Benvenuto Cellini and the Importance of Individualism, Masculinity, Family and God The Renaissance era, to this day, is thought to be the most influential period in human history as it brought about the rebirth of classical forms, interest in humanisms, and the concern for individualism. Renaissance, over many years, has been known as the idea of rebirth, expansion of culture and art, and individualism.
There have been many Renaissance before but the most recognized was that of the Italian Renaissance. It led to the rebirth of art, architecture, Latin, religion, law which are just a few of many more. This era gave birth to the Humanist movement, which advocated the importance of individualism and human values. Most importantly, the Renaissance included some the most magnificent minds, which were polymaths and had immense skill and creativity. Over the years these great minds have come to be known as Renaissance men or women, people who are well educated and or excel in a wide variety of fields.
Renaissance men like Michelangelo inspired all of Italy and Europe with his architectural designs and sculptures, the father of Humanism, Petrarch changed the concepts of scholastics, while Leonardo da Vinci left his fellow Italians in awe with his magnificent artistic and engineering skills. All of these men advocate the idea of secular ideas, freedom of thinking and individualism. It was during this substantial growth in the arts, sciences and religion that Benvenuto Cellini, one of the greatest Italian Renaissance Man, was born. Benvenuto Cellini was born in Florence on 3rd November 1500 and was professionally an Italian goldsmith, musician, sculptor, soldier and painter.
This background of the Renaissance from the fourteenth and fifteenth century and the intellectual and artistic ideas of the sixteenth century are what shaped Benvenuto Cellini and his life to come, and then ultimately led him to write undoubtedly the most famous autobiography and the most important biography from the Italian Renaissance Era.
Cellini started writing his autobiography at the age 58, in the year 1558, as he believed that he had lived a significant portion of his life and that he should write so people could learn of his great battles and achievements throughout his lifetime. Cellini mentions, “All men of whatsoever quality they be, who have done anything of excellence, or which may properly resemble excellence, ought, if they are persons of truth and honesty, to describe their life with their own hand; but they out not to attempt so fine an enterprise till they have passed the age of forty” (section 2, page 4).
Although Benvenuto thinks of himself as an uneducated man, his beautifully written sonnets and carefully orchestrated work, says otherwise. Unlike many works of his time, the “Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini possesses both a historical and cultural significance. Benvenuto Cellini was the son of Maestro Giovanni Cellini and Madonna Elisabetta, who were both Florentine citizens. This fact, with others, act as a driving force in his love for Florence and why he decided to start writing his autobiography when he came back to Florence after several years traveling around Rome, France and many other cities.
The reader can obvious conclude that this document can be of great importance in the study of Italian life during the Renaissance, but the tone with which Cellini wrote, remarkably relates to the movements that took place during the latter years of the Renaissance. Benvenuto unquestionably shows fondness toward individualism, humanism and self-development, two of which movements were common around the sixteen century. The term Autobiography is defined as study of oneself, and is obviously an ideal example of individualism. Cellini’s Autobiography surpasses that of his time, autobiographies during the sixteenth century exhibited a narrative of the works of the author.
While Cellini expresses a detailed chronicle of his life, the triumphs he faced, the deepest secrets and his feelings towards his actions. No one from his time was able to document a masterpiece like such. Benvenuto shows the importance of individualism, masculinity, family, and God through this detailed account of his life. This style of writing was rare during the sixteenth century as Benvenuto opened his soul put it on a document, everything that he loved or hated, his legal or illegal actions, his friends and enemies. Benvenuto, like many others during the Renaissance era, was a true believer of God and that whatever good happened to him was due to the gift of God.
He talks about the great lineage of his family and that he was born into a family with honorable men and states that God is very pleased that he should be born so that he could sustain this great foundation his ancestors laid down. One can see here that he exhibits everything that is of great importance to him. Family, as he talks about the honorable foundation of his family, individualism and masculinity is shown when he boasts about have great qualities to hold the foundation, and finally God, which he believes that it
pleased God that he, was born.
Even though Benvenuto believes that he is a true Christian, his actions are a long way from Christian, they prove otherwise. People during the renaissance were seen to have very unclear value and moral during to different renaissance movement. This effect is seen with some of Benvenuto’s decisions and actions throughout his autobiography. More than half of his conflicts and stories were handled immorally, for instance Benvenuto kills a person he dislikes without even thinking of the consequences or him fathering some illegitimate children.
One can see from his tone that Benvenuto does not realize that he has committed a sin according to Christianity. He recognizes that there is a God and cherishes the religious ceremonies but does not live by it when it comes to morality. Here we can see that the idea of individualism and masculinity is of more importance to him. On one occasion Benvenuto he had to pay bail for an argument he had with his competitors. So, he reached out to his cousin for bail money, but the cousin refuses. To many people this does not seem like a big reason to be angered but Benvenuto’s anger causes him to kill around half a dozen of his enemies.
Clearly, Christian morals were not thought about when Benvenuto decides to murder those men. Another important Renaissance aspect that was exemplified by Benvenuto in his autobiography was individualism. Individualism is defined by Webster’s as a theory maintaining the political and economic independence of the individual while stressing individual initiative, action, and interests. However, in context of Benvenuto’s work, individualism has a much deeper significance.
He describes that his father began to breed him in many trades and hobbies especially music. The idea of individualism is greatly displayed here because even though his father wanted him to be interested in music and playing the flute, he followed his own interest and learned to become a skilled goldsmith. Today this type of action is very common, but as historians know, the profession on men in renaissance Italy depended on the profession of their father or family.
The fact that Benvenuto thought was becoming a goldsmith shows that some of the renaissance movements had an affect on Benvenuto’s decisions. Although you also see here, the importance of family, Benvenuto decides to play the flute at times just to please his father, even though he hates playing a musical instrument. This family influence plays an important role in making Benvenuto part of the great list of Renaissance men, a good musician, magnificent goldsmith and many others.
At a very young age, he mastered the skill of time management and gave up immature activities. This level of discipline was obviously very crucial because it would stick with him for the rest of his life also for the same reason make him one of the most famous figures in the Italian Renaissance Era. Boasting about oneself was not very common among autobiographies during the time of the Renaissance, which is what makes Benvenuto’s autobiography such a unique and important one. As mentioned earlier about his conflicts, Benvenuto loved to show his masculinity when he wrote about his conquests and his time as a soldier. Normally, the first time any person kills another human being, they do not brag about it but Benvenuto seems not affected by it and boast about how masculine it was. He describes in detail,
“I found them at table; and Gherardo, who had been the cause of the quarrel, flung himself upon me. I stabbed him in the breast, piercing doublet and jerkin through and through to the shirt, without however grazing his flesh or doing him the least harm in the world. When I felt my hand go in, and heard the clothes tear, I thought that I had killed him; and seeing him fall terror-struck to earth, I cried: Traitors, this day is the day on which I mean to murder you all. Father, mother and sisters, thinking the last day had come, threw themselves upon their knees, screaming out for mercy with all their might; but I perceiving that they offered no resistance, and that he was stretch for dead upon the ground, thought it too base a thing to touch them… When I got among them, raging like a mad bull, I flung four or five to the earth, and fell down with them myself, continually aiming my dagger now at one and now at another” (Section 17)
Obviously, this detailed episode was meant to show the readers that he was the bravest man in Italy and that no one can bring him down. His masculinity was not all bad because it had a major contribution to his goldsmith profession. When he first got into a fight in Florence along side with is brother, he mentions that even though they were throwing stones at him, he never left his brothers side. He also mentions that the soldiers that rescued them praised and wondered how a young boy had such a valor. But this played to his advantage because due to this fight, he was banished to Siena for six months, during which he took up the goldsmith’s business and mastered his skill.
Lastly, he mentions that when someone killed his brother, Benvenuto, in response to this, in an act of revenge, murdered his brother’s killer. After which he fled to Rome. This was the purest form of masculinity because it has to do with power, both physical and mental. Benvenuto embodied his masculinity by over powering his brother’s killer and taking revenge, really showing that he was a man. Lastly, importance of family and heritage was very common during the Renaissance Era, which meant family always came first. Benvenuto shows a great attachment to his family and was proud of his heritage as he says that his ancestors were men of valor. All throughout the autobiography he mentions his father and you can see that he always seeks for his fathers approval.
As we know Giovanni Cellini was a musician and also made his own instruments, he wanted Benvenuto to follow in his footsteps but Benvenuto had no interest. Nevertheless you see on several occasions that Benvenuto plays the flute just to please his father. Giovanni Cellini’s influence is greatly seen in Benvenuto’s life, as he is partly responsible for why Benvenuto chose to become a goldsmith. He mentions in section seven that Giovanni posses a simple vein of poetry, instilled in him by nature, together with a certain touch of prophecy, through which he wrote these four verses under the arms of the Medici crest:
These arms, which have so long from sight been laid
Beneath the holy cross, that symbol meek,
Now lift their glorious glad face, and seek
With Peteris sacred cloak to be arrayed.
This beautifully written verse inspired Pope Leo X to the extent that Giovanni was invited to Rome to take his place in the palace. Seeing the great influence this one inscription had on the Pope, Benvenuto commenced goldsmith in Rome. The earning he made from this business were also sent to his father because he was always worried about him. Clearly you can see that family was of great importance to him.
Benvenuto Cellini’s life story is only one example of the Italian Renaissance Era. Observing all the events that took place in his life, we can now conclude how the Italian Renaissance affected individuals during that time period. But more importantly, the ramifications of the Italian Renaissance can still be seen in today’s modern world. Freedom and individuality is what American was built on and I conclude that many historical events played a role in world freedom, with specific significance on the Italian Renaissance Era. It is significant because it changed the thought process of people.
Going back to Cellini and his self-development in terms of multi-mastery in a variety of tasks, art, music, sculpting, goldsmith, etc; now, imagine that every person during that time was improving himself or herself. When a movement like the Renaissance affects a mass population, the influence of it can be sustained and passed on from generation to generation for years. With his autobiography, Benvenuto shows the mastery of narrative and cleverly recites his life story as if the reader was listening to the great Benvenuto Cellini tell us about the great tales of his life. The successful way of incorporating his personality into his saga makes this autobiography a work of art.
Cellini, Benvenuto. The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini. London: Penguin, 1998. Secondary Source
Cellini, in Italian Renaissance Reader, 343.