An incident from the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini
By Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571)
July 1, 2002

We will occasionally publish writing from the past that relates in some way to the current thematic of the site. "The Banquet of Crows" is an excerpt from the Italian Renaissance sculptor and goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini's autobiography, translated by John Addington Symonds (Book 1, section 30). What were artists' lives like in Renaissance Italy? Cellini details his private life, his patrons' behavior, his income, his friends, his travels. Here he is describing a community of artists in Rome, after a period of great hardship.

The plague had by this time almost died out, so that the survivors, when they met together alive, rejoiced with much delight in each other's company. This led to the formation of a club of painters, sculptors, and goldsmiths, the best that were in Rome; and the founder of it was a sculptor with the name of Michel Agnolo. He was a Sienese and a man of great ability, who could hold his own against any workman in that art; but above all, he was the most amusing comrade and the heartiest good fellow in the universe. Of all the members of the club, he was the eldest, yet the youngest from the strength and vigor of his body. We often came together, at the very least twice a week. . . .

After many and many merry meetings, it seemed good to our worthy president that for the following Sunday we should repair to supper in his house, and that each one of us should be obliged to bring with him his crow (such was the nickname Michel Agnolo gave to women in the club), and that whoso did not bring one would be sconced by paying a supper to the whole company. . . .

Well, then, the hour was drawing nigh when we had to present ourselves before that company of men of genius, each with his own crow; and I was still unprovided . . . . These considerations made me devise a pleasant trick, for the increase of merriment and the diffusion of mirth in our society. . . .

I send for a stripling of sixteen years, who lived in the next house to mine; he was the son of a Spanish coppersmith. This young man gave his time to Latin studies, and was very diligent in their pursuit. He bore the name of Diego, had a handsome figure, and a complexion of marvelous brilliancy; the outlines of his head and face were far more beautiful than those of the antique Antinous: I had often copied them, gaining thereby much honor from the works in which I used them. The youth had no acquaintances, and was therefore quite unknown; dressed very ill and negligently; all his affections being set upon those wonderful studies of his. After bringing him to my house, I begged him to let me array him in the woman's clothes which I had caused to be laid out.

He readily complied, and put them on at once, while I added new beauties to the beauty of his face by the elaborate and studied way in which I dressed his hair. In his ears I placed two little rings, set with two large and fair pearls; the rings were broken, they only clipped his ears, which looked as though they had been pierced. . . . Then I took him in a pleasant manner by one ear, and drew him before a great looking-glass. The lad, when he beheld himself, cried out with a burst of enthusiasm, "Heavens! Is that Diego?" I said: "That is Diego, from whom until this day I never asked for any kind of favor; but now I only beseech Diego to do me pleasure in one harmless thing; it is this--I want him to come in those very clothes to supper with the company of artists of whom he has often heard me speak." The young man, who was honest, virtuous, and wise, checked his enthusiasm, bent his eyes to the ground, and stood for a short while in silence. Then with a sudden move he lifted up his face and said, "With Benvenuto I will go; now let us start."

I wrapped his head in a large kind of napkin, which is called in Rome a summer-cloth, and when we had reached the place of meeting, the company had already assembled and everybody came forward to greet me. Michel Agnolo had placed himself between Giulio and Giovan Francesco. I lifted the veil from the head of my beauty; and then Michel Agnolo, who, as I have already said, was the most humorous and amusing fellow in the world, laid his two hands, the one on Giulio's and the other on Gian Francesco's shoulders, and pulling them down with all his force, made them bow down, while he, on his knees upon the floor, cried out for mercy, and called to all the folk in words like these: "Behold you of what sort are the angels of paradise! for though they are called angels, here shall you see that they are not all of the male gender." Then with a loud voice he added, "Angel beauteous, angel best, Save me thou, make thou me blest!"

Upon this my charming creature laughed , and lifted his right hand and gave him a papal benediction, with many pleasant words . . . So Michel Agnolo stood up, and said it was the custom to kiss the feet of the Pope and the cheeks of angels; and having done the latter to Diego, the boy blushed deeply, which immensely enhanced his beauty.

When this reception was over, we found the whole room full of sonnets, which every man of us had made and sent to Michel Agnolo. My lad began to read them, and read them all aloud so gracefully . . . . Then followed conversation and witty sayings . . . .

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