Harvard Classics Volume 31, The Autobiography of Benventuo Cellini

This volume of the Harvard Classics, the last volume which contains only a single work, is the autobiography of Florentine goldsmith, metal worker, sculpter, soldier, murderer, and philanderer Benventuo Cellini. It is a celebration of a life lived to its fullest through ups and downs, triumphs and imprisonments, and through all sorts of circumstances.

Let us get one thing out of the way very quickly with Cellini, his autobiography contains many morally objectionable things, some of which he is repentant for, others he acknowledges his wrong doing, but many others he tries and justify. This adds flavor to the book and makes it what it is, but I need to add that disclaimer up front.

Cellini starts the story of his life from the beginning and works his way up until the time he stopped writing, and the work ends rather abruptly. Cellini presents his own life in a quasi-mythological way, at least at first, before settling in to a memoir style.

Over the course of his life, Cellini was recognized as the greatest living goldsmith, and a great at other art forms as well. He was a peer of Michaelangelo, who appears throughout Cellini’s life. Over the course of the autobiography, two Popes, a King of France and a Duke of Florence become major characters as the patrons of Cellini’s work.

Cellini constantly seems to be on the move because someone has it out for him wherever he was, I lost track of the number of attempts on his life: whether by brigands, poison or the orders of a magistrate, that occurred throughout the biography.

It certainly isn’t hard to see how Cellini came to be so hated everywhere he went. Not only was he extremely talented and unwilling to be beholden to anyone but himself, he was arrogant, cruel and choleric to everyone he encountered, including Kings and Popes. To his credit, Cellini did manage to not anger the Holy Roman Emperor in their one meeting in Rome. Cellini didn’t just attract animosity due to his personality, his talent and ability to create personal attachment between himself and various sovereigns made him a target for court intrigue, especially those who were looking to supplant him as a favored artist with one of their own favorite artists.

The biggest value of the autobiography, however, is its value as a primary source for life in Italy and France during the Renaissance. In the moments between great action and drama, the little details of 16th century life seep through, whether it is about traveling, the relative prices of things, diets, medicine, the ways people socialized or the de facto legal system, there is so much of Renaissance life to be experienced through this autobiography.

Cellini’s autobiography is certainly a unique work for the position and personality of the author, as well as the ancillary information about life in his era. I was very glad to have had the opportunity to read this volume.

Looking ahead is a volume of essays by Continental writers, and a volume of stories of travels from all across history. From there we go to 18th century philosophy and Elizabethan literature.

Harvard Classics 28, 29 & 30

It has been awhile since I last did a post on the Harvard Classics, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy reading the past 7 weeks.

I continued my reading of essays from English and American sources, this time with a focus on 19th century writing. This second collection was inferior to the first, in my mind. That’s mostly because the second collection of essays was much more contemporary and hadn’t stood the test of time. The Harvard Classics were compiled closer in time to all of these writings than the Harvard Classics are to today. Some things just didn’t hold up well with age. The essay by Thoreau was interesting, but generally the Yankee Unitarian slant of the American authors kept them from feeling relevant. The English authors were repeating on themes that have been done better elsewhere, or are simply out of date. The essay on poetry by Edgar Allen Poe stood out from the endless stream of essays on poetry I’ve read because it made brevity a key aspect of the ability to define a whole poem, ie it should be digestible in a single sitting.

Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle is really more interesting for learning about various far flung lands than for the biology it contains. The book starts off slowly because it is so focused on the biological aspects of things. The problem is this kind of writing, describing strange critters to a popular audience, has been entirely overtaken by the nature documentary. A picture is worth a thousand words, and so Darwin’s long descriptions of the Amazon just aren’t all that interesting. The next area he goes, La Plata, is so like the California from Two Years Before the Mast, that it feels redundant. Fortunately, by the time Darwin gets to the Tierra del Feugo, there are new interesting socieities for him to describe, and he spends much less time going over the uninteresting flora and fauna of the area. They go up the coast through Chile before arriving in the Galapagos.

His description of the Galapagos Islands are the most culturally important bits as it was this visit that would lead Darwin to the theory of evolution. It is again very biologically focused, but it works much better this time than in the Amazon. They complete a circumnavigation by going to Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, Mauritus, and St. Helena. These all have distinct and interesting societies that are worth reading.

Finally, the last volume in this group was a collection of scientific lectures. This was certainly a tough volume to read, but thankfully a short one. The science that was included was at a mid-to-late 19th century layman’s level. Even though giants like Faraday and Helmholtz are giving the lectures, the material is very accessible. For someone like me, who has a STEM degree, accessible versions of Faraday is a step down from what I’m used to. I don’t think I learned anything genuinely new and useful from the lectures, but there are lots of good experiements and demonstrations described.

Some of the later papers describe the cutting edge of astronomical and geological science. These are interesting purely to see how far we’ve come, since both lectures pre-date the notion of multiple galaxies or plate tectonics. So while the content isn’t relevant anymore, they’re worth reading if you have an interest on the history of science.

So those three volumes are now mercifully finished, and it’s time to look forward to the final 20 volumes. Lucky for me, I’ve read the lecture series as I’ve gone along, so I only have 19 volumes to go. Since I’ve read 22 volumes in the past year, it looks like I’ll be finishing the Harvard Classics before too long. The next three volumes are: The Autobiography of Benventuo Cellini, the last single-work volume, followed by continental essays, and various travel writings. From there we have: the Enlightenment Part 1, Elizabethan literature, Renaissance/Reformation writings, and the Enlightenment part 2. Following those are important medical texts, prefaces and prologues, the gigantic set of English language poetry, American historical documents, religious writings from around the world, two volumes of Elizabethan drama, the works of Pascal, and finally, the Germanic sagas. It should be quite the ride.