Niccolo Machiavelli Historical Profile

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Historical Profile
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Name: Niccolo Machiavelli
Born: 3 May 1469
Home town: Florence, Italy
Died: 21 June 1527
Position: Florentine diplomat, philosopher, playwright
Personality type: Intelligent, cynical, intensely interested in practical politics
Famous for: The Prince (philosophical treatise)
Strength(s): Astute, logical

"We Italians are irreligious and corrupt above others...because the Church and her representatives set us the worst example"
- Discorsi, lib. i, c. 12

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page logoNiccolo Machiavelli was born on 3rd May 1469, the eldest son Bernardo Machiavelli, a lawyer, and his wife Bartolomea di Nelli. His family was ancient and well-connected, but not particularly wealthy. Machiavelli was well-educated and was fluent in Latin, the language of law and diplomacy, but may not have learned Greek.

Very little is known of Machiavelli's early life, other than that he grew up in Florence during its so-called 'Golden Age' under Lorenzo de Medici. His first surviving letter, which concerns a family business matter, dates from 1497. From his writings, we know that Machiavelli was profoundly affected by the tumultuous changes that affected Florence and the whole of Italy during the 1490's - the French invasion of 1494, the expulsion of the Medici, the rise and fall of Savonarola, and the military campaigns of Cesare Borgia.

Machiavelli's first public appointment came in June 1498, when he was elected Secretary of the Second Chancery. This was a senior civil service post, although not a particularly well-paid one. In order to obtain the post, he must have established a reputation as a capable man, and he may well have carried out some duties for the Florentine government on a casual basis prior to his appoihntment. His new job entailed carrying out the orders of the executive committee of the Florentine government, especially with regard to diplomatic negotations, although he was also employed in administrative and military work. He would hold the post for fourteen years. Machiavelli was especially favoured by a leading member of the Council, Piero Soderini: although this boosted his career whilst Soderini was in power, it also earned him many enemies and ultimately destroyed his political career.

Over the next few years, Machiavelli undertook numerous diplomatic missions to Italian and foreign powers. He negotiated with Caterina Sforza in 1499; met Louis XII of France in 1500 to discuss the interminable Florentine war against Pisa and in 1502, was sent to Cesare Borgia. whose expanding power in the Romagna alarmed Florence. He visited Rome in 1503 to 'size up' the new Pope, Julius II, and met with the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximlian I, in 1507. He therefore met with almost all the most powerful rulers of his day, experience which stood him in good stead in his political writings. He was also able to shrewdly assess the strengths and weaknesses of a number of states, and would attempt to put some of the information he had gained to practical use in the service of Florence.

Machiavelli was particularly critical of the Italian use of hired mercenaries rather than local soldiers and in 1505, Soderini agreed to his plan for a Florentine militia. He worked hard to recruit, train and drill his men, but the militia were not very efficient in either the war against Pisa or in resisting Spanish armies in 1512. The restoration of the Medici in that year by the Spanish commander, Ramon de Cardona, was a catastrophe for Machiavelli. Although he had been a loyal and efficient servant of the Florenetine government, he was tainted by his assocation with the discredited Gonfalier, Soderini, and was dismissed from his post on 7th November 1512. Machiavelli was banished from the city, but worse was to come: his name was mentioned in the course of an anti-Medici plot in 1513, and he was imprisoned and tortured. As he was entirely innocent, he was freed and exonerated, but spent the next seven years out of office.

However, had Machiavelli remained in government employment, it is highly unlikely that he would have had the time to write many of the books on which his reputation rests today. 'Posterity has good reason to be grateful to the revolution which provided Machiavelli with the enforced leisure in which to ponder the reasons for political success and failure ' (Sydney Anglo, 'Machiavelli'). He retired to his small villa at San Casciano, just outside Florence, and began work on two of his most famous books - 'The Prince' and 'The Discourses on Livy'. In both works, he drew upon his own experiences to give examples of efficient government. 'The Prince' was later to gain notoriety because Machiavelli's primary interest is in what works in practice: he uses a number of contemporary and ancient examples, including Cesare Borgia, Ferdinand of Aragon and Alexander the Great, to demonstrate that ruthlessness, determination and deviousness can be more effective than conventional virtue. The book was dedicted to the new Medici ruler of Florence, Lorenzo de Medici, in the hope of gaining employment. In addition to 'The Prince and 'The Discourses', Machiavelli wrote 'The Art of War', 'The History of Florence', 'The Dialogue on Language' and several plays, including the bawdy comedy 'La Mandragola'.

Machiavelli had married a Florentine lady, Marietta Corsini, in 1502 and they had six children. He became increasingly involved in literary activities in Florence, and his plays proved popular. He also began after 1520 to acquire government work, and received a subsidy from Pope Clement for writing his 'History of Florence'. Machiavelli died on 21st June 1527 at the age of 58 and was buried in the church of Santa Croce, Florence, where his tomb survives.

Sources and further reading:
George Bull, 'The Prince' , Introduction and translation
Sydney Anglo, 'Machiavelli'
Bernard Crick' The Discourses', Introduction and translation
Garrett Mattingly, 'Renaissance Diplomacy

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Machiavelli's friend Francesco Vettori described him as follows:

'Of middle height, slender figure, sparkling eyes, dark hair, rather a small head, a slightly aquiline nose, a tightly closed mouth; all about him bore the impress of a very acute observer and thinker...he could not rid himself of the sarcastic expression continually playing round his mouth and flashing from his eyes.''


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  • Alexander VI...who of all the pontiffs that have ever been, showed how a pope with both money and arms was able to prevail; and through the instrumentality of the Duke Valentino, and by reason of the entry of the French, he brought about [the temporal domination of the papal states]. And although his intention was not to aggrandize the Church, but the duke, nevertheless, what he did contributed to the greatness of the Church, which, after his death and the ruin of the duke, became the heir to all his labours. (Machiavelli, The Prince - chapter 11)
  • A son can bear with equanimity the loss of his father, but the loss of his inheritance may drive him to despair.
  • A return to first principles in a republic is sometimes caused by the simple virtues of one man. His good example has such an influence that the good men strive to imitate him, and the wicked are ashamed to lead a life so contrary to his example.
  • Entrepreneurs are simply those who understand that there is little difference between obstacle and opportunity and are able to turn both to their advantage.
  • For among other evils caused by being disarmed, it renders you contemptible; which is one of those disgraceful things which a prince must guard against.

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  • H. Somerset Maugham wrote a short work of historical fiction about Machiavelli called Then and Now. It is written in the first person narrative by none other than Niccolo Machiavelli himself.
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Characters - The Borgias Fan Wiki
  • The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli
  • Machiavelli: A Biography by Miles J Unger (2011)
  • The Artist, The Philosopher and the Warrior
    by Paul Strathern (2009)

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