As a high school student at an American High School at Yokohama, Japan, my English teacher required us to explore the world of history of a place and time in the past by reading and reporting on a world class autobiography. After looking at the choices available, I chose the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini. I brought the book home to discuss it with my naval officer Dad, Annapolis ’32 and Harvard grad school in electronics, and my new step-mother, two master’s degrees in History and Foreign Languages from U. C. Berkeley. She had been a high school principal before she married Dad to allow him to bring his children to Japan. Dad scoffed at the choice and wanted me to study military history. His wife disagreed emphasizing what an extraordinary experience it is to learn of an artist in a foreign country whose experiences are recorded in an autobiography of high repute. When I learned that Cellini was a rascal, wanted for many crimes, and nothing like the heroes other students were reading about, I was excited to learn from this highly regarded non-fiction historical book.
Cellini lived from 3 November 1500 – 13 February 1571, was a goldsmith, sculptor, draftsman, soldier, musician, artist, poet, and autobiographer. Many contend Cellini’s considerable distinction is due more to his autobiography that recorded his life than it is to his extraordinary artistic creations. Those looking for adventure and intrigue will find it here as he was a wanted criminal for many charges. His autobiography began during the Romantic Movement, spoken to a helper where he worked and reads in idiomatic language. It begins with a rendition of Cellini’s episodes and creations in Rome, France, and the Florence of Cosimo de’ Medici. His hyperbole often boasts but preserves a genuine presentation of the place and time in his candid language.
Cellini Salt Cellar
His notable works are too numerous to mention but they include his Cellini Salt Cellar (Salieri), 1543, in gold, enamel, and ivory; A sculpture of Perseus with the head of Medusa, now in Florence; Crafting metals, the most famous of which are "Hercules and the Nemean Lion", in gold raised in relief by hammering on the reverse side, and "Atlas supporting the Sphere", in chased gold.
Perseus with the head of Medussa
Hercules and the Namean Lion
Atlas supporting the sphere
Some of his female models were known mistresses, but he was bi-sexual. He was officially accused of sodomy with one woman and three men according to records. He even wrote of his planned murders in his autobiography before carrying them out. This book transported me into a wholly unknown world four hundred years ago that showed expertise I could never imagine. The value of such graphic descriptions of life in the distant past makes for an awareness that the people were much like me when the same age, but went in directions unique to me at my age thereafter. It was an adventure in making the past come alive in real people and actions that helped me imagine a life I thought I would never emulate. When a naïve teenager, it made me aware of much more than I thought possible in my high school education and frightened me with its frankness. It awakened me to the artistic, erotic, and dangerous world I might soon enter when I matured. I was fascinated by Cellini’s wildness and creativity. This was one of the best examples of how non-fiction can bring the past alive.