Among the vast number of men who have thought fit to write down the history of their own lives, three or four have achieved masterpieces which stand out preeminent: Saint Augustine in his "Confessions," Samuel Pepys in his "Diary," Rousseau in his "Confessions." It is among these extraordinary documents, and unsurpassed by any of them, that the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini takes its place.
The "Life" of himself which Cellini wrote was due to other motives than those which produced its chief competitors for first place in its class. St. Augustine's aim was religious and didactic, Pepys noted down in his diary the daily events of his life for his sole satisfaction and with no intention that any one should read the cipher in which they were recorded. But Cellini wrote that the world might know, after he was dead, what a fellow he had been; what great things he had attempted, and against what odds he had carried them through. "All men," he held, "whatever be their condition, who have done anything of merit, or which verily has a semblance of merit, if so be they are men of truth and good repute, should write the tale of their life with their own hand." That he had done many things of merit, he had no manner of doubt. His repute was great in his day, and perhaps good in the sense in which he meant goodness; as to whether he was a man of truth, there is still dispute among scholars. Of some misrepresentations, some suppressions of damaging facts, there seems to be evidence only too good--a man with Cellini's passion for proving himself in the right could hardly have avoided being guilty of such--; but of the general trustworthiness of his record, of the kind of man he was and the kind of life he led, there is no reasonable doubt.
The period covered by the autobiography is from Cellini's birth in 1500 to 1562; the scene is mainly in Italy and France. Of the great events of the time, the time of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, of the strife of Pope and Emperor and King, we get only glimpses. The leaders in these events appear in the foreground of the picture only when they come into personal relations with the hero; and then not mainly as statesmen or warriors, but as connoisseurs and patrons of art. Such an event as the Sack of Rome is described because Benvenuto himself fought in it.
Much more complete is the view he gives of the artistic life of the time. It was the age of Michelangelo, and in the throng of great artists which . . .