I consider “Ascanio”, (which by all rights should be called “Cellini”), as a possible first novel in Alexandre Dumas’ central, continuous historical saga. That’s not an academic statement. It’s not first by composition (it’s from 1843) or by historical era (it’s set in 1540, and Dumas wrote plenty covering earlier periods.) But because of cameos from Catherine of Medici, Marguerite of Valois, and Diane de Poitiers in “Ascanio,” one can trace a very direct line from here to “The Two Dianas” to the Valois trilogy to the Regency romances to the Musketeer Trilogy to the Marie Antoinette Saga to the Napoleonic novels. Characters, historical or otherwise, spill over from one novel to the next. The scheme is not always as intentional (and never as literary) as Balzac’s in “The Human Comedy,” but Dumas’ ingenuity is seldom appreciated by modern critics, who may group the novels in trilogies or diptychs but rarely (ever?) as part of the near-accidental uber-saga I consider it to be.
“Ascanio” is inspired by passages from the scandalous “Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini,” the original tell-all tabloid memoir. It covers the great sculptor’s stay in France under the auspice of Francois I, as that King wrestles for control of Europe with the Charles V from “El Salteador,” (a novel that, by the way, is too unambitious to properly kick-start the conceptual chronological saga I propose.)
Court is lively at this time. Rabelais and the aging Montmorency cross paths, while Triboulet the buffoon plays under their feet. (That same Triboulet would eventually inspire works from Victor Hugo and Michel Zevaco, not to mention Verdi’s “Rigoletto.”)
The plot: The brilliant, brash, occasionally murderous, but always honorable Benvenuto Cellini moves from under papal eyes to Paris, (accompanied by a colorful retinue that includes dashing young apprentice Ascanio.) Cellini has his heart set on installing himself in the Tower of Nesle, which, two centuries after the events of “The Tower of Nesle,” is no longer a disreputable den of sin. Indeed, the Provost of Paris and his virginal daughter Colombe live there.
That the tower has occupants doesn’t deter Cellini (few things did, apparently.) He storms the tower and evicts the Provost. The Provost runs to get help from his protector, the Duchess D’Etampes, who is also the Queen’s mistress, and Diane de Poitiers’ main competitor. Meanwhile, circumstances lead both Benvenuto and young Ascanio to fall for Colombe, who has been promised to an icky old man. Who will get the girl? The master, the apprentice, or some decrepit creep? And how will Cellini’s colossal, hollowed out statue of Mars figure in the plot?
The answers to those questions are mostly obvious, but it’s a lot of fun getting there, particularly thanks to the many lively characters in Cellini’s entourage, all of whom get a chance to shine. The Duchess D’Etampes is another of Dumas’ brilliant political strategists, holding France together; Cellini himself is larger than life, and Dumas clearly saw a kindred soul in the artist who looked Kings and Popes in the eye. (Although the real life Cellini was more likely to stab those Kings and Popes in the eye than his Dumasian counterpart.)
The novel only falters with the characters of Ascanio and Colombe, both so pure as to become diaphanous.
RATING : COOL!
ABOVE: Dumas’ collaborator for the novel was Paul Meurice, (Auguste Maquet was kept pretty busy elsewhere around this period.) Meurice would go on to write a play based on the novel some ten years later, to Dumas’ discontent. The play in turn would inspire Camille Saint-Saens’ opera, “Ascanio” which is rarely revived but does have some charming ballet music.