Benvenuto Cellini (1500–1571). Autobiography.
Vol. 31, pp. 23-35 of The Harvard Classics
Kings, emperors, the greatest artists and sculptors of the Renaissance at its most magnificent period, walk through the pages of his autobiography - not as cold, austere, historical characters but as the intimate friends of Cellini.
NOW let us return to Piero Torrigiani, who, with my drawing in his hand, spoke as follows: “This Buonarroti and I used, when we were boys, to go into the Church of the Carmine, to learn drawing from the chapel of Masaccio. 1 It was Buonarroti’s habit to banter all who were drawing there; and one day, among others, when he was annoying me, I got more angry than usual, and clenching my fist, gave him such a blow on the nose, that I felt bone and cartilage go down like biscuit beneath my knuckles; and this mark of mine he will carry with him to the grave.” 2 These words begat in me such hatred of the man, since I was always gazing at the masterpieces of the divine Michel Agnolo, that although I felt a wish to go with him to England, I now could never bear the sight of him.
All the while I was at Florence, I studied the noble manner of Michel Agnolo, and from this I have never deviated. About that time I contracted a close and familiar friendship with an amiable lad of my own age, who was also in the goldsmith’s trade. He was called Francesco, son of Filippo, and grandson of Fra Lippo Lippi, that most excellent painter. 3Through intercourse together, such love grew up between us that, day or night, we never stayed apart. The house where he lived was still full of the fine studies which his father had made, bound up in several books of drawings by his hand, and taken from the best antiquities of Rome. The sight of these things filled me with passionate enthusiasm; and for two years or thereabouts we lived in intimacy. At that time I fashioned a silver bas-relief of the size of a little child’s hand. It was intended for the clasp to a man’s belt; for they were then worn as large as that. I carved on it a knot of leaves in the antique style, with figures of children and other masks of great beauty. This piece I made in the workshop of one Francesco Salimbene; and on its being exhibited to the trade, the goldsmiths praised me as the best young craftsman of their art.
There was one Giovan Battista, surnamed Il Tasso, a wood-carver, precisely of my own age, who one day said to me that if I was willing to go to Rome, he should be glad to join me. 4 Now we had this conversation together immediately after dinner; and I being angry with my father for the same old reason of the music, said to Tasso: “You are a fellow of words, not deeds.” He answered: “I too have come to anger with my mother; and if I had cash enough to take me to Rome, I would not turn back to lock the door of that wretched little workshop I call mine.” To these words I replied that if that was all that kept him in Florence I had money enough in my pockets to bring us both to Rome. Talking thus and walking onwards, we found ourselves at the gate San Piero Gattolini without noticing that we had got there; whereupon I said: “Friend Tasso, this is God’s doing that we have reached this gate without either you or me noticing that we were there; and now that I am here, it seems to me that I have finished half the journey.” And so, being of one accord, we pursued our way together, saying, “Oh, what will our old folks say this evening?” We then made an agreement not to think more about them till we reached Rome. So we tied our aprons behind our backs, and trudged almost in silence to Siena. When we arrived at Siena, Tasso said (for he had hurt his feet) that he would not go farther, and asked me to lend him money to get back. I made answer: “I should not have enough left to go forward; you ought indeed to have thought of this on leaving Florence; and if it is because of your feet that you shirk the journey, we will find a return horse for Rome, which will deprive you of the excuse.” Accordingly I hired a horse; and seeing that he did not answer, I took my way toward the gate of Rome. When he knew that I was firmly resolved to go, muttering between his teeth, and limping as well as he could, he came on behind me very slowly and at a great distance. On reaching the gate, I felt pity for my comrade, and waited for him, and took him on the crupper, saying: “What would our friends speak of us to-morrow, if, having left for Rome, we had not pluck to get beyond Siena?” Then the good Tasso said I spoke the truth; and as he was a pleasant fellow, he began to laugh and sing; and in this way, always singing and laughing, we travelled the whole way to Rome. I had just nineteen years then, and so had the century.
When we reached Rome, I put myself under a master who was known as Il Firenzuola. His name was Giovanni, and he came from Firenzuola in Lombardy, a most able craftsman in large vases and big plate of that kind. I showed him part of the model for the clasp which I had made in Florence at Salimbene’s. It pleased him exceedingly; and turning to one of his journeymen, a Florentine called Giannotto Giannotti, who had been several years with him, he spoke as follows: “This fellow is one of the Florentines who know something, and you are one of those who know nothing.” Then I recognised the man, and turned to speak with him; for before he went to Rome, we often went to draw together, and had been very intimate comrades. He was so put out by the words his master flung at him, that he said he did not recognise me or know who I was; whereupon I got angry, and cried out: “O Giannotto, you who were once my friend—for have we not been together in such and such places, and drawn, and ate, and drunk, and slept in company at your house in the country? I don’t want you to bear witness on my behalf to this worthy man, your master, because I hope my hands are such that without aid from you they will declare what sort of a fellow I am.”
Note 1. The Chapel of the Carmine, painted in fresco by Masaccio and some other artist, possibly Filippino Lippi, is still the most important monument of Florentine art surviving from the period preceding Raphael.
Note 2. The profile portraits of Michel Angelo Buonarroti confirm this story. They show the bridge of his nose bent in an angle, as though it had been broken.
Note 3. Fra Filippo Lippi was a Carmelite monk, whose frescoes at Prato and Spoleta and oil-paintings in Florence and elsewhere are among the most genial works of the pre-Raphaelite Renaissance. Vasari narrates his love-adventures with Lucrezia Buti, and Robert Browning has drawn a clever portrait of him in his “Men and Women.” His son, Filippo or Filippino, was also an able painter, some of whose best work survives in the Strozzi Chapel of S. Maria Novella at Florence, and in the Church of S. Maria Sopra Minerva at Rome.
Note 4. Tasso was an able artist, mentioned both by Vasari and Pietro Aretino. He stood high in the favour of Duke Cosimo de’ Medici, who took his opinion on the work of other craftsmen.
WHEN I had thus spoken, Firenzuola, who was a man of hot spirit and brave, turned to Giannotto, and said to him: “You vile rascal, aren’t you ashamed to treat a man who has been so intimate a comrade with you in this way?” And with the same movement of quick feeling, he faced round and said to me: “Welcome to my workshop; and do as you have promised; let your hands declare what man you are.”
He gave me a very fine piece of silver plate to work on for a cardinal. It was a little oblong box, copied from the porphyry sarcophagus before the door of the Rotonda. Beside what I copied, I enriched it with so many elegant masks of my invention, that my master went about showing it through the art, and boasting that so good a piece of work had been turned out from his shop. 1 It was about half a cubit in size, and was so constructed as to serve for a salt-cellar at table. This was the first earning that I touched at Rome, and part of it I sent to assist my good father; the rest I kept for my own use, living upon it while I went about studying the antiquities of Rome, until my money failed, and I had to return to the shop for work. Battista del Tasso, my comrade, did not stay long in Rome, but went back to Florence.
After undertaking some new commissions, I took it into my head, as soon as I had finished them, to change my master; I had indeed been worried into doing so by a certain Milanese, called Pagolo Arsago. 2 My first master, Firenzuola, had a great quarrel about this with Arsago, and abused him in my presence; whereupon I took up speech in defence of my new master. I said that I was born free, and free I meant to live, and that there was no reason to complain of him, far less of me, since some few crowns of wages were still due to me; also that I chose to go, like a free journeyman, where it pleased me, knowing I did wrong to no man. My new master then put in with his excuses, saying that he had not asked me to come, and that I should gratify him by returning with Firenzuola. To this I replied that I was not aware of wronging the latter in any way, and as I had completed his commissions, I chose to be my own master and not the man of others, and that he who wanted me must beg me of myself. Firenzuola cried: “I don’t intend to beg you of yourself; I have done with you; don’t show yourself again upon my premises.” I reminded him of the money he owed me. He laughed me in the face; on which I said that if I knew how to use my tools in handicraft as well as he had seen, I could be quite as clever with my sword in claiming the just payment of my labour. While we were exchanging these words, an old man happened to come up, called Maestro Antonio, of San Marino. He was the chief among the Roman goldsmiths, and had been Firenzuola’s master. Hearing what I had to say, which I took good care that he should understand, he immediately espoused my cause, and bade Firenzuola pay me. The dispute waxed warm, because Firenzuola was an admirable swordsman, far better than he was a goldsmith. Yet reason made itself heard; and I backed my cause with the same spirit, till I got myself paid. In course of time Firenzuola and I became friends, and at his request I stood godfather to one of his children.
Note 1. Cellini’s use of the word arte for the art or trade of goldsmiths corresponds to “the art” as used by English writers early in this century. See Haydon’s Autobiography, passim.
Note 2. The Italian is sobbillato, which might be also translated inveigled or instigated. But Varchi, the contemporary of Cellini, gives this verb the force of using pressure and boring on until somebody is driven to do something.
I WENT on working with Pagolo Arsago, and earned a good deal of money, the greater part of which I always sent to my good father. At the end of two years, upon my father’s entreaty, I returned to Florence, and put myself once more under Francesco Salimbene, with whom I earned a great deal, and took continual pains to improve in my art. I renewed my intimacy with Francesco di Filippo; and though I was too much given to pleasure, owing to that accursed music, I never neglected to devote some hours of the day or night to study. At that time I fashioned a silver heart’s-key (chiavaquore), as it was then so called. This was a girdle three inches broad, which used to be made for brides, and was executed in half relief with some small figures in the round. It was a commission from a man called Raffaello Lapaccini. I was very badly paid; but the honour which it brought me was worth far more than the gain I might have justly made by it. Having at this time worked with many different persons in Florence, I had come to know some worthy men among the goldsmiths, as for instance, Marcone, my first master; but I also met with others reputed honest, who did all they could to ruin me, and robbed me grossly. When I perceived this, I left their company, and held them for thieves and black-guards. One of the goldsmiths, called Giovanbattista Sogliani, kindly accommodated me with part of his shop, which stood at the side of the New Market near the Landi’s bank. There I finished several pretty pieces, and made good gains, and was able to give my family much help. This roused the jealousy of the bad men among my former masters, who were called Salvadore and Michele Guasconti. In the guild of the goldsmiths they had three big shops, and drove a thriving trade. On becoming aware of their evil will against me, I complained to certain worthy fellows, and remarked that they ought to have been satisfied with the thieveries they practised on me under the cloak of hypocritical kindness. This coming to their ears, they threatened to make me sorely repent of such words; but I, who knew not what the colour of fear was, paid them little or no heed.
IT chanced one day that I was leaning against a shop of one of these men, who called out to me, and began partly reproaching, partly bullying. I answered that had they done their duty by me, I should have spoken of them what one speaks of good and worthy men; but as they had done the contrary, they ought to complain of themselves and not of me. While I was standing there and talking, one of them, named Gherardo Guasconti, their cousin, having perhaps been put up to it by them, lay in wait till a beast of burden went by. 1 It was a load of bricks. When the load reached me, Gherardo pushed it so violently on my body that I was very much hurt. Turning suddenly round and seeing him laughing, I struck him such a blow on the temple that he fell down, stunned, like one dead. Then I faced round to his cousins, and said: “That’s the way to treat cowardly thieves of your sort;” and when they wanted to make a move upon me, trusting to their numbers, I, whose blood was now well up, laid hands to a little knife I had, and cried: “If one of you comes out of the shop, let the other run for the confessor, because the doctor will have nothing to do here.” These words so frightened them that not one stirred to help their cousin. As soon as I had gone, the fathers and sons ran to the Eight, and declared that I had assaulted them in their shops with sword in hand, a thing which had never yet been seen in Florence. The magistrates had me summoned. I appeared before them; and they began to upbraid and cry out upon me—partly, I think, because they saw me in my cloak, while the others were dressed like citizens in mantle and hood; 2 but also because my adversaries had been to the houses of those magistrates, and had talked with all of them in private, while I, inexperienced in such matters, had not spoken to any of them, trusting in the goodness of my cause. I said that, having received such outrage and insult from Gherardo, and in my fury having only given him a box on the ear, I did not think I deserved such a vehement reprimand. I had hardly time to finish the word box, before Prinzivalle della Stufa, 3 who was one of the Eight, interrupted me by saying: “You gave him a blow, and not a box, on the ear.” The bell was rung and we were all ordered out, when Prinzivalle spoke thus in my defence to his brother judges: “Mark, sirs, the simplicity of this poor young man, who has accused himself of having given a box on the ear, under the impression that this is of less importance than a blow; whereas a box on the ear in the New Market carries a fine of twenty-five crowns, while a blow costs little or nothing. He is a young man of admirable talents, and supports his poor family by his labour in great abundance; I would to God that our city had plenty of this sort, instead of the present dearth of them.”
Note 1. The Italian is appostò che passassi una soma. The verb appostare has the double meaning of lying in wait and arranging something on purpose. Cellini’s words may mean, caused a beast of burden to pass by.
Note 2. Varchi says that a man who went about with only his cloak or cape by daytime, if he were not a soldier, was reputed an ill-liver. The Florentine citizens at this time still wore their ancient civil dress of the long gown and hood called lucco.
Note 3. This man was an ardent supporter of the Medici, and in 1510 organized a conspiracy in their favour against the Gonfalonier Soderini.
AMONG the magistrates were some Radical fellows with turned-up hoods, who had been influenced by the entreaties and the calumnies of my opponents, because they all belonged to the party of Fra Girolamo; and these men would have had me sent to prison and punished without too close a reckoning. 1 But the good Prinzivalle put a stop to that. So they sentenced me to pay four measures of flour, which were to be given as alms to the nunnery of the Murate. 2 I was called in again; and he ordered me not to speak a word under pain of their displeasure, and to perform the sentence they had passed. Then, after giving me another sharp rebuke, they sent us to the chancellor; I muttering all the while, “It was a slap and not a blow,” with which we left the Eight bursting with laughter. The chancellor bound us over upon bail on both sides; but only I was punished by having to pay the four measures of meal. Albeit just then I felt as though I had been massacred, I sent for one of my cousins, called Maestro Annibale, the surgeon, father of Messer Librodoro Librodori, desiring that he should go bail for me. 3 He refused to come, which made me so angry, that, fuming with fury and swelling like an asp, I took a desperate resolve. At this point one may observe how the stars do not so much sway as force our conduct. When I reflected on the great obligations which this Annibale owed my family, my rage grew to such a pitch that, turning wholly to evil, and being also by nature somewhat choleric, I waited till the magistrates had gone to dinner; and when I was alone, and observed that none of their officers were watching me, in the fire of my anger, I left the palace, ran to my shop, seized a dagger and rushed to the house of my enemies, who were at home and shop together. I found them at table; and Gherardo, who had been the cause of the quarrel, flung himself upon me. I stabbed him in the breast, piercing doublet and jerkin through and through to the shirt, without however grazing his flesh or doing him the least harm in the world. When I felt my hand go in, and heard the clothes tear, I thought that I had killed him; and seeing him fall terror-struck to earth, I cried: “Traitors, this day is the day on which I mean to murder you all.” Father, mother, and sisters, thinking the last day had come, threw themselves upon their knees, screaming out for mercy with all their might; but I perceiving that they offered no resistance, and that he was stretched for dead upon the ground, thought it too base a thing to touch them. I ran storming down the staircase; and when I reached the street, I found all the rest of the household, more than twelve persons; one of them had seized an iron shovel, another a thick iron pipe, one had an anvil, some of them hammers, and some cudgels. 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; but inasmuch as God does sometime mercifully intervene, He so ordered that neither they nor I did any harm to one another. I only lost my cap, on which my adversaries seized, though they had run away from it before, and struck at it with all their weapons. Afterwards, they searched among their dead and wounded, and saw that not a single man was injured.
Note 1. Cellini calls these magistrates arronzinati cappuccetti, a term corresponding to our Roundheads. The democratic or anti-Medicean party in Florence at that time, who adhered to the republican principles of Fra Girolamo Savonarola, distinguished themselves by wearing the long tails of their hoods twisted up and turned round their heads. Cellini shows his Medicean sympathies by using this contemptuous term, and by the honourable mention he makes of Prinzivalle della Stufa
Note 3. The word I have translated massacred above is assassinato. It occurs frequently in Italian of this period, and indicates the extremity of wrong and outrage.
I WENT off in the direction of Santa Maria Novella, and stumbling up against Fra Alessio Strozzi, whom by the way I did not know, I entreated this good friar for the love of God to save my life, since I had committed a great fault. He told me to have no fear; for had I done every sin in the world, I was yet in perfect safety in his little cell.
After about an hour, the Eight, in an extraordinary meeting, caused one of the most dreadful bans which ever were heard of to be published against me, announcing heavy penalties against who should harbour me or know where I was, without regard to place or to the quality of my protector. My poor afflicted father went to the Eight, threw himself upon his knees, and prayed for mercy for his unfortunate young son. Thereupon one of those Radical fellows, shaking the crest of his twisted hood, stood up and addressed my father with these insulting words: 1 “Get up from there, and begone at once, for to-morrow we shall send your son into the country with the lances.” 2 My poor father had still the spirit to answer: “What God shall have ordained, that will you do, and not a jot or little more.” Whereto the same man replied that for certain God had ordained as he had spoken. My father said: “The thought consoles me that you do not know for certain;” and quitting their presence, he came to visit me, together with a young man of my own age, called Pierro di Giovanni Landi—we loved one another as though we had been brothers.
Under his mantle the lad carried a first-rate sword and a splendid coat of mail; and when they found me, my brave father told me what had happened, and what the magistrates had said to him. Then he kissed me on the forehead and both eyes, and gave me his hearty blessing, saying: “May the power of goodness of God be your protection;” and reaching me the sword and armour, he helped me with his own hands to put them on. Afterwards he added: “Oh, my good son, with these arms in thy hand thou shalt either live or die.” Pier Landi, who was present, kept shedding tears; and when he had given me ten golden crowns, I bade him remove a few hairs from my chin, which were the first down of my manhood. Frate Alessio disguised me like a friar and gave me a lay brother to go with me. 3Quitting the convent, and issuing from the city by the gate of Prato, I went along the walls as far as the Piazza di San Gallo. Then I ascended the slope of Montui, and in one of the first houses there I found a man called Il Grassuccio, own brother to Messer Benedetto da Monte Varchi. 4 I flung off my monk’s clothes, and became once more a man. Then we mounted two horses, which were waiting there for us, and went by night to Siena. Grassuccio returned to Florence, sought out my father, and gave him the news of my safe escape. In the excess of his joy, it seemed a thousand years to my father till he should meet the member of the Eight who had insulted him; and when he came across the man, he said: “See you, Antonio, that it was God who knew what had to happen to my son, and not yourself?” To which the fellow answered: “Only let him get another time into our clutches!” And my father: “I shall spend my time in thanking God that He has rescued him from that fate.”
Note 1. Un di queli arrovellati scotendo la cresto dello arronzinato cappuccio. See above, p. 31. The democrats in Cellini’s days were called at Florence Arrabbiati or Arrovellati. In the days of Savonarola this nickname had been given to the ultra-Medicean party or Palleschi.
Note 2. Lanciotti. There is some doubt about this word. But it clearly means men armed with lances, at the disposal of the Signory.
Note 4. Benedetto da Monte Varchi was the celebrated poet, scholar, and historian of Florence, better known as Varchi. Another of his brothers was a physician of high repute at Florence. They continued throughout Cellini’s life to live on terms of intimacy with him.
AT Siena I waited for the mail to Rome, which I afterwards joined; and when we passed the Paglia, we met a courier carrying news of the new Pope, Clement VII. Upon my arrival in Rome, I went to work in the shop of the master-goldsmith Santi. He was dead; but a son of his carried on the business. He did not work himself, but entrusted all his commissions to a young man named Lucagnolo from Iesi, a country fellow, who while yet a child had come into Santi’s service. This man was short but well proportioned, and was a more skilful craftsman than any one whom I had met with up to that time; remarkable for facility and excellent in design. He executed large plate only: that is to say, vases of the utmost beauty, basons, and such pieces. 1 Having put myself to work there, I began to make some candelabra for the Bishop of Salamanca, a Spaniard. 2 They were richly chased, so far as that sort of work admits. A pupil of Raffaello da Urbino called Gian Francesco, and commonly known as Il Fattore, was a painter of great ability; and being on terms of friendship with the Bishop, he introduced me to his favour, so that I obtained many commissions from that prelate, and earned considerable sums of money. 3
During that time I went to draw, sometimes in Michel Agnolo’s chapel, and sometimes in the house of Agostino Chigi of Siena, which contained many incomparable paintings by the hand of that great master Raffaello. 4 This I did on feast-days, because the house was then inhabited by Messer Gismondo, Agostino’s brother. They plumed themselves exceedingly when they saw young men of my sort coming to study in their palaces. Gismondo’s wife, noticing my frequent presence in that house—she was a lady as courteous as could be, and of surpassing beauty—came up to me one day, looked at my drawings, and asked me if I was a sculptor or a painter; to whom I said I was a goldsmith. She remarked that I drew too well for a goldsmith; and having made one of her waiting-maids bring a lily of the finest diamonds set in gold, she showed it to me, and bade me value it. I valued it at 800 crowns. Then she said that I had very nearly hit the mark, and asked me whether I felt capable of setting the stones really well. I said that I should much like to do so, and began before her eyes to make a little sketch for it, working all the better because of the pleasure I took in conversing with so lovely and agreeable a gentlewoman. When the sketch was finished, another Roman lady of great beauty joined us; she had been above, and now descending to the ground-floor, asked Madonna Porzia what she was doing there. She answered with a smile: “I am amusing myself by watching this worthy young man at his drawing; he is as good as he is handsome.” I had by this time acquired a trifle of assurance, mixed, however, with some honest bashfulness; so I blushed and said: “Such as I am, lady, I shall ever be most ready to serve you.” The gentlewoman, also slightly blushing, said: “You know well that I want you to serve me;” and reaching me the lily, told me to take it away; and gave me besides twenty golden crowns which she had in her bag, and added: “Set me the jewel after the fashion you have sketched, and keep for me the old gold in which it is now set.” On this the Roman lady observed: “If I were in that young man’s body, I should go off without asking leave.” Madonna Porzia replied that virtues rarely are at home with vices, and that if I did such a thing, I should strongly belie my good looks of an honest man. Then turning round, she took the Roman lady’s hand, and with a pleasant smile said: “Farewell, Benvenuto.” I stayed on a short while at the drawing I was making, which was a copy of a Jove by Raffaello. When I had finished it and left the house, I set myself to making a little model of wax, in order to show how the jewel would look when it was completed. This I took to Madonna Porzia, whom I found with the same Roman lady. Both of them were highly satisfied with my work, and treated me so kindly that, being somewhat emboldened, I promised the jewel should be twice as good as the model. Accordingly I set hand to it, and in twelve days I finished it in the form of a fleur-de-lys, as I have said above, ornamenting it with little masks, children, and animals, exquisitely enamelled, whereby the diamonds which formed the lily were more than doubled in effect.
Note 1. Cellini calls this grosseria.
Note 2. Don Francesco de Bobadilla. He came to Rome in 1517, was shut up with Clement in the castle of S. Angelo in 1527, and died in 1529, after his return to Spain.
Note 3. This painter, Gio. Francesco Penni, surnamed Il Fattore, aided Raphael in his Roman frescoes and was much beloved by him. Together with Giulio Romano he completed the imperfect Stanze of the Vatican.
Note 4. Cellini here alludes to the Sistine Chapel and to the Villa Farnesina in Trastevere, built by the Sienese banker, Agostino Chigi. It was here that Raphael painted his Galatea and the whole fable of Cupid and Psyche.