(from Herbert Maryon's Metalwork and enamelling)
is one consideration which, more than any other, the designer must bear in mind
in judging the work and the craftsmen of the past. It is that a man's work must
be judged on its own merit, and on that alone. Reputation is hardly a safe guide.
Great reputations may be based on divers grounds; but they do not all stand
quite safely on the bases generally attributed to them. Cellini's is a case
You have but to look into almost any book dealing with goldsmiths' work to find the name of Benvenuto Cellini tacitly accepted as that of the greatest goldsmith the world has seen. But should you endeavour to turn to his works in the craft to see upon what ground this great reputation may be based, you will meet with the initial difficulty that few examples of it have come down to us, and those which have are not specially good.
Upon what Cellini's reputation is truly based it will be my endeavour to show. First, then, let us look at the materials. Works attributed to Cellini may be seen in many of the national museums of Europe. The great salt-cellar, made for Francis I of France, is at Vienna; other pieces are at Florence and elsewhere. M. Eugene Plon, in his great work on Cellini, illustrates all the important work by, or attributed to, the master. A copy of this book is to be found in the National Art Library at South Kensington. From it, and from an inspection of some of the works themselves, a pretty fair idea as to his attainments may be gained.
Cellini also wrote two books about himself, his autobiography and his treatises on Metalwork and Sculpture. From them we may learn much of the man himself his life and character. Cellini was born in 1500; he placed himself with a goldsmith at the age of fifteen, against the desire of his father, who wished him to become a musician.
As a goldsmith he worked throughout his life. But in Cellini's time the goldsmiths' craft and the goldsmiths' guild embraced workers in many different materials. There was no strict dividing line between goldsmith and sculptor. Luca della Robbia and Ghiberti, to mention only two famous names, began life as goldsmiths. It is not to be wondered at that Cellini also should try his hand at clay and bronze and marble. Of all the work which came from his hand Cellini was proudest of his sculptures. He described himself as sculptor, goldsmith and die-sinker. He worked for many masters, Popes, Dukes, Cardinals, and for the King of France, producing jewels, silverware, coins, busts, statues, base-reliefs, a figure 54 feet high, plans for fortifications, nothing came amiss to this most versatile man.
Yet he was not a great artist in the true sense of the word. His taste was in many ways deplorable. Nearly always the craftsman overpowers the artist.
He had a lack of feeling for proportion; the figures on his great salt-cellar, for instance, are too large for the rest of the work. His figures are stiff and wooden, and lack proportion, though they are often well thrown about. His work is overcrowded with detail, and this is frequently far too great in scale. The placing of the head in the coins and medals is sometimes very poor indeed. In silverwork and jewellery his work stands technically on a level with that of many of his contemporaries, neither better nor worse. In it Cellini shows no sign of transcendent genius, but rather the joy of a keen workman delighting in the overcoming of technical difficulties.
But there is one sin at least which he never committed, that of thinking too little of himself and his work. By force of character he held his own among his contemporaries: for the future he provided by his writings. But for them his name would stand far lower. He was one of the very greatest craftsmen of the sixteenth century, but he was a poor artist. His true claims to fame are his versatile craftsmanship and literary power. Other goldsmiths have done finer work, but Benvenuto Cellini is the author of the most delightful autobiography ever written.