Looking through my art books today in the throes of reducing my personal library by at least fifty percent (what I call “The Great Culling of 2020” which I’d like to write about later), I pulled from one box ‘The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini’ illustrated by Salvador Dali. I had saved that book for decades, as well as ‘Essays’ by Michel de Montaigne (also illustrated by Salvador Dali) because the illustrations are outstanding, some of Dali’s most magnificent work! As it was highly prized by two of my favorite mentors, Giordano Bruno and William Shakespeare, Montaigne’s ‘Essays’ is on my short list to read this year and awaits my attention on a shelf in my bedroom . But as I held Cellini’s book in my hands, I wondered if I shouldn’t also consider reading it, too. Perhaps the fact that Dali illustrated both books speaks to the virtue of Cellini’s writing, as comparable to that of Montaigne. But the illustrations were the only reason that this autobiography was in my box of art books in the first place.
I decided to open the book to an arbitrary page and read a little. Here is the first sentence that caught my eye, the first sentence of the second paragraph just above the middle of the page:
I must not omit the exquisite art of enamelling, in which I have never known any one excel, save a Florentine, our countryman, called Amerigo. I did not know him, but was well acquainted with his incomparable masterpieces. Nothing in any part of the world or by any craftsman that I have seen, approached the divine beauty of their workmanship.
I then flipped pages, read an occasional sentence, and it did seem more and more intriguing as I went along. But why should I submit to reading the biography of this 16th century Italian artist? Why not another? So I set the book aside with the others I planned to keep and repacked into the box.
The next book I pulled out, one I often used as a reference from time to time, was ‘Outlines of Chinese Symbolism & Art Motives’ by C.A.S. Williams. Differences in book subjects as well as their cultural disparity made this consecutive book selection from the box seem quite random to me. . . or so it would seem. I opened to an arbitrary page from which I would also begin a journey of flipping from spot to spot. I opened to page 174. Imagine my surprise when I read the section title in the middle of the page , “ENAMELWARE”, and no doubt its equivalent in Chinese characters just below. If that doesn’t put a tingle in your spine, know this: the first sentence of the second paragraph begins with the phrase, “the art of enameling.” That sentence reads as follows:
The art of enameling is said to have been introduced into China from Constantinoble by the Arabs, and the Chinese term Fa lan t’ieh, “iron of Fa-lan,” is said to be derived from Folin, a medieval name for Stamboul, though others believe that Fa lan is equivalent to Frank or France.
After the stun wore off, I set both books aside with the intention of writing about this uncanny synchronicity. So here we are. One can take a sign in many ways, especially when the path is indirect, obtuse, and protracted. So I choose to give meaning to this synchronicity and that meaning is a simple message: yes, there is something for me in this book – find it.
Did Shakespeare read Cellini’s autobiography? Did any of Cellini’s philosophy make it into Shakespeare’s works? Did Shakespeare transform any experience of Cellini’s work into his own uniVERSE? (That is intended as more of a provocative question than a pun…but it’s also punny!)
Now I will put the book of Chinese symbolism back in the box and make a new home for ‘The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini’ in my bedroom, in a spot right next to Montaigne’s ‘Essays’.