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27 january 2024

Ascanio (1843) is Alexandre Dumas' novel about the great goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini in 16th-century Paris, though its title is the name of Cellini's chief and most beloved assistant, who has fled with him from Rome (after a prison break, Dumas' favorite motif).

Once spirited away to Paris, the inimitable Benvenuto makes a royal friend and powerful aristocratic enemies. But Ascanio drives the main plot. He has become smitten with a young woman named Colombe, who happens to be the daughter of one of Benvenuto's nascent enemies. When Benvenuto storms a palace that King François sort of half-takes from Colombe's father and gives to the goldsmith, Ascanio interposes his own body in front of Benvenuto's sword, and saves the father's life. Much good it does him at first, because Colombe's father (Robert d'Estourville) has already agreed to marry her off to the odious Comte d'Orbec. What are young lovers to do?

In Ascanio, Dumas constructs a complicated romantic polygon. Ascanio and Colombe love each other. François loves Mme d'Étampes, his mistress, but she loves Ascanio. François has cast his eye on Colombe as a potential replacement for Mme d'Étampes. Scozzone, model and muse, loves Benvenuto. Pagano, one of the assistant goldsmiths, loves Scozzone. Benvenuto has sort of fallen in love with Colombe, but honestly, Benvenuto mostly loves himself. When Ascanio and Colombe reveal their love for each other, Benvenuto shifts at once from rival to helping character, because that role gives him greater scope to shine as the magnificent Cellini.

One is forced to say that the construction of Ascanio is somewhat ramshackle and digressive, even for a swashbuckling adventure novel. There are extended passages that you can basically skip, because they're summaries of 16th-century international relations that don't bear on the plot at all.

And even the plot lurches around, from melodramatic incident to even more-contrived melodramatic incident, the characters strongly drawn but almost too much so (the mercurial Cellini, the treacherous Mme d'Étampes, the incautious Jacques Aubry whose blunders set up some of the less-believable twists). One does keep reading, though, I'll say that for Dumas.

Some sources indicate that Dumas wrote Ascanio in collaboration with Paul Meurice, but I don't think this is the case, to judge from old title pages. Meurice did write a play, Benvenuto Cellini, based on Ascanio (and in turn, Camille Saint-Saëns would write an opera based on Meurice's play, the title reverting to Ascanio). UPDATE 05.06.2024: I'm now less sure. Apparently quite a few of Dumas' novels are associated with a collaborator, who is sometimes the one who adapted the book for the stage. Dumas may have been something of a primeval James Patterson; maybe all his books should be "by Dumas and someone else."

Dumas, Alexandre. Ascanio. 1843. Kindle Edition.