AMONG the vast number of men who have thought fit to write down the history of their own lives, three or four have achieved masterpieces which stand out preeminently: Saint Augustine in his Confessions, Samuel Pepys in his Diary, Rousseau in his Confessions. It is among these extraordinary documents, and unsurpassed by any of them, that the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini takes its place.
The Life of himself which Cellini wrote was due to other motives than those which produced its chief competitors for first place in its class. St. Augustines aim was religious and didactic, Pepys noted down in his diary the daily events of his life for his sole satisfaction and with no intention that any one should read the cipher in which they were recorded. But Cellini wrote that the world might know, after he was dead, what a fellow he had been; what great things he had attempted, and against what odds he had carried them through. All men, he held, whatever be their condition, who have done anything of merit, or which verily has a semblance of merit, if so be they are men of truth and good repute, should write the tale of their life with their own hand. That he had done many things of merit, he had no manner of doubt. His repute was great in his day, and perhaps good in the sense in which he meant goodness; as to whether he was a man of truth, there is still dispute among scholars. Of some misrepresentations, some suppressions of damaging facts, there seems to be evidence only too good-a man with Cellinis passion for proving himself in the right could hardly have avoided being guilty of such-; but of the general trustworthiness of his record, of the kind of man he was and the kind of life he led, there is no reasonable doubt.
The period covered by the autobiography is from Cellinis birth in 1500 to 1562; the scene is mainly in Italy and France. Of the great events of the time, the time of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, of the strife of Pope and Emperor and King, we get only glimpses. The leaders in these events appear in the foreground of the picture only when they come into personal relations with the hero; and then not mainly as statesmen or warriors, but as connoisseurs and patrons of art. Such an event as the Sack of Rome is described because Benvenuto himself fought in it.
Much more complete is the view he gives of the artistic life of the time. It was the age of Michelangelo, and in the throng of great artists which then filled the Italian cities, Cellini was no inconsiderable figure. Michelangelo himself he knew and adored. Nowhere can we gain a better idea than in this book of the passionate enthusiasm for the creation of beauty which has bestowed upon the Italy of the Renaissance its greatest glory.
Very vivid, too, is the impression we receive of the social life of the sixteenth century; of its violence and licentiousness, of its zeal for fine craftsmanship, of its abounding vitality, its versatility and its idealism. For Cellini himself is an epitome of that century. This man who tells here the story of his life was a murderer and a braggart, insolent, sensual, inordinately proud and passionate; but he was also a worker in gold and silver, rejoicing in delicate chasing and subtle modelling of precious surfaces; a sculptor and a musician; and, as all who read his book must testify, a great master of narrative. Keen as was Benvenutos interest in himself, and much as he loved to dwell on the splendor of his exploits and achievements, he had little idea that centuries after his death he would live again, less by his Perseus and his goldsmiths work than by the book which he dictated casually to a lad of fourteen, while he went about his work.
The autobiography was composed between 1558 and 1566, but it brings the record down only to 1562. The remainder of Cellinis life seems to have been somewhat more peaceful. In 1565 he married Piera de Salvadore Parigi, a servant who had nursed him when he was sick; and in the care of his children, as earlier of his sister and nieces, he showed more tenderness than might have been expected from a man of his boisterous nature. He died at Florence, May 13, 1571, and was buried in The Church of the Annunziata in that city.
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