The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini

Benvenuto Cellini (1500–1571)

The autobiography of the great artist Benvenuto Cellini was a collaborative LibriVox reading to which I contributed. Begun in 1558, Cellini’s account of his art, as well as his loves, hatreds, passions, and delights, is written in a full-out extravagant style, which would delight a tabloid journalist of today.

In the section I read, Cellini recounts how he cast his bronze Perseus, who holds up the severed head of Medusa. Cellini is a master of suspenseful storytelling. Doubters tell him there is no way he can force the bronze to fill the uplifted Medusa head. He sets out to prove them wrong. He is meticulous in preparing the clay mold from the wax original. He orders loads of pinewood from the forests of Serristori to stoke the furnace to melt the bronze. All goes well until “the” day, when Cellini calls out “heartily to set the furnace going.” Then things fall apart. The workshop roof catches fire; a storm of wind and rain blows into the workshop, cooling the furnace.

Cellini battles with these “untoward circumstances” for several hours, until “with despair of heart,” expecting to die any minute, he takes to his bed, abandoning his assistants to supervise the crucial casting! He lies in bed for two hours, at which point, according to his account, he sees the figure of a man enter his chamber “twisted in body into the form of a capital S” who announces “O Benvenuto, your statue is spoiled, and there is no hope whatever of saving it.” “No sooner,” Cellini writes,” had I heard the shriek of that wretch than I gave a howl which might have been heard from the sphere of flame.”

He jumps out of bed and runs to the workshop. There he finds is that the bronze in the furnace has curdled. The alloy needs adjustment. Cellini sends for “all his pewter platters, porringers, and dishes, to the number of two hundred” and dumps them into the furnace. This drastic measure saves the day. The mold fills. “After all was over,” says Cellini, “I turned to a plate of salad on a bench there and ate with hearty appetite, and drank together with the whole crew.”

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