1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Guicciardini, Francesco
GUICCIARDINI, FRANCESCO (1483–1540), the celebrated Italian historian and statesman, was born at Florence in the year 1483, when Marsilio Ficino held him at the font of baptism. His family was illustrious and noble; and his ancestors for many generations had held the highest posts of honour in the state, as may be seen in his own genealogical Ricordi autobiografici e di famiglia (Op. ined. vol. x.). After the usual education of a boy in grammar and elementary classical studies, his father, Piero, sent him to the universities of Ferrara and Padua, where he stayed until the year 1505. The death of an uncle, who had occupied the see of Cortona with great pomp, induced the young Guicciardini to hanker after an ecclesiastical career. He already saw the scarlet of a cardinal awaiting him, and to this eminence he would assuredly have risen. His father, however, checked this ambition, declaring that, though he had five sons, he would not suffer one of them to enter the church in its then state of corruption and debasement. Guicciardini, whose motives were confessedly ambitious (see Ricordi, Op. ined. x. 68), turned his attention to law, and at the age of twenty-three was appointed by the Signoria of Florence to read the Institutes in public. Shortly afterwards he engaged himself in marriage to Maria, daughter of Alamanno Salviati, prompted, as he frankly tells us, by the political support which an alliance with that great family would bring him (ib. x. 71). He was then practising at the bar, where he won so much distinction that the Signoria, in 1512, entrusted him with an embassy to the court of Ferdinand the Catholic. Thus he entered on the real work of his life as a diplomatist and statesman. His conduct upon that legation was afterwards severely criticized; for his political antagonists accused him of betraying the true interests of the commonwealth, and using his influence for the restoration of the exiled house of Medici to power. His Spanish correspondence with the Signoria (Op. ined. vol. vi.) reveals the extraordinary power of observation and analysis which was a chief quality of his mind; and in Ferdinand, hypocritical and profoundly dissimulative, he found a proper object for his scientific study. To suppose that the young statesman learned his frigid statecraft in Spain would be perhaps too simple a solution of the problem offered by his character, and scarcely fair to the Italian proficients in perfidy. It is clear from Guicciardini’s autobiographical memoirs that he was ambitious, calculating, avaricious and power-loving from his earliest years; and in Spain he had no more than an opportunity of studying on a large scale those political vices which already ruled the minor potentates of Italy. Still the school was pregnant with instructions for so apt a pupil. Guicciardini issued from this first trial of his skill with an assured reputation for diplomatic ability, as that was understood in Italy. To unravel plots and weave counterplots; to meet treachery with fraud; to parry force with sleights of hand; to credit human nature with the basest motives, while the blackest crimes were contemplated with cold enthusiasm for their cleverness, was reckoned then the height of political sagacity. Guicciardini could play the game to perfection. In 1515 Leo X. took him into service, and made him governor of Reggio and Modena. In 1521 Parma was added to his rule, and in 1523 he was appointed viceregent of Romagna by Clement VII. These high offices rendered Guicciardini the virtual master of the papal states beyond the Apennines, during a period of great bewilderment and difficulty. The copious correspondence relating to his administration has recently been published (Op. ined. vols. vii., viii.). In 1526 Clement gave him still higher rank as lieutenant-general of the papal army. While holding this commission, he had the humiliation of witnessing from a distance the sack of Rome and the imprisonment of Clement, without being able to rouse the perfidious duke of Urbino into activity. The blame of Clement’s downfall did not rest with him; for it was merely his duty to attend the camp, and keep his master informed of the proceedings of the generals (see the Correspondence, Op. ined. vols. iv., v.). Yet Guicciardini’s conscience accused him, for he had previously counselled the pope to declare war, as he notes in a curious letter to himself written in 1527 (Op. ined., x. 104). Clement did not, however, withdraw his confidence, and in 1531 Guicciardini was advanced to the governorship of Bologna, the most important of all the papallord-lieutenancies (Correspondence, Op. ined. vol. ix.). This post he resigned in 1534 on the election of Paul III., preferring to follow the fortunes of the Medicean princes. It may here be noticed that though Guicciardini served three popes through a period of twenty years, or perhaps because of this, he hated the papacy with a deep and frozen bitterness, attributing the woes of Italy to the ambition of the church, and declaring he had seen enough of sacerdotal abominations to make him a Lutheran (see Op. ined. i. 27, 104, 96, and Ist. d’ It., ed. Ros., ii. 218). The same discord between his private opinions and his public actions may be traced in his conduct subsequent to 1534. As a political theorist, Guicciardini believed that the best form of government was a commonwealth administered upon the type of the Venetian constitution (Op. ined. i-6; ii. 130 sq.); and we have ample evidence to prove that he had judged the tyranny of the Medici at its true worth (Op. ined. i. 171, on the tyrant; the whole Storia Fiorentina and Reggimento di Firenze, ib. i. and iii., on the Medici). Yet he did not hesitate to place his powers at the disposal of the most vicious members of that house for the enslavement of Florence. In 1527 he had been declared a rebel by the Signoria on account of his well-known Medicean prejudices; and in 1530. deputed by Clement to punish the citizens after their revolt, he revenged himself with a cruelty and an avarice that were long and bitterly remembered. When, therefore, he returned to inhabit Florence in 1534, he did so as the creature of the dissolute Alessandro de' Medici. Guicciardini pushed his servility so far as to defend this infamous despot at Naples in I 53 5, before the bar of Charles V., from the accusations brought against him by the Florentine exiles (Op. ined. vol. ix.). He won his cause; but in the eyes of all posterity he justified the reproaches of his contemporaries, who describe him as a cruel, venal, grasping seeker after power, eager to support a despotism for the sake of honours, offices and emoluments secured for himself by a bargain with the oppressors of his country. Varchi, Nardi, Jacopo Pitti and Bernardo Segni are unanimous upon this point; but it is only the recent publication of Guicciardini's private MSS. that has made us understand the force of their invectives. To plead loyalty or honest political conviction in defence of his Medicean partisanship is now impossible, face to face with the opinions expressed in the Ricardi politici and the Storia Fiorentina. Like Machiavelli, but on a lower level, Guicciardini was willing to “roll stones,” or to do any dirty work for masters whom, in the depth of his soul, he detested and despised. After the murder of Duke Alessandro in 1537, Guicciardini espoused the cause of Cosimo de Medici, a boy addicted to field sports, and unused to the game of statecraft. The wily old diplomatist hoped to rule Florence as grand vizier under this inexperienced princeling. He was mistaken, however, in his schemes, for Cosimo displayed the genius of his family for politics, and coldly dismissed his would-be lord protector. Guicciardini retired in disgrace to his villa, where he spent his last years in the composition of the Storia d'Italia. He died in 1540 without male heirs.
Guicciardini was the product of a cynical and selfish age, and his life illustrated its sordid influences. Of a cold and worldly temperament, devoid of passion, blameless in his conduct as the father of a family, faithful as the servant of his papal patrons, severe in the administration of the provinces committed to his charge, and indisputably able in his conduct of affairs, he was at the same time, and in spite of these qualities, a man whose moral nature inspires a sentiment of liveliest repugnance. It is not merely that he was ambitious, cruel, revengeful and avaricious, for these vices have existed in men far less antipathetic than Guicciardini. Over and above those faults, which made him odious to his fellow-citizens, we trace in him a meanness that our century is less willing to condone. His phlegmatic and persistent egotism, his sacrifice of truth and honour to self-interest, his acquiescence in the worst conditions of the world, if only he could use them for his own advantage, combined with the glaring discord between his opinions and his practice, form a character which would be contemptible in our eyes were it not so sinister. The social and political decrepitude of Italy, where patriotism was unknown, and-only selfishness survived of all the motives that rouse men to action, found its representative and exponent in Guicciardini. When we turn from the man to the author, the decadence of the age and race that could develop a political philosophy so arid in its cynical despair of any good in human nature forces itself vividly upon our notice. Guicciardini seems to glory in his disillusionment, and uses his vast intellectual ability for the analysis of the corruption he had helped to make incurable. If one single treatise of that century should be chosen to represent the spirit of the Italian people in the last phase of the Renaissance, the historian might hesitate between the Principe of Machiavelli and the Ricordi politici of Guicciardini. The latter is perhaps preferable to the former on the score of comprehensiveness. It is, moreover, more exactly adequate to the actual situation, for the Principe has a divine spark of patriotism yet lingering in the cinders of its frigid science, an idealistic enthusiasm surviving in its moral aberrations; whereas a great Italian critic of this decade has justly described the Ricordi as “Italian corruption codified and elevated to a rule of life.” Guicciardini is, however, better known as the author of the Sloria d'Italia, that vast and detailed picture of his country's sufferings between the years 1494 and 1532, judging him by this masterpiece of scientific history, he deserves less commendation as a writer than as a thinker and an analyst. The style is wearisome and prolix, attaining to precision at the expense of circumlocution, and setting forth the smallest particulars with the same distinctness as the main features of the narrative. The whole tangled skein of Italian politics, in that involved and stormy period, is unravelled with a patience and an insight that are above praise. It is the crowning merit of the author that he never ceases to be' an impartial spectator-a cold and curious critic. We might compare him to an anatomist, with knife and scalpel dissecting the dead body of Italy, and pointing out the symptoms of her manifold diseases with the indifferent analysis of one who has no moral sensibility. This want of feeling, while it renders Guicciardini a model for the scientific student, has impaired the interest of his history. Though he lived through that agony of the Italian people, he does not seem to be aware that he is writing a great historical tragedy. He takes as much pains in laying bare the trifiing causes of a petty war with Pisa as in probing the deep-seated ulcer of the papacy. Nor is he capable of painting the events in which he took a part, in their totality as a drama. Whatever he touches, lies already dead on the dissecting table, and his skill is that of the analytical pathologist. Consequently, he fails to understand the essential magnitude of the task, or to appreciate the vital vigour of the forces contending in Europe for mastery. This is very noticeable in what he writes about the Reformation. Notwithstanding these defects, inevitable in a writer of Guicciardini's temperament, the Storia d'Italia was undoubtedly the greatest historical work that had appeared since the beginning of the modern era. It remains the most solid monument of the Italian reason in the 16th century, the final triumph of that Florentine school of philosophical historians which included Machiavelli, Segni, Pitti, Nardi, Varchi, Francesco Vettori and Donato Giannotti. Up to the year 1857 the fame of Guicciardini as a writer, and the estimation of him as a man, depended almost entirely upon the History of Italy, and on a few ill-edited extracts from his aphorisms. At that date his representatives, the counts Piero and Luigi Guicciardini, opened their family archives, and cornmitted to Signor Giuseppe Canestrini the publication of his hitherto inedited MSS. in ten important volumes. The vast mass of documents and finished literary work thus given to the world has thrown a flood of light upon Guicciardini, whether we consider him as author or as citizen. It has raised his reputation as a political philosopher into the first rank, where he now disputes the place of intellectual supremacy with his friend Machiavelli; but it has coloured our moral judgment of his character and conduct with darker dyes. From the stores of valuable materials contained in those ten volumes, it will be enough here to cite (1) the Ricordi polilici, already noticed, consisting of about 400 aphorisms on political and social topics; (2) the observations on Machiavelli's Discorsi, which bring into remarkable relief the views of Italy's two great theorists on statecraft in the 16th century, and show that Guicciardini regarded Machiavelli somewhat as an amiable visionary or political enthusiast; (3) the Storia Fiorentina, an early work of the author, distinguished by its animation of style, brilliancy of portraiture, and liberality of judgment; and (4) the Dialogo del reggimento di Firenze, also in all probability an early work, in which the various forms of government suited to an Italian commonwealth are discussed with infinite subtlety, contrasted, and illustrated from the vicissitudes of Florence up to the year 1494. To these may be added a series of short essays, entitled Discorsi politici, composed during Guicciardini’s Spanish legation. It is only after a careful perusal of these minor works that the student of history may claim to have comprehended Guicciardini, and may feel that he brings with him to the consideration of the Storia d’ Italia the requisite knowledge of the author’s private thoughts and jealously guarded opinions. Indeed, it may be confidently affirmed that those who desire to gain an insight into the true principles and feelings of the men who made and wrote history in the 16th century will find it here far more than in the work designed for publication by the writer. Taken in combination with Machiavelli’s treatises, the Opere inedite furnish a comprehensive body of Italian political philosophy anterior to the date of Fra Paolo Sarpi. (J. A. S.)
See Rosini’s edition of the Storia d’ Italia (10 vols., Pisa, 1819), and the Opere inedite, in 10 vols., published at Florence, 1857. A complete and initial edition of Guicciardini’s works is now in preparation in the hands of Alessandro Gherardi of the Florence archives. Among the many studies on Guicciardini we may mention Agostino Rossi’s Francesco Guicciardini e il governo Fiorentino (2 vols., Bologna, 1896), based on many new documents; F. de Sanctis’s essay “L’Uomo del Guicciardini,” in his Nuovi Saggi critici (Naples, 1879), and many passages in Professor P. Villari’s Machiavelli (Eng. trans., 1892); E. Benoist’s Guichardin, historien et homme d’état italien an XVI e siècle (Paris, 1862), and C. Gioda’s Francesco Guicciardini e le sue opere inedite (Bologna, 1880) are not without value, but the authors had not had access to many important documents since published. See also Geoffrey’s article “Une Autobiographie de Guichardin d’après ses œuvres inédites,” in the Revue des deux mondes (1st of February 1874).