Benvenuto Cellini

How could anyone write a blog about great reads for a quarter without mentioning The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini? Okay, you could spend a dollar, or ten, on some fancy edition, but then you’d get a fancy-pants translation which fails to give a true sense of the original. Stick to the paperback.

As I have said before, I like a translation that sounds a bit awkward in English; it usually means the translator is leaning toward literal rendering.

But with Benvenuto, it actually doesn’t much matter. This is such an astonishing story, and such an amazing historical resource that you will find the story, and the character of Benvenuto, will shine through.

Benvenuto was not a nice man, and I don’t think that he himself would have said that he was. He was forever stabbing and slashing people with a variety of bladed instruments. The guy couldn’t go to the store for a loaf of bread without running somebody through with an epee or a saber or a dirk or a dagger or whatever came to hand.

But he made lovely things for kings and popes and cardinals and they arranged forgiveness for the murders he committed. His statue of Perseus and the Medusa was probably in your eighth-grade history book. If you’ve ever studied art history, you’ve seen the gold salt cellar with Neptune and whoever. That piece was stolen from a museum in Vienna a few years ago and recovered not long afterward. It has been valued at $58 million.

Benventuto was born in Florence in 1500, just eight years after Columbus discovered America. He was trained as a musician, and was part or the papal orchestra, but he achieved his greatest fame as a goldsmith and a sculptor in bronze.

The funny story Benvenuto tells about meeting the King of France goes like this: Benvenuto has this apprentice that he’s mad at and he kicks him “at the junction of his legs” and the apprentice goes flying and slams into… the King of France who is making a surprise visit to the studio! What a riot! The King thinks so anyway and they become great pals.

Earlier Benvenuto becomes great pals with the pope, too. Know how? Well Rome is being besieged and the Pope and his contingent are holed up in the tower of Saint Angelo, and the pope, who is a Spaniard, sees his old drill sergeant, from when he was a soldier in Spain, in the lines of the besiegers, making obscene gestures.

Benvenuto has a little siege gun called a “parabello” and he loads some chain-shot, takes aim, adjusts a little for the wind, fires and cuts the pope’s old drill sergeant in half. How cool is that?

But these are just two tiny incidents in the amazing tapestry that Benvenuto dictated to his amanuensis in the 59th year of his life. And it makes fantastic reading. Besides all the duelling and brawling there are amours, wars, intrigues, imprisonments, escapes and an enormous variety of other escapades. At one point he even cures himself of venereal disease – a neat trick in those days.

One thing Benevenuto discovered about working for kings and popes was that they never pay up. Who’s going to make them? This was a recurring problem for him.

The Autobiography is like Caesar’s Gallic Wars — even assuming he’s lying half the time, this is a historical document of such importance that anyone interested in the Renaissance, or in history in general, will find it riveting and even rollicking.