Thursday, April 13, 2006

Benvenuto Cellini (1527)


[Okay, now here's one for the Italians. Benvenuto Cellini was one of the greatest goldmiths and metalworkers of any age, and his works in gold and silver plate today fetch stunning prices at auctions and are proudly displayed in museums across the world. He also wrote an autobiography which is one of the most interesting and funny I have ever read. - HAC]

Benvenuto Cellini, Artist and Murderer
by Edward J. Lowell

After the siege, [of Rome, 1527] when things had got back to their normal conditions of irregular ruffianism, Benvenuto resumed the practice of his art.

He had a younger brother, a soldier in the service of Duke Alessandro de Medici. This brother was killed in a scuffle with the city guard, by an arquebusier whom he was attacking with his sword. The young man's death filled Benvenuto with grief, so that the pope noticed it, and remonstrated with him on his want of philosophy.

"I took," says Cellini, "To watching the arquebusier as though he had been a girl I was in love with. The man had formerly been in the light cavalry, but afterward had joined the arquebusiers as one of the Bargello's corporals; and what increased my rage was that he had used these boastful words: 'If it had not been for me, who killed that brave young man, the least trifle of delay would have resulted in his putting us all to flight with great disaster.'

"When I saw that the fever caused by always seeing him about was depriving me of sleep and appetite, and was bringing me by degrees to sorry plight, I overcame my repugnance to so low and not quite praiseworthy an enterprise, and made my mind up one evening to rid myself of the torment.

"The fellow lived in a house near a place called Torre Sanguigna, next door to the lodging of one of the most fashionable courtesans in Rome, named Signora Antea. It had just struck twenty-four, and he was standing at the house-door, with his sword in hand, having risen from supper. With great address I stole up to him, holding a large Pistoian dagger, and dealt him a back-handed stroke, with which I meant to cut his head clean off; but as he turned round very suddenly, the blow fell upon the point of his left shoulder and broke the bone. He sprang up, dropped his sword, half-stunned with the great pain, and took flight. I followed after, and in four steps caught him up, when I lifted my dagger above his head, which he was holding very low, and hit him in the back exactly at the junction of the nape-bone and the neck. The poniard entered this point so deep into the bone that, though I used all my strength to pull it out, I was not able.

"For just at that moment four soldiers sprang out from Antea's lodging, and obliged me to set hand to my own sword to defend my life. Leaving the poniard, then, I made off, and fearing I might be recognized, took refuge in the palace of Duke Alessandro, which was between Piazza Navona and the Rotunda. On my arrival I asked to see the duke; who told me that, if I was alone, I need only keep quiet and have no further anxiety, but go on working at the jewel which the pope had set his heart on, and stay eight days indoors.

"He gave this advice the more securely, because the soldiers had now arrived who interrupted the completion of my deed; they held the dagger in their hand, and were relating how the matter happened, and the great trouble they had to pull the weapon from the neck and head-bone of the man, whose name they did not know. Just then Giovan Bandini came up, and said to them: 'That poniard is mine, and I lent it to Benvenuto, who was bent on revenging his brother.' The soldiers were profuse in their expressions of regret at having interrupted me, although my vengeance had been amply satisfied."

"More than eight days elapsed, and the pope did not send for me according to his custom. Afterwards he summoned me through his chamberlain, the Bolognese nobleman I have already mentioned, who let me, in his own modest manner, understand that his Holiness knew all, but was very well inclined toward me, and that I had only to mind my work and keep quiet. When we reached the presence, the pope cast so menacing a glance toward me that the mere look of his eyes made me tremble. Afterward, upon examining my work, his countenance cleared, and he began to praise me beyond measure, saying that I had done a vast amount in a short time. Then, looking me straight in the face, he added: 'Now that you are cured, Benvenuto, take heed how you live.' I, who understood his meaning, promised that I would. Immediately upon this I opened a very fine shop in the Banchi, opposite Raffaello, and there I finished the jewel after the lapse of four months."

This way of treating murder on the part of the pope did not tend to discourage murderers. Benvenuto's second successful exploit in that line, however, took place in the season of anarchy between the death of Clement VII and the election of Paul III.

The chronic turbulence of the times became acute on such occasions as this. Pompeo, a rival goldsmith, took the opportunity of the general confusion to come with ten armed men and try to pick a quarrel with Cellini. The latter controlled himself for a time, being unwilling to have his own friends drawn into the difficulty. Shortly afterward, however, he followed and came up with Pompeo, broke through the line of his defenders, and stabbed him twice with a dagger. He says he had not meant to kill him.

Pompeo's bravi ran up to the corpse, but took no steps to avenge their master; the whole flower of the young men of the neighborhood, except the Milanese, who were townsmen of Pompeo, came crowding in to help to save the murderer at the risk of their lives; a cardinal offered his palace as a place of refuge; and the new pope, when appealed to by friends of the murdered man, calmly assured them that the provocation was great, and that "men like Benvenuto, unique in their profession, stand above the law."


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