by Liam Heneghan
A celebrated altercation between Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571), the Florentine artist, and fellow sculptor Bartolommeo Bandinello (1493-1560) resulted in the latter exclaiming “Oh sta cheto, soddomitaccio.” [Shut up, you filthy sodomite!]. The accusation had merit in the legal sense at least since Cellini had indeed been accused of the crime of sodomy with at least one woman and several young men. The incident is oftentimes recalled in writings about the period as it provides a compelling illustration of the sexual appetites of the artists of the Renaissance.
Bandinello unleashed his invective against Cellini in front of Cosimo I de’ Medici, Duke of Florence, who was patron of both artists. The incident is recorded in Cellini’s autobiography My Life. The insult is infamous, but events that culminated in the insult are remarkable in their own right for they shed light, not on the sexual peccadilloes of the times, but rather on the attitudes of Renaissance artist to works of antiquity. They also are helpful in thinking more generally about how the quality of works might be assessed.
As Cellini reports it, the encounter started with Cellini visiting the ducal palace in Florence, where the Duke is expressing his enthusiasm about a box sent to him by Stefan Colonna, a general employed in the Florentine services. Cellini opens the crate on the Duke’s behalf and marvels at its contents. It is a statue in Greek marble. Although the statue is damaged, as is the case of many of the works of great antiquity, Cellini writes, “It is a miracle of beauty.” Furthermore, he declares, “I have never seen a boy’s figure so excellently wrought and in so fine a style among all the antiques I have inspected.” High praise indeed.
The Duke asks Cellini to tell him “minutely” why the piece is so meritorious. The artist counts the ways: the beauty of the workmanship, the consummate science taken to create it, and its “rare manner.” Cellini is interrupted in his disquisition concerning the piece by the entrance of Bandinello. Bandinello wastes no time in contradicting Cellini’s opinion about the marble. “My lord,” says Bandinello, “this exactly illustrates the truth of what I have so often told your Excellency.” What so displeases him in ancient works? Bandinello claims the ancients were wholly ignorant of anatomy and thus their works “abound in mistakes.” Cellini is outraged by this “disagreeable babble.” The Duke then asks Cellini to respond which he does with gusto, saying, “Baccio Bandinello is made of everything bad… therefore whatever he looks at, be that thing superlatively excellent, becomes in his ungracious eyes as bad as can.” Naturally, according to Cellini, the converse is true also: he, Cellini, who is “good” can “discern the truth with purer sense.” The exchange escalates after this—Bandinello complains about how he is always being insulted, Cellini argues the merits of universal condemnation of his rival’s works, and then proceeds to gives very specific unflattering commentary of Bandinello oeuvre. Consider this critique: “if one were to shave the hair of your Hercules, there would not be skull enough left to hold his brain.” Snap! So comprehensive is Cellini in his critique that these remarks are spread over two chapters of the autobiography. The Duke and his courtiers find all of this very amusing. Finally, Bandinello can take no more and yells, infamously, “Oh sta cheto, soddomitaccio.” Cellini is furious—which might surprise us as Bandinello was by no means unprovoked—and Cellini reflects that he “should have felled him dead to earth.” This was no idle threat since Cellini not only has sodomy on his record but also sundry homicides—but, in deference to the Duke’s sensibilities, shrugs off the insult with “a jest.” Again the argument flares up, and Cellini threatens to “rip the wind out of [Bandinello’s] carcass.” Alas there we must leave our quarreling artists.
What should one make of all of this? Certainly the episode—and Cellini’s autobiography in general—confirms the image of the passionate Renaissance artist, and gives insight into the Florentine temperament. This is, presumably, why Cellini’s autobiography is still read, as are the more comprehensive volume The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects by Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574). However, embedded in the exchange between Cellini and Bandinello is the germ of subjective theory of art appreciation that is worth considering. Cellini is not simply claiming that the Greek statue revealed in the crate appeals to his taste and marveling that Bandinello does not share that impression, rather he is claiming that one’s aesthetic judgments, indeed one’s ability to even see a work of art—are influenced by the quality of one’s soul. In this case, Bandinello soul is bad, and Cellini, albeit a convicted sodomite and murderer, is good. Whatever the merits of Cellini’s self-reflection of his own moral worth or that of Bandinello’s, it is surely the case that Cellini’s theory is in service of cultivating the good will of his patron at the expense of his rival. In other words, he was not merely promulgating an aesthetic theory.
A compelling motivation for Cellini in his infamous argument at the Medici Palace was for access to the Greek statue. There is little doubt that Cellini thought it a masterpiece. What is his particular interest in it? He wanted to restore it. Before Bandinello even showed up, Cellini had laid claim to it. In this less celebrated aspect of that day’s conversation can be found important remarks on Cellini’s theory of restoration.
Just moments after opening the crate Cellini exclaims, “If your Excellency permits, I should like to restore it—head and arms and feet.” Lest he be confused with a mere repairman who might merely put the pieces together, Cellini interjects that “it is certainly not my business to patch up statues, that being the trade of botchers.” No, Cellini’s work will not be a simple patch-job, rather he will augment the statue. Thus, Cellini declares to the Duke that he will “add an eagle, in order that we may christen the lad Ganymede.” This masterpiece of antiquity remains, of course, a reminder of ancient genius, but in Cellini’s hands, it was fated to become a product of Florentine genius also. The task of restoration (recall that Cellini very specially offered to “restore it”) is not in this instance the technical matter of undoing the damage wrought by time, rather the task opens up a conversation between the past and Cellini’s own time. As Cellini writes: “This great master of antiquity cries out to me to help him.” And help him he does by refashioning the piece. The marble wreck, despite it being “a miracle of beauty” had become the Ganymede, a work by Cellini.
[Cellini worked on the statue from 1548-1550, and his Ganymede is on display at the Palazzo del Bargello, Museo Nazionale del Bargello. I saw it there is 1992].
Friedland, Elise A., Melanie Grunow Sobocinski, and Elaine K. Gazda. 2015. The Oxford handbook of Roman sculpture.
Cellini, Benvenuto, 2009. My life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Vasari, Giorgio, Gaston du C. De Vere, and Philip Joshua Jacks. 2006. The lives of the most excellent painters, sculptors, and architects. New York: Modern Library.