The Controversy of Machiavelli – Part I of III

Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli was born in Florence on May 3, 1469. During the Italian Renaissance, he was a historian, politician, diplomat, philosopher, humanist and writer and has often been called the founder of modern political science. Most individuals have formed an opinion of him, or at least his methods and ideas, based on snippets from his book “The Prince;” however that is only part of the story. Who was the man? What were his motivations and influences? The deeper one looks, the more fascinating the portrait, one that continues to astound and indeed shock readers almost 500 years after his death.

One must first gain an appreciation of the politics during the formative years of his life. Machiavelli was born during a tumultuous era; one in which religious power was wielded by popes to wage wars of acquisition against Italian city-states. It was a time when being rich and powerful could easily be a transient state, as fortunes were seized by invading armies from France, Spain or the Holy Roman Empire. Even Switzerland battled the northern city-states of Italy for regional influence and control. Politics was a game of treachery during Machiavelli’s lifetime. Political and military alliances changed continually and the condottieri (mercenary leaders), changed sides without warning, based on who would pay the most for their current services. As one might expect, this led to the rise and fall of many, many short-lived governments. This was the world in which Machiavelli lived and for anyone with an interest in how trickle-down economics worked during that time, it is apparent that it was blood, not money that flowed most freely.

Something else to consider is that Machiavelli was not a narcissistic, scheming thug. Although by no means a prolific writer, he also wrote comedies, carnival songs and poetry. His personal correspondence is renowned in the Italian language.

Niccolò was the third child and first son of Bernardo di Niccolò Machiavelli and his wife, Bartolomea di Stefano Nelli. Although the Machiavelli family was descended from the old marquesses of Tuscany, the family was not wealthy, comfortable, but far from the wealth of the aristocracy. Bernardo was an attorney and small landowner with a small salary. Machiavelli’s education started at age seven. By most accounts, he spent the years from 1487 to 1495 working for a Florentine banker. A love of books was a family value that Machiavelli shared. His writings prove that he tirelessly read the classics. His studies included grammar, rhetoric and Latin. He was never a full citizen of Florence because of the nature of Florentine citizenship at that time, even under the republican regime. In 1502, Machiavelli married Marietta Corsini, who bore him four sons and two daughters.

As a young man, Machiavelli’s life, as was everyone’s in Florence, was influenced by an Italian Dominican friar and preacher named Girolamo Savonarola, who was known for his prophecies of civic glory and the destruction of secular art and culture; his was a call for Christian renewal. This did not sit well with the Vatican. He denounced clerical corruption, despotic rule, the exploitation of the poor and even prophesied about the coming of a biblical flood.

In September 1494, Charles VIII of France invaded Italy and threatened Florence and it seemed as though Savonarola’s prophesies of redemption for the city-state were on the verge of fulfillment. Savonarola intervened with the French king who influenced the Florentines to expel the Medici family who had ruled Florence for sixty years. At the friar’s urging, a republic ruled by the people was established. He preached and attempted to institute an extreme puritanical campaign, enlisting the active help of Florentine youth. For those who are fans of “Game of Thrones,” this story line will be very familiar.

In 1495, when Florence refused to join Pope Alexander VI’s Holy League against the French, the Vatican summoned Savonarola to Rome. He disobeyed and further defied the Pope by preaching while under a Papal ban and continued his campaign with processions for reforms and all manner of pious theatrics. That was the final straw. Alexander VI excommunicated Savonarola in May 1497. A trial by fire was proposed by a rival Florentine preacher to test Savonarola’s divine mandate turned into a fiasco and when popular opinion turned against him, Savonarola and two of his supporting friars were imprisoned. Under torture, Savonarola confessed that he had invented his visions and prophecies. On May 23, 1498, church and civil authorities condemned, hanged and burned the three friars in the main square of Florence. In 1494, Florence restored the Republic.

It was in the aftermath of Savonarola’s execution that Machiavelli entered public life. When the Florentine Republic was proclaimed in 1498, Machiavelli rose to prominence as secretary of a ten-man council entrusted with conducting diplomatic negotiations and also supervising the military operations of the state. From 1499 to 1512, his duties included many diplomatic missions within the Italian peninsula and to the French, Papal and Habsburg courts. In the course of his diplomatic missions within Italy he became acquainted with the political tactics of many Italian rulers. In late 1502 and into 1503, Machiavelli became familiar with the effective state building methods of the ecclesiastic and soldier Cesare Borgia, who was at that time engaged in enlarging his holdings in central Italy through a mixture of audacity, prudence, self-reliance, firmness and also frequent cruelty.

Machiavelli’s first-hand experience with internal politics laid the foundation for his theories on political machinations. In 1512, the Medici troops attacked Florence. Machiavelli’s ‘army’ of citizens of the city-state were ill-equipped to defend the state and as a result, the Medici family regained power. As a consequence, Machiavelli was dismissed from his office and was accused of plotting against the Medici family. He was imprisoned and tortured for being involved in the conspiracy but was released after several weeks. Though innocent, he remained a suspect for years to come and was exiled from an active role in political life. Thereafter, he turned his attention towards writing.

Machiavelli turned his attention away from direct involvement in politics and retired to his estate. He developed an interest in Roman history. Subsequently, he began to write political treatises which established his reputation as a historian and through his political treaties, as an intellectual political philosopher. He became involved with several local intellectual groups and started writing plays that were very well received. He also wrote fictional and historical works, but his dismissal at the hands of the Medici was certainly a motivating factor in putting together his best-known work “Il Principe” (The Prince) in 1513. ‘The Prince’ is one of the first and finest works of modern political philosophy. Based on monarchal rule, the book inspired the term ‘Machiavellian’ and established Machiavelli as the father of modern political philosophy. His grandson, Giovanni Ricci, is credited with saving many of Machiavelli’s letters and writings. A competent diplomat and a noteworthy historian, Machiavelli’s fame as the founder of political science has steadily increased over the centuries.

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