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Cellini by John Pope-Hennessy (Abbeville: $85; 324 pp.)

June 29, 1986|William Wilson | Wilson is The Times' art critic.

Princes fell to his gun, gold melted into exquisite objects in his hand and pretty boys dressed as girls for his amusement. Sounds like a corny, kinky silhouette romance, but it is the real stuff of the autobiography of 16th-Century goldsmith and sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, a rare classic of literature, history and art. For decades, readers have sat mesmerized at this bravura account of a life that pops off the pages in full color like a Franco Zeffirelli-style opera.

It is as unique a document of energy and intrigue as Van Gogh's letters are of pathos and self-sacrifice. Any writer who undertakes to go over the same ground automatically gains points for intrepidity and concern for foolhardiness.

John Pope-Hennessy receives his measure of each in the sumptuously produced "Cellini," a big cocktail-table format book with almost enough color illustrations to compensate for the grayness of the prose.

Pope-Hennessy is, of course, a leading scholar of Italian painting and sculpture and former director of the British Museum who currently serves as consultive chairman of the Department of European Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

If this book is set in comparison to other art-historical writings, instead of Cellini's own marvelous effusion, it comes off very nicely with a particularly British concern for clarity, biography and history as well as the details of art. Still, as it stands, it is a road that alternates between galloping smoothness and slogging murk.

The smooth bits we already know from Cellini himself, his meteoric rise from humble roots in Florence (where his father wanted him to be a flutist) to an admired gold craftsman in Rome patronized by the Pope and pressed into service to defend Castle San Angelo during the Sack of Rome; his sojourn at the court of French monarch Francis I, whom he aggravated with temperament and astonished with his design for what has become the world's most famous salt cellar and finally the artist's crowning period in Florence working for Cosimo I de Medici, where he became the great Mannerist sculptor of the riveting, perverse Perseus that still stands in the Loggia de Lanzi. (It's combination of jeweled coolness and bloody action make it the most authentically gory sculpture extant.)

Woven into all of this were three murders, short stretches in a couple of princely dungeons, countless lovers of both sexes, accusations of sodomy and finally a late marriage.

But since we already know all that, what's left for Pope-Hennessy?

Well, for one thing, most of Cellini's gold work is lost due to the human tendency to melt it down during periods of crisis. Thus, Pope-Hennessy has the chance to speculatively re-create the lost work using Cellini's own descriptions and linking them to contemporary works and drawings that may have been sources for Cellini or results of his considerable influence over other artists.

This is fine historical detective work for interested readers, but the general browser is allowed to use the sections instead of Sominex.

What may wake him back up are Pope-Hennessy's conclusions about Cellini's veracity and his milieu. The artist's prose is so sweeping and full of robust ego that most modern readers have assumed he is a braggart and a liar. Pope-Hennessy, after 10 years of research, says, "Almost every direct statement in the Life is correct."

Then there are those who rather hoped Cellini was fibbing because they do not want to think of a great artist as being a murderer and a sodomite.

Pope-Hennessy, with admirable detachment, attempts to piece together the social rules of the road prevailing in turbulent mid-16th-Century Italy. He observes that "the homicide rate was very high (Cellini's bag was small, only three deaths in 70 years.)"

Evidently Cellini's sexual habits were also in line with prevailing practice, which was, one gathers, less hetero, homo, or bi, but rather omnisexual and only frowned upon when a spiteful lover developed a vendetta against a prominent partner--a little like palimony. Cellini and his ilk were in love with beauty in whatever form it took. Pope-Hennessy picks up some of his delirious descriptions of young lovers as, "He broke into a smile so honest and sweet that I do not marvel at the fables which the Greeks have written about the deities of heaven."

The book comes together as a worthy exercise, which the dust-cover blurb terms, "magisterial." "Noble" is probably better when you think that the main thrust of this volume is to inspire us to read a different book.

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