Benvenuto Cellini was a celebrated Renaissance sculptor and goldsmith; a passionate craftsman who was admired and resented by the most powerful political and artistic personalities in sixteenth-century Florence, Rome and Paris. He was also a murderer and a braggart, a shameless adventurer who at different times experienced both papal persecution and imprisonment, and the adulation of the royal court. Inn-keepers and prostitutes, kings and cardinals, artists and soldiers rub shoulders in the pages of his notorious autobiography: a vivid portrait of the manners and morals of both the rulers of the day and of their subjects. Written with supreme powers of invective and an irrepressible sense of humor, this is an unrivalled glimpse into the palaces and prisons of the Italy of Michelangelo and the Medici.
It is worse than useless to deplore the irremediable; yet no man, probably, has failed to mourn the fate of mighty poets, whose dawning gave the promise of a glorious day, but who passed from earth while yet the light that shone in them was crescent. That the world should know Marlowe and Giorgione, Raphael and Mozart, only by the products of their early manhood, is indeed a cause for lamentation, when we remember what the long lives of a Bach and Titian, a Michelangelo and Goethe, held in reserve for their maturity and age. It is of no use to persuade ourselves, as some have done, that we possess the best work of men untimely slain. Had Sophocles been cut off in his prime, before the composition of "Oedipus"; had Handel never merged the fame of his forgotten operas in the immortal music of his oratorios; had Milton been known only by the poems of his youth, we might with equal plausibility have laid that flattering unction to our heart. And yet how shallow would have been our optimism, how fallacious our attempt at consolation. There is no denying the fact that when a young Marcellus is shown by fate for one brief moment, and withdrawn before his springtime has bought forth the fruits of summer, we must bow in silence to the law of waste that rules inscrutably in nature.
“Thus what the word Renaissance really means is new birth to liberty—the spirit of mankind recovering consciousness and the power of self-determination, recognizing the beauty of the outer world, and of the body through art, liberating the reason in science and the conscience in religion, restoring culture to the intelligence, and establishing the principle of political freedom. The Church was the schoolmaster of the Middle Ages. Culture was the humanizing and refining influence of the Renaissance.”