“Sometimes you have to confront your demons and sometimes even let them loose to genuinely find a place where you can gain some understanding” – Peter Mullan
If history has taught us anything (and it clearly hasn’t), raising demons always goes sideways. One should probably avoid it if at all possible. But what is a young man in love supposed to do when he thinks he’s forever lost his soul mate? Perhaps starting with candy and flowers, or some grand romantic gesture is an advisable first step, but that was not the case with the Florentine sculptor Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571). He jumped right into summoning fiends from Hell.
Benvenuto was a devoted troublemaker, pretty much from birth onwards. His father Giovanni was a musician and skilled craftsmen who built musical instruments, and wanted to pass on his talents to his son, encouraging him to pursue a musical career. Benvenuto wasn’t especially interested and was instead apprenticed to a goldsmith at the age of fifteen. One year later he was involved in a brawl with a bunch of other youths and was banished from Florence for six months. He found another goldsmith in Sienna, honed his goldsmithing skills and moved on to Bologna. He bounced around Italy a bit after that, but finally at nineteen resolved to make it in the big city. Rome.
Clearly, some of Giovanni’s talents rubbed off on Benvenuto, as by the time he arrived in Rome, he was both a pretty snazzy manipulator of precious metals and an accomplished flute player. He started simple in Rome making things like silver candlesticks and vases, and gold medallions on commission for notables like the Bishop of Salamanca, which brought him to the attention of Pope Clement VII, who thought his flute playing was good enough to appoint him as a court musician. This was a rather tumultuous time to be in Pope Clement’s orbit. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was not happy with him (mostly for siding with France instead of the Hapsburg Dynasty), and eventually his army under Charles III, Duke of Bourbon lay siege to Rome, and ultimately sack the city. It was not exactly a fair fight, with only 5000 Roman defenders beset by some 34000 Imperial troops (who were somewhat mutinous and demanded the Duke of Bourbon lead them towards Rome despite other strategic priorities, as they hadn’t been paid and fully intended to overwhelm and pillage the city).
Well, things didn’t go well for Rome, but they did for Benvenuto Cellini who joined the desperate defenders, and distinguished himself by allegedly shooting both Philibert of Châlon, Prince of Orange and most famously, killing Charles III, Duke of Bourbon. We of course have to take Cellini’s autobiographical word for this, but whatever he did do, everybody seemed to agree he served bravely. Florence welcomed him back, he spent a little time in the court of the Duke of Mantua, and wound up working at the Papal mint making medals. Sadly, trouble always seemed to follow Cellini. His brother Cecchino killed a Corporal of the Roman Watch, but another soldier shot him. Cecchino died of his wounds. Benvenuto tracked his brother’s killer down and killed him in revenge. This apparently wasn’t as big a deal as when he wounded a civil law notary, an act that forced him to flee to Naples. Cellini was popular among the Cardinals and managed to get a pardon from the newly installed Pope Paul III, despite the fact that he killed a rival goldsmith in the time between the death of Pope Clement and the installation of the new pope.
I could go on and on about all the trouble Cellini managed to get into, from accusations that he stole gems from the Pope’s tiara, the numerous charges of sodomy (considered a crime at the time, and for which he continuously being fined) with both men and women, and incessant dueling, but in between all his violence, intemperance, and debauchery he managed to produce many beautiful pieces of sculpture, including his masterpiece “Perseus with the Head of Medusa” for which he is still known today.
While it’s true that Benvenuto got accused of a lot of nefarious acts in his life (some falsely), nobody ever seems to have been bothered by his amateurish dabblings in the Black Arts. Those we know about from Cellini himself, who detailed them in his famous memoir The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini. He wasn’t exactly modest.
It happened through a variety of singular accidents that I became intimate with a Sicilian priest, who was a man of very elevated genius and well instructed in both Latin and Greek letters. In the course of conversation one day we were led to talk about the art of necromancy; apropos of which I said: “Throughout my whole life I have had the most intense desire to see or learn something of this art.” Thereto the priest replied: “A stout soul and a steadfast must the man have who sets himself to such an enterprise.” I answered that of strength and steadfastness of soul I should have enough and to spare, provided I found the opportunity. Then the priest said: “If you have the heart to dare it, I will amply satisfy your curiosity.” Accordingly we agreed upon attempting the adventure (Cellini, 1906 ed., p251-256).
Cellini’s interest in a little ritual magic was not so related to idle curiosity as he led the Sicilian priest to believe. While he was most certainly a womanizer (and “manizer” as well, apparently), he was infatuated with a beautiful Sicilian girl named Angelica and resolved to spirit her away from her parents. Her mother caught wind of this, and understandably given Cellini’s reputation, wisely took her to Civita Vecchia, and from there back to Sicily. Cellini was heartbroken, and drowned his passion in other indulgences, including other women, yet he pined for his Angelica. So, he did what anyone in his position would do – consulted diabolical forces about the future. Priests can tell you a lot about demons (particularly personal ones), but my understanding is that the Christian church (doesn’t really matter which denomination) looks askance at actually summoning them, thus the odd Sicilian priest ready with a cookbook on how to conjure up a few devils was a lucky find.
It’s no fun raising hell, if you can’t bring your friends along. Cellini invited his good pal Vincenzio Romoli (who was actually Cellini’s eldest servant). The priest, who evidently did this sort of thing with disturbing frequency as he showed up in a special set of necromantic robes, brought along a native of Pistoja, Tuscany similarly well-versed in occult rituals. They opted to perform their rituals at the Colosseum, which had been in ruins since a 1349 earthquake as well as subsequent pillaging of the fallen stones and other fixtures for reuse in buildings throughout Rome.
We went together to the Coliseum; and there the priest, having arrayed himself in necromancer’s robes, began to describe circles on the earth with the finest ceremonies that can be imagined. I must say that he had made us bring precious perfumes and fire, and also drugs of fetid odor. When the preliminaries were completed, he made the entrance into the circle; and taking us by the hand, introduced us one by one inside it. Then he assigned our several functions; to the necromancer, his comrade, he gave the pentacle to hold; the other two of us had to look after the fire and the perfumes; and then he began his incantations. This lasted more than an hour and a half; when several legions appeared, and the Coliseum was all full of devils. I was occupied with the precious perfumes, and when the priest perceived in what numbers they were present, he turned to me and said: “Benvenuto, ask them something.” I called on them to reunite me with my Sicilian Angelica. That night we obtained no answer; but I enjoyed the greatest satisfaction of my curiosity in such matters. The necromancer said that we should have to go a second time, and that I should obtain the full accomplishment of my request; but he wished me to bring with me a little boy of pure virginity (Cellini, 1906 ed., p251-256).
Any time you’re told to bring a “boy of pure virginity”, that’s probably not a party you want to attend. Especially if you’re the boy. Sacrificing virgins has been a thing for many millennia. Cellini chose a 12 year old boy in his employ, rustled up Vincenzio Romoli again, and also brought along another friend named Agnolino Gaddi.
The preparations were more or less the same as the previous attempt. Vincenzio and Agnolino handled throwing perfumes on the fire. Cellini held the pentacle over the head of the 12 year old boy (who as it turns out, was not going to be summarily sacrificed – presumably he was just bait). Lots of chanting in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. You know, your standard demon summoning. Perhaps including the virgin in the ceremonies was a bad idea as things quickly escalated when too many demons showed up, although it’s awfully hard to say what an acceptable number of demons would be.
In a short space of time the whole Coliseum was full of a hundredfold as many as had appeared upon the first occasion. Vincenzio Romoli, together with Agnolino, tended the fire and heaped on quantities of precious perfumes. At the advice of the necromancer, I again demanded to be reunited with Angelica. The sorcerer turned to me and said: “Hear you what they have replied; that in the space of one month you will be where she is?” Then once more he prayed me to stand firm by him, because the legions were a thousandfold more than he had summoned, and were the most dangerous of all the denizens of hell; and now that they had settled what I asked, it behooved us to be civil to them and dismiss them gently (Cellini, 1906 ed., p251-256).
Obviously, this is a different take on exorcism. The demons were kind enough to show up and answer questions, but the garden variety exorcists start right in on the “power of Christ compels you” thing. No manners. Although, when your necromancer appears to be trembling in fear over the quantity of fiends present and trying to force their way into the magic circle of protection, it might be time to worry. The young boy was shrieking in terror, repeating things like “This is how I will meet death, for we are certainly dead men”. Vincenzio and Angolino were visibly perturbed. Cellini admitted he himself was a bit put out, but with his characteristic modesty declared he displayed “marvelous courage”, and attempted to calm his compatriots. The Sicilian priest nonetheless diligently persisted in appealing to the demons to depart.
When the necromancer had concluded his ceremonies, he put off his wizard’s robe, and packed up a great bundle of books which he had brought with him; then, all together, we issued with him from the circle, huddling as close as we could to one another, especially the boy, who had got into the middle, and taken the necromancer by his gown and me by the cloak. All the while that we were going toward our houses in the Banchi, he kept saying that two of the devils he had seen in the Coliseum were gamboling in front of us, skipping now along the roofs and now upon the ground. The necromancer assured me that, often as he had entered magic circles, he had never met with such a serious affair as this. He also tried to persuade me to assist him in consecrating a book, by means of which we should extract immeasurable wealth, since we could call up fiends to show us where treasures were, whereof the earth is full; and after this wise we should become the richest of mankind: love affairs like mine were nothing but vanities and follies without consequence. I replied that if I were a Latin scholar I should be very willing to do what he suggested. He continued to persuade me by arguing that Latin scholarship was of no importance, and that, if he wanted, he could have found plenty of good Latinists; but that he had never met with a man of soul so firm as mine, and that I ought to follow his counsel. Engaged in this conversation, we reached our homes, and each one of us dreamed all that night of devils (Cellini, 1906 ed., p251-256).
Cellini certainly wasted no opportunity for abject puffery in his autobiography, but as a post-script to the entire strange affair, on the last day of the month predicted, Cellini happened to be visiting Naples and there found Angelica, who had unexpectedly arrived just three days before him. It was a passionate reunion, but as Cellini’s passions were often mercurial, he quickly tired of her, kissed her goodbye, and headed back to Rome. Jerk. The poet A.E. Housman once said, “How am I to face the odds of man’s bedevilment and God’s? I am a stranger and afraid in a world I never made”. Cellini had a simpler view of things, that is, just roll with it – a little sculpting, some flute jams, serial love affairs, brawling, murder, and a little hell raising on the side, all taken in stride. He died in Florence on May 13, 1571, by most accounts a relatively happy dude and well respected artist, and his autobiography is considered a classic of colorful Renaissance literature to this day.
Cellini, Benvenuto, 1500-1571. The Life of Benvenuto Cellini. New York: Brentano’s, 1906.
Longueville, Thomas, 1844-1922. Chisel, Pen & Poignard: Or, Benvenuto Cellini His Times and His Contemporaries. London, New York: Longmans, Green, 1899.
Wright, Thomas, 1810-1877. Narratives of Sorcery and Magic; From the Most Authentic Sources. London: R. Bentley, 1851.