Il Politico: Niccolò Machiavelli

by Heather R. Darsie

“Am I politic, am I subtle, am I a Machiavel?”**

On 3 May 1469, Bartolomea and Bernardo welcomed their first son, Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli, in Florence, Italy. By the time of Machiavelli’s birth, Florence was the cultural capital of the Tuscan region and is today regarded as the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance. Starting in 1434, the famed Medici family had come to control Florence. Machiavelli would seek to serve the powerful Medici family and write his most famous work, The Prince, in an attempt to convince them to employ him.

by Cristofano dell’Altissimo, via Wikimedia Commons

The son of an attorney, Machiavelli received an education that included instruction in Latin, grammar and rhetoric. Machiavelli’s father, though considered an insolvent debtor, maintained a small library at the family’s modest landed property by Florence. Machiavelli attended lectures given by Marcello Virgilio Adriani of the Studio Fiorentino and, when he was a young man, listened to sermons by the controversial Girolamo Savonarola. Shortly after Savonarola’s execution in May of 1498, Machiavelli was called upon to work for the Republic of Florence as head of the second chancery. He was 29 years old. As head, Machiavelli was tasked with the creation of government documents. How Machiavelli, who had never been apprenticed to anyone in the second chancery, received this position, is a bit of a mystery.

By 1502, Machiavelli obtained the trust of the chief magistrate of Florence, which led to his greatest adventure in the winter of 1502 to 1503. Machiavelli traveled throughout the Campagna with Cesare Borgia, the bellicose son of Pope Alexander VI, and Leonardo da Vinci. It is thought that Machiavelli modeled a large portion of The Prince off Cesare’s actions that Machiavelli beheld first-hand., such as Cesare’s vicious retribution in Sinigaglia brought down upon his rebellious captains on New Year’s Eve of 1502.

A year after his time with Cesare, Machiavelli wrote, On the Way to Deal with the Rebel Subjects of the Valdichiana. The short piece contrasted how the Florentines dealt with the inhabitants of the Val di Chiana, or simply “Arezzo,” and how the ancient Romans dealt with rebels in Lazio. It was this work in which Machiavelli began contemplating how a prince should behave toward his subjects. Machiavelli witnessed the downfall of Cesare after the conclave that saw Pope Julius II elected. Cesare fell swiftly after the election.

Machiavelli had a hand in establishing Florence’s militia in 1505. Until that time, Florence had relied upon mercenary forces, which are hired soldiers, for their military campaigns and defense. However, in 1512, this militia would prove insufficient against Pope Julius II’s Spanish mercenaries. The Republic of Florence was dismantled and the Medici reinstated. Machiavelli was imprisoned and tortured via the strappado. The strappado method employed a rope tie around the victim’s wrists, securing the victim’s hands behind the back. The victim was then hoisted into the air and dropped, which often resulted in severe injuries to the shoulders. Thus tortured, Machiavelli never spoke a word to implicate himself in the charges of conspiracy set out against him. In 1513, Machiavelli was finally released and sent into exile.

Determined to reenter civil service, Machiavelli wrote his most famous work, The Prince, and dedicated it to Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici. It did not immediately have the effect Machiavelli for which he hoped. Machiavelli would live in exile at the family property in San Casciano. To pass the time, Machiavelli would work the small property by day, then put on his old robes and write at night.

The Prince itself is interesting in that it is either meant as a useful guide, or could be a work of satire. It is unknown what exactly Machiavelli’s intentions were, though it would seem he may have intended for The Prince to be a guide; hence his dedicating the book to a member of the Medici family. Interestingly, Machiavelli wrote The Prince in the Tuscan language, specifically the Florentine dialect, which would become modern Italian.

Machiavelli did eventually come to work for the Medici family. In 1520, he began working for a cardinal in the Medici family. Then, Machiavelli was elected to the position of historian of the republic, at the urging of the Medici Pope Leo X. Pope Leo X commissioned Machiavelli to write about the organization of the Florentine government. Ever bold, Machiavelli criticized the restored Medici government and urged for the old republic to be restored.

After the death of Leo X in 1521, the Medici cardinal for whom Machiavelli worked asked Machiavelli to assist with reforming the Florentine government. Machiavelli again urged the restoration of the republic. By 1527, Machiavelli had gone on to work with the army. He stayed with the army until Rome was sacked in May 1527. The Medici again overthrown, Machiavelli was unable to keep or obtain a position in government, which truly seemed to be his passion. He died 21 June 1527, at the age of 57.

Machiavelli wrote many works and is considered the father of modern political science. Other famous works of his include Florentine Histories and The Art of War. Sir Francis Bacon wrote of Machiavelli in 1623, “We are much beholden to Machiavelli and other writers of that class who openly and unfeignedly declare or describe what men do, and not what they ought to do.”

** From William Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act III, Scene 1.

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Sources & Suggested Reading

  1. Strathern, Paul. The Artist, the Philosopher and the Warrior: the Intersecting Lives of Da Vinci, Machiavelli and Borgia and the World They Shaped. Bantam Books (2009).
  2. Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. Niccolo Machiavelli. http://www.britannica.com/biography/Niccolo-Machiavelli.   Retrieved 20 April 2016/
  3. Niccolò Machiavelli Biography. http://www.biography.com/people/niccol%C3%B2-machiavelli-9392446   Retrieved 22 April 2016.
  4. Herbermann, Charles, ed. Niccolò Machiavelli.Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company (1913).
  5. Higgs, Robert. The Economic Policy of Machiavelli’s Prince. http://www.independent.org/newsroom/article.asp?id=1662   Retrieved 20 April 2016.
  1. Kennington, Richard. On Modern Origins. Lexington Books (2004).
  2. Banini, Allessio. Machiavelli e i popoli della Valdichiana ribellati. http://www.lavaldichiana.it/machiavelli-popoli-valdichiana-ribellati/     Retrieved 23 April 2016.
  3. Blame Dante: How a Dialect Became a Language. http://italyexplained.com/blame-dante-how-a-dialect-became-a-language/   Retrieved 25 April 2016.
  4. Godman, Peter. From Poliziano to Machiavelli: Florentine Humanism in the High Renaissance. Princeton University Press (1998).
  5. Pierpont Roth, Claudia. The Florentine. The New Yorker, 15 September 2008 Issue. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/09/15/the-florentine  Retrieved 22 April 2016.
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