One of the curious things about John Patrick Shanley’s overheated drama about the Renaissance sculptor and goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini is that he should dedicate it to “My Florence.”
“The play is dedicated to New York City. My Florence,” goes his solemn and not a little pompous pronouncement in the Second Stage Playbill , and it set me thinking.
Is it his Florence or my Florence? Are we talking about the same Florence? Hey, Florence, it ain’t over! To be sure, I love the ancient city of stone and New York City as much as anyone, but are they one and the same thing? They are to John Patrick Shanley. On the other hand, when I’m standing meekly in line at that Duomo of New York City, the fish counter in Zabar’s, it all lacks a touch of the Cellinis to me. “Attention shoppers! The bagels are now on sale!” Call me an old cynic, but Benvenuto Cellini’s masterpiece of Perseus holding aloft the head of Medusa that was unveiled in the Loggia dei Lanzi in 1554 doesn’t spring immediately to mind during the stampede to the bread counter.
“Attention shoppers! Don’t forget to visit our housewares department!” Well, let’s face it, it’s not the same as visiting Michelangelo’s David , though I once admired an electric toaster there for $19.99.
When Mr. Shanley, the Academy Award–winning writer of Moonstruck , dedicated Cellini to New York City, his Florence, he must have had other things in mind. Could it be that he sees Renaissance Man as your typical New Yorker? It could.
“I know this guy!” Mr. Shanley explained to Time Out New York . He had come across a paperback copy of the autobiography of the histrionic, brawling Cellini at the Strand Book Store. “I thought the voice was utterly New York, and as time went by, I thought, This was the birth of the New York voice. It took place in the Renaissance, when the ego, like an explosion, was formed. These artists stood up and said, You know what-we’re everything, we’re the whole show….”
It’s a misunderstanding, I think, to reduce the Renaissance to a night out with Julian Schnabel. Monstrous egos don’t need yet another celebration; they need a slap in the kisser. But Mr. Shanley isn’t the dramatist to do it. He exults in the excesses of Cellini as much as Cellini did. There’s the uncomfortable suggestion that his portrait of the suffering artist might be something of an agonized self-portrait, too. It’s hell creating a masterpiece in the quest for immortality, but- Madonna mia! as the Florentines in Cellini exclaim so exuberantly-someone’s got to do it.
All dramas about The Creative Process are a dangerous business, particularly when geniuses are involved. Think of the agony and the ecstasy of Charlton Heston’s Michelangelo, or Kirk Douglas’ Vincent van Gogh lusting for life. The Reg Rogers Cellini isn’t one for the ages, but it has been cast in the same Hollywood mold of wild romantic genius suffering for great art in the face of evil forces. “I curse God that he made me long for greatness so!” Cellini cries, wracked in manic creative agony as he dictates his blustering memoirs to a boy. There’s a possibility of sodomia , but let’s not go into that now.
Unfortunately, Mr. Shanley, who also directs the play, has everyone speak in Italian-English accents to make it more-‘ow you say?- makita mora like a beeg pizza pie . It’s as if Cellini has been dubiously dubbed. “You willa never-a die,” Cellini exults to his male model. “You willa never-a grow old. You willa be Perseus. In-a the piazza. Forever!”
Mr. Shanley’s voice of the Renaissance turns out to be the voice of Vinny. But not in France. Here it is more the voice of Inspector Clouseau as the willing cast, doubling up in various roles, switch from “Eccola!” to “Eez zère someseeng ‘ere yew waaant ?” Cellini’s mistress and main model, the saucy Caterina, is French. Jennifer Roszell gamely plays her naked or in nothing more than a very short nightie. A flighty cutie in a shorty nightie over-reaches the naughty-naughty. But oh, to be backstage when Ms. Roszell takes her bow.
Naturally, the scenes between our lusty hero and the slut Caterina are tempestuous. They make the ravenous love of wolves. “Yew weel nayvère be done weez me,” she says, ever the temptress to art.
“Once-a mora, and then-a no mora,” the voracious Cellini replies. But I didn’t believe him.
Mr. Shanley’s bloated prose in the midst of all this Cellini wankery proved toughest on the ear. “You have the sensibility of a Gorgon and your mother is a red-chaffed elbow of the Devil!” “By the face of Jesus! One more word, and upon the honor of my house, you will feed my blade!” “I see the stars in you, the black earth that feeds us, the soft milk of giving love. I will see your face as in a magic crystal on the day of my death ….”
Stop! Basta .
The wordy Act I slogs through the story of Cellini’s life and catastrophic ego, his battles with popes and Medici dukes, with ignorant patrons, rival artists as apostles of the average, and God. But in terms of ideas and the mystery of the divine, Mr. Shanley appears to be covering the familiar, far superior territory of Amadeus . The renowned line “Too many notes” has been changed, in effect, to “Too much bronze.”
No noisier Act II is to be found anywhere, as Mr. Shanley shows us how the Perseus masterpiece was cast in bronze amidst frenetic cries from salty peasants of “Heave! Heave!” and “Si! Si!”
As documentaries on the kilning process go, however, it wasn’t quite as thrilling as it may seem. There was thunder and lightning, though. ” Madonna mia! ” went the cry. ” Che tempesta! ” Our hero got hysterical. “By the gods who preceded Jesus, make it hotter, hotter, hotter!” Cellini screamed heatedly, peering frantically into a smoky hole in the stage. “More wood!” cried the peasants. “More wood!” “Si! Si!” “Fetch more wood!”
“I will not fail!” Cellini insisted, in the loud chaos of creativity and promptly fainted from a fever. “Perseus will not die even as he is born!”
And it came to pass that great art was forged in hellish fire and unearthly tempest, and Cellini’s mighty Perseus was born. And after a moment’s hesitation, the popes and the patrons and the people-unreliable critics all-acclaimed the masterpiece, calling out “Bellissima!” and “Magnifica!” and “Bravo!”