Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 19, 2004
Margaret A. Gallucci Benvenuto Cellini: Sexuality, Masculinity, and Artistic Identity in Renaissance Italy New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. 256 pp.; 16 b/w ills. Cloth $100.00 (1403961077)

This fascinating new look at Benvenuto Cellini (1500–1571) offers a thoroughly innovative approach to, and understanding of, the man Jacob Burckhardt called “a wholly recognizable prototype of modern man” (Civilization of the Renaissance, trans. S. G. C. Middlemore [New York: The Modern Library, 1935], 330). In Margaret Gallucci’s recent book, Cellini is no longer seen as the forerunner of European Romanticism and of the modern virtue of heroic individualism (as Goethe and Francesco De Sanctis had proposed, to give just two examples of nineteenth-century critics responsible for Cellini’s current reputation as a swashbuckling hero); instead, the artist is seen as a reflection of his own times and as an emblem of Italian Renaissance masculinity. Using the twin lenses of New Historicism and gender studies, Gallucci reexamines Cellini’s literary production and refutes Cellini’s sensationalist reputation, based for the most part on his eccentric behavior and rampant sexuality. She does this by locating the man and his writings within contemporary discourses of male self-fashioning and cultural expectations. Representative rather than anomalous, Cellini thus reenters his own century and finds himself at home in the dark alleyways of Rome and in the elegant chambers of Fontainebleau—not a hero who challenges the status quo by stepping beyond the bounds imposed by his society, but an individual completely concerned with succeeding in his own world and adhering to contemporary standards of honor and manliness.

Casting aside the traditional portrait of Cellini as the exuberant artist, always ready for a fight or a romp between the sheets, Gallucci gives us the picture of a man who enjoyed sex (and plenty of it) with both attractive young men and voluptuous women, but remained consistent in his sexuality no matter who his partner might have been—always a “top” (or so he would have us believe). For Gallucci, Cellini is thus not a gay icon ante litteram but a red-blooded Renaissance man who was more concerned with the position he took than with the sex of the person he bedded (chapter 1). She then goes on to show that, more than with sexual gratification, Cellini was concerned with his onore, as every respectable male in early modern Italy would have been. And so Gallucci presents us with an extensive discussion of how, in sixteenth-century Italy, onore and masculine behavior went hand in hand, and how Cellini’s tendency for violence and misogyny functioned to affirm them (chapter 5).

More than in the man, however, Gallucci is interested in the man’s writings (chapters 2–4). And these were both extensive and varied. Aside from his lengthy and well-known autobiography, Cellini also wrote art treatises, discourses, diaries, sonnets, letters, and account books, which, for the most part, have not been studied in depth or as a whole until now. Gallucci argues that it would be myopic to try to understand Cellini using only his Vita as a source text, as many nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholars have unfortunately done. Gallucci rejects such critical shortsightedness and takes into consideration the veritable stream that flowed from Cellini’s quill, asking why “Cellini, lacking a formal education, wrote so much, so well, and in such different genres” (2). She then seeks to determine what might have been the nature of Cellini’s “poetics” (by which she means “his writing style, themes, and motifs” (3)). Because of her approach and the type of questions she asks, Gallucci is the first to provide the English reader with a comprehensive examination of Cellini’s substantial corpus of poetic works, and with an understanding of how Cellini’s behavior could be viewed as an indicator of sixteenth-century concepts of artistic identity, professional reputation, and masculine honor.

Before tackling Cellini’s other works, Gallucci takes a hard look at the Vita, the mainstay of our current understanding of the artist. She does so, however, from quite a different perspective: that of the conviction in 1557 for sodomy that brought Cellini’s artistic career to a grinding halt, which in turn opened the floodgates to his writing (chapter 2). Not surprisingly, Gallucci identifies a legal register and prosecutorial mode that characterize not only the language of the Vita but also the psychology of its author, who was struggling to defend himself and to recover from the charge (and loss) he had been forced to endure. The conviction for sodomy thus becomes a defining moment for the artist who, faced with the loss of commissions and patronage, was obliged to reinvent himself. The court’s decision does not, however, “prove” that Cellini was “gay” or “queer,” and so Gallucci devotes part of this chapter to an examination of recent attempts to make of Cellini a “symbol of gay (or queer) sensibility” (4).

The third chapter keeps some of these considerations in mind as it examines Cellini’s use of the sonnet as a forum for discussion and as a venue for attack. Drawing significantly from both Francesco Petrarch (as might be expected, given cinquecento poetic tastes) and Dante Alighieri, Cellini’s poetic palette is enriched by a variety of rhetorical strategies, including parody, personification, caricature, and the grotesque. Sodomy is not absent from the sonnets, appearing often as a preferred strategy of attack. A variety of other genres used by Cellini in narrating the story of his life (vision narratives, ekphrastic writing, epic, romance, theatrical comedy) are examined in chapter 4 to prove that Cellini did not adhere to contemporary norms for clarity or purity of genre. Instead, Cellini drew on a variety of styles and categories available to him to create a pastiche that defied convention and reflected, more accurately, the heterogeneity of life in the sixteenth century.

Gallucci’s analysis of Cellini’s dramatic shift from self-expression through art to self-expression through writing corrects and broadens our current understanding of him. By bringing the Romantic genius back into his own century and contextualizing him within patterns of behavior, composition, and career choices, this book sheds light not only on Cellini himself but also on the artistic community of mid-sixteenth-century Florence and on concepts of masculinity in early modern Italy. As such, this volume will be of profound interest not only to historians of art, but also to historians of sexuality, culture, and literature.

Konrad Eisenbichler
Victoria College, University of Toronto