Niccolò Machiavelli

Niccolò Machiavelli

Machiavelli was born in Florence on May 3, 1469. His parents provided him with a humanistic education, with a stress on Latin grammar, rhetoric, and history. As he matured, he deepened his knowledge of the works of the philosophers and historians of ancient Greece and Rome and became familiar with the comedies of Plautus.

Machiavelli was head of the Second Chancery and secretary to the Ten of War of the Florentine Republic from 1498 to 1512. His duties included diplomatic missions to heads of state on the Italian peninsula and elsewhere in Europe.

Especially noteworthy are those missions to Louis XII of France, Emperor Maximilian I, Caterina Sforza of Forli, Pope Julius II, and Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI. When the Medici overthrew republican rule in 1512, Machiavelli was suspected of a conspiracy against them, imprisoned, and tortured. After his exoneration and release under a general amnesty in 1513, he turned to writing.

Machiavelli’s literary output is extensive. His History of Florence, commissioned by the Medici, begins with the city’s origins and ends on a pessimistic note with the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici in 1492. The Art of War is a technical look at military preparations and makes a plea for a citizen militia.

Machiavelli’s best known work, The Prince, is based on his diplomatic experience and his reading of ancient history. It is a complex assessment of the qualities needed for political leadership by a new prince.

Niccolò Machiavelli statue
Niccolò Machiavelli statue

Although the book is modeled on the “mirror for princes,” advice books common to the Renaissance era, many of its recommendations are the inverse of the princely virtues advocated by that literature. Its meaning has often been reduced to the trite phrase “The end justifies the means.” Some critics have deemed the book an advice manual for would-be autocrats.

As early as the century in which he lived, Machiavelli and The Prince were condemned and demonized in French Protestant circles and in Elizabethan English literature. Leading Jesuits also attacked him, and his works were placed on the Index of Prohibited Books of the Roman Catholic Church in 1559.

Although criticism of Machiavelli and The Prince continues, recent scholarship has modified these negative assessments. Greater stress is now placed on his advocacy of republicanism, especially as expressed in the Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy. Modern scholars also recognize Machiavelli’s literary creativity.

His play Mandragola presents a comic as well as ironic look at Renaissance marriage patterns and offers an astute analysis of desire and ambition. Another, Clizia, revolves around an aged married man’s attempts to gain the love of a young woman. The fable Belfagor recounts the experiences of a fiend who is delegated by the devil to spend time in marriage on Earth.

His Tercets on Fortune is an extended study of Fortune, whom he personifies as a woman and associates with discord and unpredictability in human affairs. Machiavelli died on June 21, 1527, and is entombed in the basilica of Santa Croce in Florence.