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Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527)


Italian political thinker and historical figure at the turning point of the Middle Ages and the Modern World. Machiavelli stated in The Prince, the then revolutionary and prophetic idea, that theological and moral imperatives have no place in the political arena. "Men are always wicked at bottom unless they are made good by some compulsion." With Hobbes (1588-1679) Machiavelli is considered one of the great early modern analyzers of political power.

"Hence it is to be remarked that, in seizing a state, the usurper ought to examine closely into all those injuries which it is necessary for him to inflict, and to do them all at one stroke so as not to have to repeat them daily; and thus by not unsettling men he will be able to reassure them, and win them to himself by benefits. He who does otherwise, either from timidity or evil advice, is always compelled to keep the knife in his hand; neither can he rely on his subjects, nor can they attach themselves to him, owing to their continued and repeated wrongs. For injuries ought to be done all at one time, so that, being tasted less, they offend less; benefits ought to be given little by little, so that the flavour of them may last longer." (in The Prince, 1515)

Niccolò Machiavelli was born in Florence, Italy. Little is known of his early life, although he once described his background: "I was born in poverty and at an early age learned how to endure hardship rather than flourish." Niccolò's father, Bernardo di Niccolò di Buoninsegna, belonged to an impoverished branch of an influential old Florentine family. Bernardo was a lawyer and he had a small personal library that included books by Greek and Roman philosophers and volumes of Italian history. Bernardo died in 1500, Machiavelli's mother, Bartolomea de' Nelli, had died in 1496. Machiavelli married in 1501 Marietta Corsini. They had several children who died young or in infancy. One daughter and four sons reached adulthood.

"Machiavelli went on to read the ancient philosophers and, especially, historians: Thucydides, who told of the war between Sparta and Athens that tore Greece apart; Plutarch, who told of the lives of the great statesmen, generals, and lawmakers of ancient Greece and Rome; Tacitus, who recounted the corruption and perfidy of Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero; and above all, the work by Livy..." (in Niccolò's Smile: A Biography of Machiavelli by Maurizio Viroli, 2000)

Machiavelli might have been involved in overthrowing the Savonarolist government in 1498 Girolamo Savonarola was executed just outside his office. Machiavelli was appointed head of the new government's Second Chancery, and secretary of an agency concerned with warfare and diplomacy (1498-1512). During these years he travelled on several missions in Europe for the Republic of Florence visiting Cesare Borgia (1502), Rome (1503, 1506), France (1504) and Germany (1507-08). "Remember to come back home," wrote Machiavelli's wife after his first son was born. Among Machiavelli's achievements was helping to set up a militia from the dominion territories, which reconquered Pisa in June 1509. Proud of the troops, he said that they were "the finest thing that had ever been arranged for Florence."

When the Medici family returned to power, it meant the end of the Florentine Republic. A pro-Medici parfty took over, and Machiavelli, the Secretary to the Second Chancery of the Signoria, was fired. Suspected of plotting against the Medici, he was jailed and tortured six times with the strappado  the victim was hoisted high into the air by a rope that tied his hands behind his back, and then dropped toward the floor. In his vermin-infested cell in Le Stinche, he wrote in a sonnet addressed to Giuliano de' Medici: "I have, Giuliano, on my legs a set of fetters, / with six pulls of the cord on my shoulders; my other miseries / I do not intend to recount on you, since so the poets are treated!" After 14 years of patriotic service, exiled to his farm in the village of Sant'Andrea in Percussina, Machiavelli found himself out of job. Most of his remaining years he spent on the small estate where he produced his major writings and quarreled with his neighbors. 

As a thinker Machiavelli belonged to an entire school of Florentine intellectuals concerned with the examination of political and historical problems. His important writings were composed after 1512. Machiavelli achieved some fame as a historian and playwright, but with The Prince he hoped to regain political favor, to make himself "useful to our Medici lords, even if they begin by making me toll a stone," as he said in a letter.  

Machiavelli  had abandoned any further hopes of a diplomatic career, but he was partly reconciled with the Medici in 1519, and given various duties, including writing a history of Florence. He also participated in the meetings at Cosimo Rucellai's family gardens, held by a group of humanists and literati. His friends from the Rucellai circle, Zanobi Buondelmonti and Luigi Alamanni, played a leading part in a plot to assassinate Cardinal Giulio de' Medici (later Pope Clement VII), but Machiavelli was not implicated in the affair. However, in his treatise on The Art of War (1521), Buondelmonti and Alamanni were the chief interlocutors. When the Medici were deposed in 1527 Machiavelli hoped for a new government post. Now, however, he was distrusted by the republican government for previous association with the Medici.

Machiavelli died in Florence on June 21, 1527. Just a few weeks before his death, Rome fell to the poorly armed Spanish infantry. Machiavelli had foretold how such tragedy could be avoided but no one had listened to him.

Machiavelli's political writings became more widely known in the second half of the 16th century. In 1564, when considered dangerous, they were placed on the Church Index of officially banned books. Othello's ensign Iago in Shakespeare's famous drama was partly based on the common misconception of Machiavelli as a cynical defender of fraud in statecraft. In the play Henry VI, Part III, Richard III claims: "I can add colours to the chameleon; / Change shapes with Proteus for advantages; / And set the murdrous Machiavel to school. / Can I do this and cannot get a crown?" Machiavelli himself admired Cesare Borgia (1476-1507), an able ruler, who was ruthless and treacherous in war but a patron of artists, including Leonardo da Vinci.

Machiavelli's best known works are Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio (1531) and  Il Principe (1532, The Prince), whose main theme is that all means may be used in order to maintain authority, and that the worst acts of the ruler are justified by the treachery of the government. "There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things." (in The Prince) Discorsi was written in direct opposition to Dante's De Monarchia, which defended the Pope and the Holy Roman Empire. Dante argued for unity, but Machiavelli saw that conflicts are the key to a state's succees. His  model was the republican Rome, or his image of it, not the contemporary Christian Rome.

Many of Machiavelli's thoughts, as "it is much more secure to be feared, than to be loved" or "it is much safer for a prince to be feared than loved, if he is to fail in one of the two", have lived for centuries as slogans. And his notion "All armed prophets have conquered and unarmed ones failed" could be approved by contemporary fanatical religious leaders.

A Jesuit scholar, Antonius Possevinus (Antonio Possevino), who most likely had not read Machiavelli, attacked him in his 1592 Iudicum. Counter Reformation writers drew connections between Machiavelli and Luther. Moreover, he was presented as a teacher of atheism and vice. Il Principe was condemned by the pope, but its viewpoints gave rise to the well-known adjective machiavellian, synonym for political maneuvers marked by cunning, duplicity, or bad faith. Machiavelli draws upon examples from both ancient and more recent history and also uses his own insight gained during his observation of the Italian city-states and France. What distinguishes Machiavelli's manual from other such works, is the originality and practicality of his thinking. Neither the attempts to interpret Machiavelli's ideas as first steps to democratic thought nor as examples of evil reflect a balanced view of his writing.

The interest in Machiavelli has continued, although contemporary scholarship may have its reservations about transforming his writings into prophecy or a manual of modern politics. However, in the United States Machiavelli's pragmatism has not been forgotten and Dick Morris, close to President Clinton, has written his own version of The Prince.

For further reading: Machiavelli by J.H. Whitfield (1947); Machiavelli and the Renaissance by Federico Chabod (1958); Machiavelli: A Dissection by Sidney Anglo (1970); Machiavelli and the Nature of Political Thought by Martin Fleischer (1972); Machiavelli by Quentin Skinner (1981); Niccolo Machiavelli, compiled by Silvia Fiore (1990); The Discourses of Niccolo Machiavelli (1991); Niccolo Machiavelli's the Price, ed. by Martin Coyle (1995); Machiavelli's Three Romes by Vickie B. Sullivan (1996); Machiavelli's Virtue by Harvey C. Mansfield (1996); Machiavelli, Leonardo, and the Science of Power by Roger D. Masters (1996); Machiavelli, ed. by John Dunn and Ian Harris (1997); Machiavelli and Us by Luis Althusser et al (1999); Niccolò's Smile by Maurizio Viroli (2000)

Selected works:

  • Andria, 1517
    - The Woman from Andros (tr. David Sices and James B. Atkinson, in The Comedies of Machiavelli, 1985)
  • Commedia di Callimaco e di Lucrezia /  La Mandragola, 1524 (published, prod. in 1520, house of B. di Giordana)
    - Mandragola (tr. Stark Young, 1927; Ashley Dukes, 1940; John R. Hale, 1956; Allan H. Gilbert, in  The Chief Works and Others, Volume 2, 1965; Mera J. Flaumenhaft, 1981) / The Mandrake (tr. J.R. Hale, in Eight Great Comedies, ed. S. Barnet, 1958; Frederick May and Eric Bentley, in Classic Theatre 1, 1958; David Sices, in The Comedies of Machiavelli, 1985; Peter Constantine, in The Essential Writings of Machiavelli, 2007)
    - films: 1965, dir. by Alberto Lattuada; starring Totò, Rosanna Schiaffino, Philippe Leroy, Jean-Claude Brialy; 2008, dir. by Malachi Bogdanov, starring Geoffery Bateman, Den Woods, Jonathan Owen, Chara Jackson
  • La vita di Castruccio Castracani da Lucca, 1520
    - The Life of Castruccio Castracani of Lucca (tr. Peter E. Bondanella and Mark Musa, in The Portable Machiavelli, 1979; Peter Constantine, in The Essential Writings of Machiavelli, 2007) / The Life of Castruccio Castracani (tr. Allan H. Gilbert, in  The Chief Works and Others, Volume 2, 1965) 
    - Castruccio Castracanin elämä (suom. Paul-Erik Korvela, 2005)
  • Dell'arte della guerra, 1521
    - The Arte of War (tr. Peter Whitemore, 1563, rep. 1903) / The Art of War (tr. Ellis Farneworth, 1775; Allan H. Gilbert, in  The Chief Works and Others, Volume 2, 1965; Christopher Lynch, 2003)
  • Istorie fiorentine, 1525
    - The Florentine Historie (tr. Thomas Bedingfield, 1595, rep. 1905) / The History of Florence (tr. Henry Neville, 1675; Ninian Hill Thomson, 1882; Allan H. Gilbert, in  The Chief Works and Others, Volume 3, 1965) / The Florentine Histories (tr. C. Edwards Lester, 1845) / The Florentine History (tr. W.K. Marriott, 1909) / Reform in Florence (tr. Allan Gilbert, 1946) / The History of Florence and Other Selections (tr. Judith A. Rawson, ed. Myron P. Gilmore, 1970) / Florentine Histories (tr. Laura F. Banfield and Harvey C. Mansfiel, 1988)
  • Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio, 1531
    - Machiavel's Discourses upon on the First Decade of T. Livius (tr. Edward Dacres, 1636, repr. 1905, ed.  Bernard Crick, 1971) / Discourses Upon The First Ten Books of Titus Livy (tr. Henry Neville, 1675) / Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius (tr. Christian E. Detmold, 1882) / Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius (tr. Ninian Hill Thomson, 1883; Allan H. Gilbert, 1965) / The Discourses (tr. Leslie J. Walker, 1951; revised by Brian Richardson, 1971) / Discourses on Livy (tr. Harvey C. Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov, 1996; Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella, 1997)
    - Valtiollisia mietelmiä (suom. Kaarlo af Heurlin, 1958)
  • Il Principe, 1532
    - The Prince (tr. William Fowler, 1590s; Edward Dacres, 1640; Scott Byerly, 1810; Ninian Hill Thomson, 1882; Christian E. Detmold, 1882; W.K. Marriott, 1908; Allan H. Gilbert, 1946; George Bull, 1961; Daniel Donno, 1966; Robert M. Adams, 1977; Harvey Claflin Mansfield, 1985; Russell Price, ed. Quentin Skinner, 1988; Stephen J. Milner, 1995) / The Ruler (tr. Peter Rodd, 1954; David Wootton, 1995; Paul Sonnino, 1996)
    - Ruhtinas (suom. O. A. Kallio, 1918; Aarre Huhtala, 1969)
  • La Clizia, 1532 (published, prod. 1525, based on Plautus's Casina)
    - Clizia (tr. John Hale, 1961; Allan H. Gilbert, in  The Chief Works and Others, Volume 2, 1965; David Sices and James B. Atkinson, in The Comedies of Machiavelli, 1985)
  • Novella di Belfagor arcidiavolo, 1545
    - The Marriage of Belphegor (tr. Henry Neville, 1675) / Belfagor (tr. John R. Hale, 1961) / A Fable: Belfragor. The Devil Who Took a Wife (tr. Peter E. Bondanella and Mark Musa, in The Portable Machiavelli, 1979)
  • The Works of the Famous Nicholas Machiavel, 1675 (tr. Henry Nevile)
  • The Works of Nicholas Machiavel, 1742 (tr. Ellis Farneworth)
  • Scritti inediti, 1857 (ed. Giuseppe Canestrini)
  • The Historical, Political and Diplomatic Writings, 1882 (4 vols., tr. Christian E. Detmold)
  • Lettere familiari, 1883 (ed. Edoardo Alvisi)  
  • Tutte le opere storiche e letterarie di Niccolò Machiavelli, 1929 (ed. Guidi Mazzoni and Mario Casella)
  • The Living Thoughts of Machiavelli, 1940 (tr. Count Carlo Sforza, Arthur Livingston)
  • The Discourses of Niccolò Machiavelli, 1950 (2 vols., tr. Leslie J. Walker)
  • Opere di Niccolò Macchiavelli, 1954 (ed. M. Bonfantini)
  • Opere letterarie, 1964 (ed. Luigi Blasucci)
  • The Literary Works of Machiavelli: Mandragola, Clizia, A Dialogue on Language, Belfagor, with selections from the Private Correspondence, 1965 (tr. J.R. Hale)
  • The Chief Works and Others, 1965 (3 vols., repr. 1989, tr. Allan H. Gilbert)
  • Opere, 1968-89 (4 vols., ed. Sergio Bertelli et al.)
  • Tutte le opere, 1971 (ed. Mario Martelli)
  • The Portable Machiavelli, 1979 (edited and translated by Peter E. Bondanella and Mark Musa)
  • The Prince and Other Political Writings, 1981 (tr. Bruce Penman)
  • The Comedies of Machiavelli, 1985 (edited and translated by David Sices and James B. Atkinson)
  • Selected Political Writings, 1994 (edited and translated by David Wootton)
  • Machiavelli and His Friends: Their Personal Correspondence, 1996 (edited and translated by David Sices and James B. Atkinson)

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