Ganymede in the Renaissance: Homosexuality in Art and Society
In 1557 Benvenuto Cellini, who was then living in his native Florence, was convicted of sodomy, and after a brief spell in prison had his sentence commuted to house arrest for four years. It was in this period of enforced inactivity, when his attempts to win major sculptural commissions were increasingly unsuccessful, that he wrote, or rather dictated, the greater part of his autobiography, as well as making the marble Crucifix which is now in the Escorial. Both of these works are masterpieces; but it is the autobiography that has proved to be the basis of Cellini’s posthumous fame, in a way that he probably neither anticipated nor wanted. For the picture of the sculptor that emerges from this book, which is by far the most remarkable self-portrait of its period, hardly conforms to modern preconceptions of a great Renaissance artist.
Cellini, as he reveals to us again and again, was vain, violent, ill-educated, and often small-minded, seemingly devoid of the kind of high seriousness and moral authority with which his great contemporary Michelangelo managed to impress everyone who knew him. Because today, perhaps more than ever before, we tend to subscribe to the ancient idea that every artist portrays himself, our appreciation of Cellini’s output as a sculptor has been fatally compromised by the autobiography. It is, after all, the best possible refutation of the notion, so often propounded by museum curators and academics, that the art of the past is somehow morally uplifting. That is surely one reason why scholars have often tended to deny the veracity of Cellini’s narrative, and why it is all too easy to dismiss his work as a superficial exercise in virtuosity. This impression is only strengthened by the fame of the one extant example of his activity as a goldsmith, the celebrated saltcellar in Vienna, which, because of its medium, can hardly escape being regarded as a gorgeous trinket, a tour de force of craftsmanship, but unworthy of serious consideration as a work of art.
The physical appearance of Sir John Pope-Hennessy’s new book might at first seem to confirm such prejudices, for it is an unusually lavish and glossy production. Everything that Cellini made is illustrated in full-page color photographs, and the plates take up as many pages as the text. They are mostly of very high quality, although the black-and-white photographs by David Finn do not fully survive enlargement to such dimensions, and the marvelous relief on the base of the Perseus has been cropped by an insensitive designer. There are still more illustrations in the text, but here unfortunately the publishers have served the author less well. There is no excuse for showing Bronzino’s celebrated Allegory in the National Gallery in London defaced by the overpainting that was removed in 1958, or for reproducing the wrong drawing by Michelangelo. But these are minor shortcomings in a book that displays the full range of Cellini’s output in a way that does justice to its …