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Cellini and the Salamander May 26, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval, Modern , trackback

***Dedicated to Michael F who sent this in***

We last saw Benvenuto Cellini (obit 1571) imprinted on a French/Spanish/Scottish canon. Fourteen months on, here is a little doodle from Cellini’s infancy, judging by his autobiography the happiest years of his chaotic life.

When I was about five years old [c. 1505] my father happened to be in a basement-chamber of our house [in Florence], where they had been working, and where a good fire of oak-logs was still burning; he had an instrument in his hand and was playing and singing alone before the fire. The weather was very cold. Happening to look into the fire he spied in the middle of those most burning flames a little creature like a lizard, that was sporting in the core of intensest coals. Becoming instantly aware of what the thing was, he had my sister and me called, and pointing it out to us children, gave me a great box on the ears which caused me to howl and weep with all my might. Then he pacified me good-humouredly and spoke as follows. ‘My dear little boy, I am not striking you for any wrong that you have done, but only to make you remember that that lizard which you see in the fire is a salamander, a creature which has never been seen by anyone of whom we have credible information.’ So saying he kissed me and gave me some pieces of money.

Innella età di cinque anni in circa, essendo mio padre in una nostra celletta, innella quale si era fatto bucato ed era rimasto un buon fuoco di querciuoli, Giovanni con una viola in braccio sonava e cantava soletto intorno a quel fuoco. Era molto freddo: guardando innel fuoco, accaso vidde in mezzo a quelle piú ardente fiamme uno animaletto come una lucertola, il quale si gioiva in quelle piú vigorose fiamme. Subito avedutosi di quel che gli era, fece chiamare la mia sorella e me, e mostratolo a noi bambini, a me diede una gran ceffata, per la quali io molto dirottamente mi missi a piagnere. Lui piacevolmente rachetatomi, mi disse cosí: – Figliolin mio caro, io non ti do per male che tu abbia fatto, ma solo perché tu ti ricordi che quella lucertola che tu vedi innel fuoco, si è una salamandra, quali non s’è veduta mai piú per altri, di chi ci sia notizia vera – e cosí mi baciò e mi dette certi quattrini.

It is a cute story and one with perhaps special significance for our author. Cellini, after all, would become famous through fire, he was first and foremost a goldsmith: was this creature even his totem? As to the identity of the salamander, the renaissance saw growing belief in elementals and salamandre were the spirits of flame. Almost as curious is the strange parental technique of causing pain to induce pleasant memories.

Any other historical pre-theosophy reports of salamanders: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

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9 June 2012: LK writes in ‘I seem to remember reading somewhere that in either saxon or the viking legal practises, such as there where, it was customary on boundary issues, to settle the new boundary with as much witnesses as possible, and then beat the crap out of some poor boy\child\kid, on the new found boundary spot, to make him remember where it was, so that, in the future, when there was disagreement about it, he could lead you to the spot where he was beaten… Not sure if this is true, but i was struck by the simularity of the method used by papa Celini. And also the fact that the site of the grave of Djengiz Khan was marked by killing a young camel over it, while the mother had to look, and her then remembering the spot in later years. However they then did not provide a replacement, so when the camel died, the site was lost, or so the story goes….Nice, using extreme trauma to sustain the retention of memories… So there might be something in the old addage that any man who loves his son should not spare the birch rod.’ Thanks LK!
30 August 2012: Jonathan Jarrett from A Corner writes: Your commentator LK’s memory is more or less correct, and I can provide the chapter and verse: the custom is attested from eleventh-century Normandy, and I learnt about it from Elisabet van Houts’s paper, “Gender and Authority of Oral Witnesses in Europe (800-1300)” in _Transactions of the Royal Historical Society_ 6th Series Vol. 9 (1999), pp. 201-220, which (pp. 206-207) cites a land-grant to Rouen (ed. in Fauroux, _Recueil des Actes des ducs de Normandie de 911 à 1066_ (Caen 1961), no. 10), which records of the transactors that: “they whipped many boys there and well refreshed them with the record and memory of this deed” (my translation, not very different from that of Emilie Zack Tabuteau’s in her _Transfers of Property in Eleventh-Century Norman Law_ (Chapel Hill 1988), p. 148, which van Houts quotes; she also gives Fauroux’s Latin text, “et flagelaverunt ibi plures puerulos atque bene refocillaverunt in recordatione et memoratione hujus facti”). I initially thought this practice was in the Salic Law, but it seems in fact to be one of those things that comes from an outlying source but has become standard knowledge because it’s such a good teaching anecdote! Nevertheless, grist to the mill?’ thanks JJ!