Machiavelli’s Life and Times
DOI link for Machiavelli’s Life and Times
Machiavelli’s Life and Times book
Machiavelli’s Life and Times
DOI link for Machiavelli’s Life and Times
Machiavelli’s Life and Times book
A story about Machiavelli when he was on his deathbed gives some idea of his character and his concerns, whether or not the account is authentic. Awakening from a dream, Machiavelli told those gathered around his bed that he had dreamt that, given the choice of going to heaven or to hell, he chose to go to hell so that he could converse with the ancient authors whom he so relished reading while alive rather than associate with the blessed souls of paradise.1 On a related note, not long before he died on June 21, 1527, Machiavelli wrote a friend that he loved his fatherland more than his soul.2 His correspondence throughout his life with friends and political associates bursts with discussions of politics, of the partisan maneuverings at home in Florence and the military and diplomatic scene across Europe and beyond, and is peppered with ribald stories and irreverent remarks on Machiavelli’s part and teasing from his friends concerning his less than regular Church attendance and his unorthodox views on matters religious, political, and otherwise. In short, the deathbed scene rings true even if it is not true-a ﬁttingly ironic paradox for the author of The Prince. Niccolò Machiavelli was born on May 3, 1469, in Florence.
Machiavelli’s family had a long and sometimes distinguished
record of public service to the Florentine Republic, with several of his ancestors and relatives having been elected to the most important oﬃces of the state, although the family was never among the small elite that dominated Florentine politics. While some of his relatives enjoyed ﬁnancial success and some political inﬂuence during his youth, Machiavelli’s own immediate family lived in modest circumstances and was not involved in political aﬀairs. His father, Bernardo, obtained a doctorate in law, but he preferred a retired life devoted to humanistic studies to practicing his profession. His father owned a fairly large library for the time, with both a considerable number of manuscripts as well as bound books, which were still fairly rare at the time and quite expensive. The library contained classical authors of history, philosophy, and literature in Latin and perhaps Greek, although probably largely in Latin translation. Among other works, the library boasted a full edition of Livy’s history of Rome, which included an index of place names which Bernardo himself was commissioned to do in 1476, although he only got around to having the loose sheets of the edition along with his index bound as a set of books a decade later, when the future author of the Discourses on Livy would have been old enough to study the work. Bernardo was active in intellectual circles in Florence, and among his friends was Bartolomeo Scala, a humanist scholar and First Chancellor of Florence (the state’s highest administrative post). Scala made Bernardo a speaker in a dialogue he wrote on law, evidently as a tribute both to their friendship and to Bernardo’s expertise in the subject. The education Niccolò received was the typical course of studies
for a boy of his social standing and his father’s intellectual ambitions. The curriculum focused on learning to read and write Latin, the language of scholarship, law, political administration and diplomacy, and the Church. The training also included arithmetic and applications to accounting, an important subject in Florence given its power and wealth were based on banking, the wool trade, and other trading and manufacturing enterprises, although after he had lost his political posts Machiavelli admitted that he had no taste or talent for such trades. These studies would have occupied Machiavelli through his mid-teens, and he may have
extended his education at the university in Florence, although there is no clear evidence that he did. A less conventional and more intriguing part of his training was the fact that he copied the entirety of Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things (De rerum natura), the notorious materialist poem whose rediscovery in 1417 introduced an unapologetic Epicureanism into the intellectual discourse of the time and challenged philosophical and theological orthodoxies. The handwritten copy, with Machiavelli’s marginal comments on philological issues, manuscript variations, and sometimes the philosophical topics raised in the text, was discovered in the Vatican Library, of all places, about ﬁfty years ago. The marginalia suggest that Machiavelli was enlisted in a project, probably in the early 1490s, to produce a more critically informed edition of Lucretius’ poem than yet existed. In addition to his Latin studies, which included translating Latin texts into Italian and vice versa, Machiavelli read works in the vernacular, and was particularly fond of the poetry of Dante and Petrarch. If Machiavelli’s education was of the kind that would prepare him for the law or some other profession, we have no evidence of his entering upon a career until he suddenly comes on the political scene in 1498 with his election as Second Chancellor of the Florentine Republic. Florentine politics in Machiavelli’s youth and early adult life
were tumultuous and dramatic. The Medici family had come to dominate Florence from 1434 onward, with the heads of the family being princes in all but name. Their rule was not uncontested, however. Most notably, on April 26, 1478, when Machiavelli was days away from his ninth birthday, a conspiracy led by the Pazzi family attempted to assassinate the heads of the Medici family, Lorenzo the Magniﬁcent and his brother Giuliano. The brothers were attacked in the Duomo during mass, and while Giuliano lie bleeding to death on the ﬂoor of the cathedral after being stabbed some twenty times, the wounded Lorenzo managed to escape. Meanwhile, the conspirators were trapped and the leaders of the coup were killed, with the leader of the Pazzi family thrown out a window of the Palazzo Vecchio, the governmental palace where Machiavelli would later work, and then his body being dragged through the streets by a mob and thrown into the River Arno. Another conspirator, an archbishop of the Salviati family, was
hung from the same building clothed in his ecclesiastical robes. Lorenzo de’ Medici managed to regain control of the city and ruled until his death in 1492. Power passed from Lorenzo to his much less able son Piero, who lost control of the state after two years with the sudden turn in events that would throw Italy, and Florence with it, into turmoil for the next three decades. In September 1494 word arrived in Florence that King Charles
VIII of France had crossed the Alps into northern Italy with a formidable army, including the ﬁrst siege train to include artillery. Charles marched toward Florence on his way to claim the throne of the Kingdom of Naples. The indecisive Piero de’ Medici refused to support the king’s expedition and so the French army began to sack and plunder towns in Tuscany within the Florentine dominion and threatened the city itself. A popular uprising in the city caused Piero to ﬂee Florence, and Charles VIII entered Florence on November 17th without facing any resistance. As Machiavelli later wrote in The Prince, the French king took Italy “with a piece of chalk,” referring to the fact that the French troops were billeted in selected houses marked with chalk. With the Medici exiled, the Florentine Republic was reestablished
under the inﬂuence of the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, whose ﬁery sermons had prophesied that Italy would be punished for her sins by a redeeming prince who would come from the north. Savonarola, who would become Machiavelli’s exemplar of an “unarmed prophet” in The Prince, called for political renewal, notably by proposing the expansion of the Great Council, in which supreme power was vested, to about 3,000 citizens to make it (relatively) more democratic. He also preached moral reform and urged the Florentines to burn lace, wigs, decks of cards, and other frivolous worldly possessions in what were called “bonﬁres of the vanities.” The four years during which Savonarola dominated Florentine
politics were times of complex partisan strife, including both the reemergence of traditional conﬂict between the elite families which had traditionally controlled Florentine politics and the more popular faction that had been given increased power under the newly reorganized republic, as well as conﬂict between the followers and opponents of Savonarola. The friar did not limit his
call for religious reform to the Florentines, but became increasingly bold in his criticism of the sinful ways of the Church. An exasperated Pope Alexander VI ﬁnally excommunicated Savonarola in 1497 and threatened Florence if it continued to protect the friar. Under pressure from both the Church and the Florentines, Savonarola agreed to stop preaching on March 18, 1498, but not before Machiavelli was able to hear a few sermons in order to report on the friar’s activities to the Florentine ambassador to Rome. In the ﬁrst extant letter we have from Machiavelli, dated March 9, 1498, he gives a lively summary of Savonarola’s sermons. He relates how the friar attacked his opponents as partisans of the devil, warned the city of the rise of a tyrant in their midst, and for good measure spoke of the wickedness of the pontiﬀ. More interestingly, Machiavelli then oﬀers his own judgment of Savonarola: “Thus, in my judgment, he acts in accordance with the times and colors his lies accordingly.”3 Shortly after these last sermons Savonarola was arrested and then tried and convicted of heresy. On the morning of May 23, 1498, Savonarola and two of his Dominican adherents were led into the square below the Palazzo Vecchio and hung and then burned, with the ashes carefully carted away and dumped into the Arno in order to prevent his followers from collecting any relics. The fall of Savonarola set the stage for the rise of Machiavelli.
The future author of The Prince began his position as Second Chancellor of the Florentine Republic on June 19, 1498, entering his oﬃce in the government palace less than a month after Savonarola’s execution and burning in the square below, and remained in his position and the other government positions he acquired until November 7, 1512. Machiavelli ﬁrst stood for election for the chancery oﬃce in February 1498, but was defeated in the election in the Great Council by a pro-Savonarolan candidate. With the fall of Savonarola a little more than a year later, however, the Second Chancellor was dismissed, a new election was held, and Machiavelli prevailed over his anti-Savonarolan opponent. Since there was a desire to restore the chancery to its traditionally nonpartisan role in administering the state bureaucracy, Machiavelli’s success in the election may have been due to the fact he was not strongly identiﬁed with any faction.