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.

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