that famous army, which was making every effort to enter the town. Upon the ramparts where we took our station several young men were lying killed by the besiegers; the battle raged there desperately, and there was the densest fog imaginable. I turned to Alessandro and said: “Let us go home as soon as we can, for there is nothing to be done here; you see the enemies are mounting, and our men are in flight.” Alessandro, in a panic, cried: “Would God that we had never come here!” and turned in maddest haste to fly. I took him up somewhat sharply with these words: “Since you have brought me here, I must perform some action worthy of a man;” and directing my arquebuse where I saw the thickest and most serried troop of fighting men, I aimed exactly at one whom I remarked to be higher than the rest; the fog prevented me from being certain whether he was on horseback or on foot. Then I turned to Alessandro and Cecchino, and bade them discharge their arquebuses, showing them how to avoid being hit by the besiegers. When we had fired two rounds apiece, I crept cautiously up to the wall, and observing among the enemy a most extraordinary confusion, I discovered afterwards that one of our shots had killed the Constable of Bourbon; and from what I subsequently learned, he was the man whom I had first noticed above the heads of the rest. 4
Quitting our position on the ramparts, we crossed the Campo Santo, and entered the city by St. Peter’s; then coming out exactly at the church of Santo Agnolo, we got with the greatest difficulty to the great gate of the castle; for the generals Renzo di Ceri and Orazio Baglioni were wounding and slaughtering everybody who abandoned the defence of the walls. 5 By the time we had reached the great gate, part of the foemen had already entered Rome, and we had them in our rear. The castellan had ordered the portcullis to be lowered, in order to do which they cleared a little space, and this enabled us four to get inside. On the instant that I entered, the captain Pallone de’ Medici claimed me as being of the Papal household, and forced me to abandon Alessandro, which I had to do, much against my will. I ascended to the keep, and at the same instant Pope Clement came in through the corridors into the castle; he had refused to leave the palace of St. Peter earlier, being unable to believe that his enemies would effect their entrance into Rome. 6 Having got into the castle in this way, I attached myself to certain pieces of artillery, which were under the command of a bombardier called Giuliano Fiorentino. Leaning there against the battlements, the unhappy man could see his poor house being sacked, and his wife and children outraged; fearing to strike his own folk, he dared not discharge the cannon, and flinging the burning fuse upon the ground, he wept as though his heart would break, and tore his cheeks with both his hands. 7 Some of the other bombardiers were behaving in like manner; seeing which, I took one of the matches, and got the assistance of a few men who were not overcome by their emotions. I aimed some swivels and falconets at points where I saw it would be useful, and killed with them a good number of the enemy. Had it not been for this, the troops who poured into Rome that morning, and were marching straight upon the castle, might possibly have entered it with ease, because the artillery was doing them no damage. 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, and brought the other bombardiers back to their duty. 8 I worked hard the whole of that day; and when the evening came, while the army was marching into Rome through the Trastevere, Pope Clement appointed a great Roman nobleman named Antonio Santacroce to be captain of all the gunners. The first thing this man did was to come to me, and having greeted me with the utmost kindness, he stationed me with five fine pieces of artillery on the highest point of the castle, to which the name of the Angel specially belongs. This circular eminence goes round the castle, and surveys both Prati and the town of Rome. The captain put under my orders enough men to help in managing my guns, and having seen me paid in advance, he gave me rations of bread and a little wine, and begged me to go forward as I had begun. I was perhaps more inclined by nature to the profession of arms than to the one I had adopted, and I took such pleasure in its duties that I discharged them better than those of my own art. 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 will content myself with continuing the history of my own life and the circumstances which properly belong to it.
Note 1. War had broken out in 1521 between Charles V and Francis I, which disturbed all Europe and involved the States of Italy in serious complications. At the moment when this chapter opens, the Imperialist army under the Constable of Bourbon was marching upon Rome in 1527.
Note 3. Cellini here refers to the attack made upon Rome by the great Ghibelline house of Colonna, led by their chief captain, Pompeo, in September 1526. They took possession of the city and drove Clement into the Castle of S. Angelo, where they forced him to agree to terms favouring the Imperial cause. It was customary for Roman gentlemen to hire bravi for the defence of their palaces when any extraordinary disturbance was expected, as, for example, upon the vacation of the Papal Chair.
Note 4. All historians of the sack of Rome agree in saying that Bourbon was shot dead while placing ladders against the outworks near the shop Cellini mentions. But the honour of firing the arquebuse which brought him down cannot be assigned to any one in particular. Very different stories were current on the subject. See Gregorovius, Stadt Rom., vol. viii. p. 522.
Note 5. For Renzo di Ceri see above. Orazio Baglioni, of the semi-princely Perugian family, was a distinguished Condottiere. He subsequently obtained the captaincy of the Bande Nere, and died fighting near Naples in 1528. Orazio murdered several of his cousins in order to acquire the lordship of Perugia. His brother Malatesta undertook to defend Florence in the siege of 1530, and sold the city by treason to Clement.
Note 6. Giovio, in his Life of the Cardinal Prospero Colonna, relates how he accompanied Clement in his flight from the Vatican to the castle. While passing some open portions of the gallery, he threw his violent mantle and cap of a Monsignore over the white stole of the Pontiff, for fear he might be shot at by the soldiers in the streets below.
Note 7. The short autobiography of Raffaello da Montelupo, a man in many respects resembling Cellini, confirms this part of our author’s narrative. It is one of the most interesting pieces of evidence regarding what went on inside the castle during the sack of Rome. Montelupo was also a gunner, and commanded two pieces.
Note 8. This is an instance of Cellini’s exaggeration. He did more than yeoman’s service, no doubt. But we cannot believe that, without him, the castle would have been taken.
DURING the course of my artillery practice, which I never intermitted through the whole month passed by us beleaguered in the castle, I met with a great many very striking accidents, all of them worthy to be related. But since I do not care to be too prolix, or to exhibit myself outside the sphere of my profession, I will omit the larger part of them, only touching upon those I cannot well neglect, which shall be the fewest in number and the most remarkable. The first which comes to hand is this: Messer Antonio Santacroce had made me come down from the Angel, in order to fire on some houses in the neighbourhood, where certain of our besiegers had been seen to enter. While I was firing, a cannon shot reached me, which hit the angle of a battlement, and carried off enough of it to be the cause why I sustained no injury. The whole mass struck me in the chest and took my breath away. I lay stretched upon the ground like a dead man, and could hear what the bystanders were saying. Among them all, Messer Antonio Santacroce lamented greatly, exclaiming: “Alas, alas! we have lost the best defender that we had.” Attracted by the uproar, one of my comrades ran up; he was called Gianfrancesco, and was a bandsman, but was far more naturally given to medicine than to music. On the spot he flew off, crying for a stoop of the very best Greek wine. Then he made a tile red-hot, and cast upon it a good handful of wormwood; after which he sprinkled the Greek wine; and when the wormwood was well soaked, he laid it on my breast, just where the bruise was visible to all. Such was the virtue of the wormwood that I immediately regained my scattered faculties. I wanted to begin to speak; but could not; for some stupid soldiers had filled my mouth with earth, imagining that by so doing they were giving me the sacrament; and indeed they were more like to have excommunicated me, since I could with difficulty come to myself again, the earth doing me more mischief than the blow. However, I escaped that danger, and returned to the rage and fury of the guns, pursuing my work there with all the ability and eagerness that I could summon.
Pope Clement, by this, had sent to demand assistance from the Duke of Urbino, who was with the troops of Venice; he commissioned the envoy to tell his Excellency that the Castle of S. Angelo would send up every evening three beacons from its summit accompanied by three discharges of the cannon thrice repeated, and that so long as this signal was continued, he might take for granted that the castle had not yielded. I was charged with lighting the beacons and firing the guns for this purpose; and all this while I pointed my artillery by day upon the places where mischief could be done. The Pope, in consequence, began to regard me with still greater favour, because he saw that I discharged my functions as intelligently as the task demanded. Aid from the Duke of Urbino 1 never came; on which, as it is not my business, I will make no further comment.
Note 1. Francesco Maria della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, commanded a considerable army as general of the Church, and was now acting for Venice. Why he effected no diversion while the Imperial troops were marching upon Rome, and why he delayed to relieve the city, was never properly explained. Folk attributed his impotent conduct partly to a natural sluggishness in warfare, and partly to his hatred for the house of Medici. Leo X had deprived him of his dukedom, and given it to a Medicean prince. It is to this that Cellini probably refers in the cautious phrase which ends the chapter.