The real Benvenuto Cellini belongs in a romantic opera. Hector Berlioz thought so and was only responding accurately to Cellini's grandiose, swaggering, slightly insane, very violent Autobiography. Berlioz, as a self-aware romantic artist, must have identified totally with Cellini. Both men were wildly impulsive, at least in their youth, given to crazy adventures, and apt to live life as though all of existence was chartered on one of those new-fangled roller coasters or Cyclones.
Berlioz was eventually tamed by some of life's harsher realities. Even at the height of romanticism in Paris it was hard for a person to live by art alone. One of the glories of Cellini's life was that he could live it entirely as a creator. Berlioz had to have recourse to other strategies, such as becoming a music critic. He was fearless, so was Cellini, and they both made dangerous enemies. Those enemies occasioned a riot at the premiere of Benvenuto Cellini and at least in part were responsible for its inability to succeed in operatic Paris.
Curiously, the real Cellini started out as a boy musician. His father, who adored music, made him master the flute. Apparently he had a great talent for it, but no love. Benvenuto rebelled. Even family friends pled the boy's case, noticing his precocious visual gifts. Cellini quotes his father as saying, "I do not wish him to practice any art but playing and composing, for in this profession I hope to make him the greatest man of the world." The boy Cellini had no problem experiencing himself as great, he just didn't love music to the same degree as his father.
Berlioz might have experienced some sympathy, because loving music and having a great gift brought him as much sorrow as ecstasy. Cellini seems to have intuited at a young age that his temperament would require him to have total control over what he created. Cellini himself would not only design what he saw in his perfervid visions but he would do much of the physical work, no matter how hard or dangerous it might be. The real-life Cellini had a troublesome apprentice named Ascanio and an eccentric assistant named Bernardino as in the opera. But he was always the master, always in control, and apt to beat up the men and boys who worked for him, if they didn't do their jobs well.
Berlioz had to delegate, like all composers. He had to trust others to make his creations live off the page. And he had to be a respectful colleague. One of the reasons the opera failed at first was that those who should have made the case for it couldn't. It was too difficult for the musicians, and they were confused and daunted by what was required. Some even fell ill. Berlioz had to sit patiently by and watch all this. Cellini, if need be could do all the work himself, from the initial sketchings to the elaborate, backbreaking casting (what is depicted in the opera is inevitably much simplified) to seeing that the work was delivered appropriately. After all, as Cellini tells us in what might be called his hints for survival, "the first thing I did was go and kiss the Pope's feet."
There was also a difference in the artistic climate each of the men faced. Cellini, operating at the height of the Renaissance, literally lived in an art mad world. His gifts bought him the attention and respect of many of the great men of his time. Those men also gave him trouble and sometimes, at least according to the autobiography, conspired against his life. That same Pope kept him in the dungeons for quite a while and Cellini, at least as he tells it, nearly died of starvation there. But Cellini was never in doubt about the value of what he was doing.
Berlioz had to please a public, not only informed patrons. Although opera in nineteenth-century Paris was the dominant performing art of the time, he still needed to operate in an understandable, even conventional way in order to get ahead. Committees and bureaucrats, people plotting their own careers, were responsible for what operas were mounted, not an absolute ruler. Wagner, after a lifetime of terrible struggle finally found a powerful patron in King Ludwig. But such scenarios were rare by the nineteenth century, and even Wagner had to deal with officious intermediaries who served the king‹people who often couldn't cope with originality. Berlioz was a great original, and the opera Benvenuto Cellini is perhaps his most original work. It was bound to fail. And when Berlioz did find a powerful advocate in Franz Liszt, who revived the work at Weimar, he was still called upon to compromise his initial vision.
The real Cellini sometimes risked his head for a patron's favor, but what was original and powerful in his work was a great selling point and had only to please the patron. When Cellini was working with enormous success at the court of Francis the First in Paris, not even the strenuous antagonism of Francis' queen could really derail Cellini as long as his work pleased. Cellini writes, for instance, that on having "my prentice, Ascanio, push my Jupiter toward his majesty the king exclaimed at once, 'this is by far the finest thing that has ever been seen and I, although I am a judge of art, could never have conceived the hundredth part of its beauty!' " Not even the queen's courtiers nor the queen herself could get the king to qualify his praise. Instead the king said, at least according to Cellini, "Benvenuto deserves to be made much of, for his statue does not merely rival but surpasses the great works of antiquity."
Neither Berlioz, nor Wagner, nor say, Georges Bizet, could get that kind of "be quiet and worship this genius" command from a patron. If both Berlioz and Wagner dared to be unconventional and took risks in their art, Bizet, who wrote what would become one of the two or three most beloved and best known operas in the world, Carmen, could not go over the heads of various busybodies and intriguers to a ruling majesty to ensure the acclaim he deserved. Cellini might have had to outmaneuver a queen or two, but there was always that central, art-loving figure that could be appealed to.
One thing that was similar in the lives of both Berlioz and Cellini was that they knew nearly all the illustrious artists of their time. Berlioz lived in the Hollywood of the nineteenth century, Paris, and was on terms, friendly or unfriendly as the case might be, with everyone who mattered. The great Michelangelo was a presence throughout Cellini's life, and he carried out commissions inspired by the sketches of Raffaello and Filippino Lippi, for example.
Berlioz probably encountered Cellini's autobiography as a student and two complete editions of the work appeared in Florence during his time in Italy in 1831-32. He doesn't appear to have read it closely until a new French edition published in 1833.
Cellini had written his work between 1558 and 1566, and it deals only with his youth and young maturity. It stayed in private hands for more than a century. An incomplete manuscript was published in 1728. Most of his work was lost or dispersed but what remained showed a great mastery and imagination. Still, ironically, it was as a writer that Cellini got the most attention after his death. The great Goethe translated the autobiography and hailed it as perhaps the most remarkable personal document of the Renaissance.
Ever since then, the work, either in its very salty Italian or in translation (the famous English translation is by John Addington Symonds) has been viewed as a primary text for its period, as well as a remarkable document of an artist's life and struggles.
Among artists Cellini's life was probably not all that uncommon. He was flamboyantly self-centered, fiercely ambitious and insatiable (there are hints, especially in Italian, that some of Cellini's adventures were on the unconventional side and got him in trouble). Berlioz eventually became a family man and in old age knew some of the comforts of domesticity but as a young man he would certainly have identified with the outsized personality and reckless courage of Cellini. And although the opera inevitably simplifies many aspects of Cellini's life, it is a marvelous example of one great artist's tribute to another.