Niccolò Machiavelli 1469 – 1527
Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli was born in a tumultuous era in Renaissance Italy when power hungry Popes and France, Spain and Germany as The Holy Roman Empire, battled for regional control and waged intermittent wars against Italian city-states. He became a diplomat and politician for his home city of Florence and used this experience to become an historian, philosopher , observer and writer of the Renaissance period.
Machiavelli was born on May 3, 1469, in Florence, Italy, the third child and first son of a lawyer, Bernardo and his wife Bartolomea Machiavelli. The Machiavelli family was thought to be descendants of the old Marquesses of Tuscany, but there was only a small land holding and normal middle class prosperity in the family. Niccolo had two older sisters and a younger brother. Machiavelli’s education started when he was seven years old and he was taught grammar, rhetoric and Latin. A love of books and reading was a family trait that Machiavelli shared and he tirelessly read the great classics.
Later, he may have attended the University of Florence, but he received an excellent humanist rather than a religiously led education, which had become possible at the time of the enlightenment.
Machiavelli may have worked for a Florentine banker from 1487 to 1495 but in 1494 the people of Florence established a republican government after Girolamo Savanarola, an outspoken moralising Dominican friar denounced clerical corruption, despotic rule and the exploitation of the poor . As a result, the people were inspired to rise up against the Medici family who had ruled Florence for some sixty years, expelling them and creating a new republic. However, strong Papal pressure and Savanarola’s very stringent views of moral conduct meant that eventually the people tired of him and he was executed in 1498. Savonarola’s devotees, kept his cause of republican freedom and religious reform alive until the Medici were restored to power in 1512 with the help of the papacy.
Shortly after the execution of Savonarola, Machiavelli was appointed as an officer of the second chancery, putting him in charge of official republican Florentine government documents. Soon he was also made the secretary of the Dieci di Libertà e Pace..who exercised a separate control over the departments of war and the interior. They sent ambassadors to foreign powers, transacted business with the cities in the Florentine domain and controlled the military employment of the commonwealth. Over the next fourteen years of Machiavelli’s life, he was fully occupied in the voluminous correspondence of his bureau, in diplomatic missions of varying importance and in the organization of a Florentine militia.
His letters, dispatches, and occasional writings, demonstrate and record his political assignments as well as to his acute talent for the analysis of personalities and institutions. He carried out several diplomatic missions for the Republic, most notably to the Borgia Papacy of Alexander VI in Rome when he witnessed the brutal, martial state-building methods of Cesare Borgia ,son of the Pope , who was engaged in trying to control a large part of central Italy, the Papal States, on the pretext of defending Church interests . Other excursions to the court of Louis XII in France and the Spanish court of Queen Joanna added to his diplomatic experience and later observations on state policies.
In 1502 Machiavelli married Marietta Corsini, who bore him four sons and two daughters. His grandson, Giovanni Ricci, is credited with saving many of Machiavelli’s letters and writings.
Between 1503 and 1506, Machiavelli was responsible for the Florentine militia. He despised mercenaries who were widely used to fight minor engagements between city states, as venal, unpatriotic and
untrustworthy and instead staffed his army with citizens, a policy that was to be repeatedly successful. Under his command, Florentine citizen-soldiers defeated the city of Pisa in 1509.
However, Machiavelli’s success did not last. In August 1512 the Medici, backed by Pope Julius II, used Spanish troops to defeat the Florentines at Prato. Soderini, the Florentine head of state, resigned and left in exile.
After the Medici victory, the Florentine city-state and the republic were dissolved, and Machiavelli was deprived of office . He was initially placed in a form of internal exile, but in 1513 , the Medici accused him of conspiracy against them and had him imprisoned. Despite having been subjected to torture, he denied involvement and was released. Machiavelli then retired to his estate and devoted himself to studying and writing of the political treatises that earned his reputation of ‘ the father of modern political science’.
The first of his writings was the one most commonly associated with his name, ‘Il Principe’ –‘The Prince’. Abandoning the Christian view of history as guided by God, Machiavelli viewed events in purely human terms.
Written at the end of 1513 , but only formally published posthumously in 1532 after his death, ‘The Prince’ was a treatise on practical government prepared from his wide experience. By then, Machiavelli was seeking to regain his status in the Florentine government, as many of his republican colleagues had been returned to service under the Medici. Originally written for presentation to Giuliano de’Medici, the dedication was changed, upon Giuliano’s death, to Lorenzo de’Medici, who almost certainly did not read it when it came into his hands in 1516.
Initially, the book was privately published and outlines several political maxims. Instead of an hereditary prince, it concentrates on the possibility of a “new prince”. To retain power, the hereditary prince must carefully balance the interests of a variety of institutions to which the people are accustomed. By contrast, a new prince has the more difficult task in ruling: He must first stabilise his newfound power in order to build an enduring political structure. His highly practical advice on how to win and manage power followed . Famously , Machiavelli stated that ‘it would be best to be both loved and feared. But since the two rarely come together, anyone compelled to choose will find greater security in being feared than in being loved.’ He proposes that the ruler must adopt ruthless policies for the sake of the continuance of his regime. Machiavelli saw ambition, spiritedness and the pursuit of glory as good and natural things and part of the virtue and prudence that good princes should have. Often it is fortune that gives-or takes away-the political leader’s opportunity for significant action. Like others in the Renaissance, Machiavelli believed that man had the ability to control his own fate.
These cold and practical observations of an experienced diplomat on the political structure and government of Italy at that time, have resulted in the unjust epithet of ‘Machiavellism’ as the immoral, devious and ruthless plotting for power in all ages.
However, Machiavelli’s ideas had a profound impact on political leaders throughout the modern western states, helped by the new technology of the printing press which spread the reading of ‘The Prince’ all over Europe. Indeed some scholars have argued that Machiavelli was a major influence upon the political thinking of the founding fathers of the United States due to his overwhelming favouritism of republicanism and the republican style of government.
But Machiavelli also wrote comedies, carnival songs and poetry and translated classical works. The only theoretical work to be printed in his lifetime, in 1521, was ‘The Art of War’, which was about military science. His other major contribution to political thought, the ‘Discourses on the Ten Books of Titus Livy’, an exposition of the principles of republican rule presented as a commentary on the work of the famous historian of the Roman Republic, was written in 1517, but only published in 1531.
Near the end of his life, as a result of the support of well-connected friends, Machiavelli returned to the favour of the ruling Medici family. In 1520, he was commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de’Medici to compose a ‘History of Florence’, an assignment completed in 1525 and presented to the Cardinal, who was by that time Pope Clement VII, in Rome. Other small tasks were performed for the Medici government, but before he could achieve a full rehabilitation, he died on 21 June 1527.