Let me start out by saying The Life of Benvenuto Cellini is the most enjoyable and entertaining book I have read in years. It reads like a cross between a Dumas adventure (ignoring for the moment Dumas’ L’Orfèvre du roi, ou Ascanio) and Rousseau’s Confessions. If you have not read it, forget this review….go buy the book and get at it!
Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571), goldsmith, artist and sculptor extraordinaire, wrote this autobiography between 1558 and 1563. The Limited Editions Club (LEC) Monthly Letter (ML) says correctly that it is:
…now one of the great classics of the world’s literature. It was written in complete honesty, with no idea of profit and not to afford amusement. It is purely personal; Celllini writes only of things concerning himself, not a line of comment being devoted to affairs outside his orbit. But his personal orbit was wide, and it has thus become necessary that any study of the Italian Renaissance begin and end with the immortal memoirs of this Florentine artist.
In focusing on his own orbit, Cellini paints a picture of the Renaissance that is unparalleled in literature. Because the Renaissance reflects an awakening of humanity, we tend to have an idealized view of living in such times. Cellini’s work is so exciting because, despite what one may think, Italy at that time was quite tumultuous and Cellini himself even more so.
He spent his days among fierce and exciting days; for those were the days of plague and war and assassination and gross immorality. He spent his days in prison and out; for he indulged himself in murder and arson and venality.
Multiple murders and assaults, multiple accusations and charges of sodomy (including with men), altercations and accusations constantly surrounding him. Yes, Cellini was colorful. Yet, as the ML goes on to say:
It was an extraordinary age, yet even in that age Benvenuto was an extraordinary figure. He was the foremost goldsmith of his day, if not of all time; and he was the most extraordinary character in the annals of art.
Cellini was unquestionably extraordinary. Lucky for him, those at the time recognized his genius and pardons typically followed misbehavior.
It is possible that no person in the world’s history traded upon the world’s tolerance of genius more earnestly than did that rascal of rascals, Benvenuto Cellini.
Rascal as he may have been, his autobiography is so frank, so matter of fact and so friendly in tone, one cannot help but like him (just do not cross him!). In any case, there is no denying that Cellini is one of the most important artists of the Renaissance and of Mannerism specifically. I fondly recall a beautiful afternoon in the Loggia dei Lanzi of the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, Italy, with a few glasses of Prosecco flowing through my system, staring in awe and amazement at Perseus with the Head of Medusa. Another work of his which I simply adore is Saliera, a salt cellar made of gold, enamel and ivory — it is beyond stunning. His autobiography stands equally to these great pieces of art.
A great work of literature demands to be presented in a great edition. The 1937 edition from the Limited Editions Club certainly strives for such greatness, and largely attains it. The edition was designed, printed and bound by the great Hans Mardersteig at the Officina Bodoni. First and foremost, the binding is so very apropos! Bound in full cloth especially woven for this edition in the pattern of the Florentine lily and the lion of Cellini’s arms, I find it beautiful, elegant and exuding a Renaissance-like aura. The type choice is equally apropos, being Monotype Bembo. Bembo was created by Aldus Manutius Romanus for the 1495 edition of De Aetna by poet Pietro Bembo. This early type design would almost certainly have been in the running if Cellini were to have personally have chosen a type for the initial edition of this work. The ML mentions that “Bembo is a beautiful type, brave in a rich, black color, the letter shapes being drawn in a cleanly and clear fashion.” The Bembo type together with the fine deeply toned, 100% linen rag Italian paper from the mills of Cartierre di Maslianic0 (the tone of which gives giving “a restful quality to the eye“) and the spacing (13 point size with 3 points leading along with large margins around the columns, and a wide gutter between the columns) lead to an extremely readable and comfortable text.
I know many people simply dislike multiple columns on a page. George Macy addresses this in the ML saying that the:
…first suggestion was a two volume edition with a single column of type, and such was announced in the prospectus. But Mardersteig decided that “he would achieve a triumph if he got all of the enormously long text into one volume” that could still be held and read. “So he enlarged the size of the page, he printed the text in two columns on each page, and this enormous text is printed in 320 pages.” There are those among you gentle readers of these lines who will question the use of a page containing two columns of type. Very often, double-column pages are ugly and difficult to read. Very often, however, a double-column page can be designed to enhance the beauty of a book and to increase the legibility of the page. We think the printer has done both….
I wholeheartedly agree. The initial lettering and the many scattered illustrations also help with the overall page beauty (or at least in the very utilitarian readability). Concerning the illustrations, there are nearly one hundred line and color wash drawings by the great German-American artist/illustrator Fritz Kredel in this edition. Fifty artists sought to provide illustrations for this eventual edition, including C. Pal Molnar, Cyril Bouda and Valenti Angelo. Clearly Cellini is a draw to today’s artistic kindred spirits. Kredel was selected, with the ML providing some rationale:
Kernel’s drawings are suggestive, done with a nervous pen, the sort of drawings which are done over ad over again with great pains until the artist is satisfied that each looks as though it were dashed off in a few seconds.
All are done in two color, the color being applied by lithography. The reproduction is superb, as typical of these early Macy-era editions. There is just one issue. When you look page after page, something is just a bit off. Macy, in the LEC Quarto-Millenary, hits the nail on the head:
So many people have asked me why they sometimes think this is a truly great book, and sometimes do not, that I feel impelled to tell them what causes their confusion. The illustrations by Fritz Kredel are altogether delightful, small and dainty, intended for a small and dainty book. The printer however, made the book a very large one, a noble and monumental and very beautiful book. The small and dainty illustrations are out of place in it. It is a highly popular book, and deservedly so, just as Clark Gable is often considered a handsome man despite the fact that his ears are too large.
I agree — the illustrations really are too small, some being completely drowned out by the mass of text on the page. The drawings themselves, undersized as they are, are nicely done. It does make one ponder the possibilities if they had either stuck to the original plan or choose a different illustrative scale.
The introduction in this edition is by noted American art critic Thomas Craven (1888-1969). The translation is by English poet and critic John Addington Symonds (1840-1893). I have not read other translations, so cannot compare, but have nothing but good things to say about the readability of this translation. This edition can often be found (albeit typically with sun fading to the spine) for under $100, and in fine condition without fading for $150. What a steal.
About the Edition
- Designed, printed and bound by Hans Mardersteig at the Officina Bodoni
- Line and color wash drawings (nearly 100 of them) by Fritz Kredel, all in two color, the color being applied by lithography
- Translation by John Addington Symonds
- Introduction by art critic Thomas Craven
- Monotype Bembo, 13 point size with 3 points leading
- Fine, deeply toned, 100% linen rag Italian paper from the mills of Cartierre di Maslianic0
- Bound in full cloth especially woven for this edition in pattern of the Florentine lily and the lion of Cellini’s arms
- 9 1/2″ x 13″, 320 pages
- Limited to 1500 copies, signed by Kredel
Pictures of the Edition
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