Cellini: Pearls before duchess

Saltcellar by Cellini done for King Francis I of France. (wikipedia.com)

Saltcellar by Cellini done for King Francis I of France. (wikipedia.com)

In the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1572) he discusses fighting and money a lot. Designing the settings for jewelry – his craft as a goldsmith and sometime sculptor – is the topic to which, after fighting and money, he has the most recourse. As I read I sought passages to print for readers that best described his artistic methods, but was disappointed to find that most such passages were more in the style of (as regarding the saltceller pictured above) well, I put these four horses that look mostly like fish under the seated Neptune, across from whom is a woman whose right hand I rested upon a small temple. More what he did, which we can see, than why he did it.

There is a good stretch about casting the head of his famous Perseus (who is holding up the severed head of Medusa) but it is largely technical – I would recommend it, though, but haven’t the patience to actually transcribe it as I am about to do with Cellini’s description of lying to the Duke of Ferrara about a pearl necklace the duchess wants him to buy for her. It has some interesting description of the physicality of (flawed) pearls, but the passage is of interest more for illustrating the character of Cellini and his powerful ability to bend his words to get out of a tight spot:

[The duchess of Ferrera] watched us work for a while, and then very graciously turned to me and showed me a string of large and really very rare pearls. When she asked me for my opinion I said it was very beautiful. At this her Most Illustrious Excellency said to me: “I want the Duke to buy it for me, so my dear Benvenuto, praise it to the Duke as highly as you are capable of doing.”

When I heard what she wanted, as respectfully as I could I spoke my mind to the Duchess. “My lady,” I said, “I was under the impression that this pearl necklace belonged to your Excellency, and so it would not have been right for me to say what now, knowing that it doesn’t belong to you, I am bound to say. I must confess, your Excellency, that from my intimate knowledge of these things I can perceive very many defects in these pearls, and for that reason I would never advice your Excellency to buy them.”

At this she said: “The merchant is offering them to me for six thousand crowns, and if it weren’t for these little defects they’d be worth more than twelve thousand.”

In answer to this I said that even if the necklace were absolutely flawless I would never advise anyone to pay as much as five thousand crowns; for pearls are not jewels, they are fishes’ bones, and they suffer with time, but diamonds and rubies and emeralds do not grow old, any more than sapphires: all those are jewels, I said, and it was advisable to buy them.

The Duchess was somewhat annoyed at this, and she went on: “But I want these pearls, and so I beg you to take them to the Duke and praise them as highly as you possibly can, and although you may have to tell one or two little lies, do so for me and it will be well worth your while.”

Readers are free to imagine that the duchess is not so enamored of the pearls as she attests but is for some reason obligated to do a favor for whomever is angling to sell them to her. Anyhow, “lover of the truth and a hater of lies” though he claims to be, Cellini takes “those damned pearls” to the duke, who does not want to buy them.

“Pardon me, my lord,” I said, “these pearls are infinitely finer than any pearls ever assembled on a necklace before.” …

Then having begun to tell lies I followed them up with others, even more boldly, and made them as plausible as I could to make the Duke believe me, relying on the Duchess to come to my help when I needed her. If the bargain were concluded more than two hundred crowns would fall to me – the Duchess had said as much. …

The Duke – very graciously – began to address me again, saying: “I know that you’re expert on these matters, and so if you’re the honest man I’ve always taken you for tell me the truth now.”

So then, blushing and with my eyes rather moist from tears, I said: “My lord, if I tell your Excellency the truth the Duchess will become my deadliest enemy; and as a result I’ll be forced to move away from Florence and my enemies will at once attack me on the score of my Perseus, which I’ve promised to your Excellency’s noble school of artists: so I beg your Excellency to protect me.” …

“Everything you say will be kept under lock and key.”

At these noble words I immediately told him the truth as to my opinion concerning the pearls and I said that they were not worth much more than two thousand crowns.

[The duchess then joined them] and said: “My lord, I hope your Excellency will be kind enough to buy me that string of pearls, because I am very anxious to have them, and your Benvenuto says that he has never seen any more beautiful.”

Then the Duke said: “I don’t want to buy them.”

“But, my lord, why does your Excellency not want to please me by buying the necklace?”

“Because it does not please me to throw money away.”

The Duchess insisted: “But oh, what do you mean by ‘throw money away,’ when your Benvenuto, who so much deserves the trust you put in him, has told me it would be a good bargain even if it cost more than three thousand crowns?”

At this the Duke said: “Madam, my Benvenuto has told me that I would be throwing my money away if I bought it, since the pearls are neither round nor even, and many of them are old. And to prove it, look at this one, and that, and look here and here. No, they’re not for me.”

As he said this, the Duchess shot a malevolent look at me, and with a menacing nod of her head left us to ourselves.

In a book suffused with flying fists, daggers, swords and over-the-top braggadocio, this may be one of its most psychologically violent passages.

The excellent translation, published by Penguin, is by George Bull. Cellini’s autobiography is one of the most graphic illustrations of the life of the Renaissance, not just in its fawning supplications to one’s inferiors (who nevertheless outrank a mere master artist like Cellini), but in every other aspect of life lived without the conveniences we take for granted. But, much like James Howard Kunstler’s novel World Made by Hand, it suggests that there is much to be said for a simpler life. Not that Cellini’s life was simple – not in the least as his autobiography shows, even if it is taken with enough grains of salt to fill the vessel on the other side of Neptune’s legs, which is meant to hold salt, as the small temple is meant to hold pepper.

The saltcellar is in the Mannerist style and is the only item of his work as a goldsmith that survives. His statue of Perseus holding the head of Medusa, in Florence, is much more widely seen and celebrated.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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