Dr Karen Attar is fascinated by a rare Senate House Library autobiography full of art, politics and scandal.
Like any venerable institution, the University of London accrues a variety of artworks. For example, it holds various sculptures: marble busts of Victorian intellectuals and bronze ones of 20th-century grandees. Today we look back at a major Renaissance sculptor and goldsmith whose output may well have been revered by the sculptors represented at the university. He is the Florentine Benevenuto Cellini, and 13 February 2021 marks the 450th anniversary of his death.
Little of Cellini’s output survives, perhaps because metal has often been melted down and recycled. His most famous works are a large bronze statue of Perseus holding Medusa’s head (which he has just struck off), commissioned by Cosimo I de’ Medici, on Florence’s Loggia dei Lanzi, and a gold salt cellar made for Francis I of France, now in Vienna. The Nymph of Fontainebleau (a reclining Diana) resides in the Louvre, a bust of Cosimo de Medici in the Bargello Museum in Florence, and a life-size representation of Christ on the Cross in the San Lorenzo Monastery in El Escorial, Spain. Cellini survives best through the written word, in his autobiography.
This is where England takes a hand, for Thomas Nugent’s translation of Cellini’s autobiography is the first of many translations into European languages and the means by which awareness of Cellini spread. Nugent’s two-volume English The Life of Benvenuto Cellini, a Florentine Artist: Containing a Variety of Curious and Interesting Particulars, Relative to Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, and a History of his Own Time(London: T Davies, 1771) is itself the subject of a round anniversary, 250 years since its publication. For the University of London there is an additional anniversary, for the Senate House Library copy of the title formerly belonged to vice-chancellor George Grote (1794–1871) and was bequeathed by him 150 years ago as part of one of Senate House Library’s founding collections.
The Life is remarkable for several reasons, as Nugent notes in his preface. First, it provides insight not only into a major artist, but into famous people and events, Cellini having lived in momentous times that are reflected these in his writing. He participated in The Sack of Rome by Charles V’s troops in 1527, witnessed political turbulence at Florence, and was involved in intrigues in the French royal court 1540–1545. Moreover, as Dino Cervigni wrote in his discussion of Cellini (1979), ‘Throughout his whole life… he came into contact with dukes, popes, and kings, artists, scholars, and poets’ (p. 11).
Second, it describes Cellini’s craft in progress, especially his casting of the famous Perseus. Third is its sheer riotousness and earthiness: the impetuous Cellini’s colourful life included duels, a couple of murders (not unprovoked – one of the men he killed was his brother’s assassin) and spells in prison.
As an additional facet of interest, scholars interested in the history of 16th-century reading will note the literary influences on Cellini of the Bible and classical mythology, Augustine and Boethius, Giovanni Villani’s history of Florence, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Boccaccio’s Decameron.
The autobiography covers Cellini’s life from his birth in 1500 until 1562. Cellini probably composed it between 1558 and 1567, at a quiet period when he was confined to his own home. He was writing in dudgeon that Giorgi Vasari ignored him in his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550), despite Vasari’s emphasis on contemporary Italian artists, especially Florentines. Cellini dictated most of his life story, and its informal tone reflects the mode of composition.
The book subsequently circulated in manuscript, as we know from Vasari’s comment that he is excluding Cellini from the second edition of his Lives because Cellini’s life is already known. Although a fair copy which looks as if it could have been made for a printer exists, Cellini’s book was not printed until 1728, and Derek Parker in his monograph about Cellini (2003) has surmised that Cellini would have shunned speedy publication because his candid unfavourable opinions of the court and courtiers would have been troublesome, if not dangerous.
A fairly random example, taken from Nugent’s translation: ‘My lord, your excellency is to understand that Baccio Bandinello is a compound of everything that is bad, and so he has always been … what Bandinello has said … is purely the result of his own innate malevolence. The duke seemed to hear me with pleasure, and whilst I expressed myself thus, Bandinello wreathed himself into a variety of contortions, and made his face, which was by nature very ugly, quite hideous by his frightful grimaces…’ (Cellini proceeds to recount his open and public criticism of Bandinello’s work.)
Among Nugent’s many translations of books, more often from French than from Italian, that of Cellini’s Lifestood out. Nugent acknowledged and excused some of Cellini’s excesses, for example, thinking that Cellini might have been mistaken in some of his criticisms, and that some of his experiences might have been delusions or dreams. He defended the work more robustly by saying that reading Cellini’s autobiography is a way of getting to know human nature. Nugent concurred with Cellini about the broad educative value of the text. Cellini wrote (p. 2) that looking at some of his past conduct ‘fills me with the deepest horror’ (p. 2).
Nugent commented (P. ix): ‘I flatter myself, that the perusal of this work will be in some measure conducive to the improvement of youth, by contributing to regulate their conduct and manners; it will excite them to give the preference to a mild and gentle behaviour, as best calculated to engage and conciliate the affections of mankind.’
The narrative is gripping. Whether moral edification is indeed a salient element, readers must determine for themselves.
Dr Karen Attar is curator of rare books and university art at Senate House Library, and a research fellow at the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. She has published widely on library history and aspects of special collections and is the reviews editor for Library & Information History.
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