The Autobiography Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

At the age of fifty-eight, Benvenuto Cellini begins to set down his memoirs. After relating a fictional version of the founding of Florence by his ancestors, he starts the story of his life. Benvenuto’s father plans for his son to be a musician, and as a boy Benvenuto is taught to play the flute and sing. His father’s lessons in music fail to interest him, however, and at the age of fifteen Cellini apprentices himself to a goldsmith. Cellini says of himself that he has a natural bent for the work and in a few months he has surpassed men long in the trade. As an apprentice and, later, as a journeyman goldsmith, Cellini travels through Italy doing fine work and acting the part of a bravo. He becomes an excellent swordsman and handler of the poniard, as he proves when he kills an enemy in a street brawl.

In 1527, the constable of Bourbon marches on Rome and besieges Pope Clement VII in his fortress. Cellini, then in Rome and in sympathy with the pope, serves the pontiff valiantly as an artillerist and as a goldsmith, having been commissioned by the besieged prelate to melt down jewelry and turn it into a more transportable form. Later, Cellini boasts that during the siege he killed the constable of Bourbon and wounded the prince of Orange.

After the siege is lifted and a truce declared, Cellini returns to Florence and kills the murderer of his brother. He later goes to Mantua. After falling ill with fever in that city, he returns to Florence. When Pope Clement declares war on Florence, however, Cellini leaves his shop and trade to enter the papal service. While in Rome, he makes a medallion of tremendous size for the papal cope, a work that is the beginning of his fortunes, for the splendid button greatly pleases the pontiff for whom he made it. From then on, during Clement’s life, Cellini does much work for the Papacy. His career under Pope Clement is nevertheless a stormy one. His fiery temper often causes him no end of trouble, as when he receives the commission of the papal mint and then loses it because of his foolhardy and unmannerly actions. He kills an enemy in a quarrel but is lucky enough to be pardoned by his patron.

Cellini’s greatest commission from Pope Clement is for a gold chalice. The chalice is never finished, for Clement dies. During the last years of his life, however, the chalice is a matter of contention between the pope and his goldsmith. Cellini tends to work too slowly to suit the pope, and the pope, according...

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The Autobiography Bibliography (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Gallucci, Margaret A. Benvenuto Cellini: Sexuality, Masculinity, and Artistic Identity in Renaissance Italy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Critical biography places Cellini’s life and works within the context of his time, focusing on contemporary discourses about law, magic, masculinity, and honor. Chapter 4 discusses The Autobiography.

Gallucci, Margaret A., and Paolo L. Rossi, eds. Benvenuto Cellini: Sculptor, Goldsmith, Writer. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Collection of essays examines Cellini’s life and work, including discussions of the history and reception of The Autobiography.

Howarth, William. “Some Principles of Autobiography.” In Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical, edited by James Olney. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980. Discusses Cellini’s autobiography as one of several works that attempt in prose what painters do on canvas: the creation of a self-portrait. Maintains that Cellini provides a straightforward account of his life.

Pascal, Roy. “The Early History of Autobiography.” In Design and Truth in Autobiography. 1960. Reprint. New York: Garland, 1985. Includes a discussion of Cellini’s The Autobiography in a general assessment of works that emerged during the Renaissance. Asserts that Cellini is truthful in the way he presents the facts of his life, and that he was confident of his greatness.

Pope-Hennessy, John W. Cellini. New York: Abbeville Press, 1985. Comprehensive biography of the artist uses The Autobiography as a principal source but highlights the differences between Cellini’s account of his life and the records of events in other sources. Profusely illustrated.

Weintraub, Karl Joachim. “Benvenuto Cellini: The Naïve Individuality.” In The Value of the Individual: Self and Circumstance in Autobiography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978. Provides an excellent scholarly examination of The Autobiography, analyzing the themes of self-aggrandizement and Cellini’s self-confident belief that the story of his life was worth telling. Argues that the work is a significant document in the development of the concept of human personality.