1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Machiavelli, Niccolò
MACHIAVELLI, NICCOLÒ (1469–1527), Italian statesman and writer, was born at Florence on the 3rd of May 1469. His ancestry claimed blood relationship with the lords of Montespertoli, a fief situated between Val di Pesa and Val d’Elsa, at no great distance from the city. Niccolò’s father, Bernardo (b. 1428), followed the profession of a jurist. He held landed property worth something like £250 a year of our money. His son, though not wealthy, was never wholly dependent upon official income.
Of Niccolò’s early years and education little is known. His works show wide reading in the Latin and Italian classics, but it is almost certain that he had not mastered the Greek language. To the defects of Machiavelli’s education we may, in part at least, ascribe the peculiar vigour of his style and his speculative originality. He is free from the scholastic trifling and learned frivolity which tainted the rhetorical culture of his century. He made the world of men and things his study, learned to write his mother-tongue with idiomatic conciseness, and nourished his imagination on the masterpieces of the Romans.
The year of Charles VIII.’s invasion and of the Medici’s expulsion from Florence (1494) saw Machiavelli’s first entrance into public life. He was appointed clerk in the second chancery of the commune under his old master, the grammarian, Marcello Virgilio Adriani. Early in 1498 Adriani became chancellor of the republic, and Machiavelli received his vacated office with the rank of second chancellor and secretary. This post he retained till the year 1512. The masters he had to serve were the dieci di libertà e pace, who, though subordinate to the signoria, exercised a separate control over the departments of war and the interior. They sent their own ambassadors to foreign powers, transacted business with the cities of the Florentine domain, and controlled the military establishment of the commonwealth. The next fourteen years of Machiavelli’s life were fully occupied in the voluminous correspondence of his bureau, in diplomatic missions of varying importance, and in the organization of a Florentine militia. It would be tedious to follow him through all his embassies to petty courts of Italy, the first of which took place in 1499, when he was sent to negotiate the continuance of a loan to Catherine Sforza, countess of Forlì and Imola. In 1500 Machiavelli travelled into France, to deal with Louis XII. about the affairs of Pisa. These embassies were the school in which Machiavelli formed his political opinions, and gathered views regarding the state of Europe and the relative strength of nations. They not only introduced him to the subtleties of Italian diplomacy, but also extended his observation over races very different from the Italians. He thus, in the course of his official business, gradually acquired principles and settled ways of thinking which he afterwards expressed in writing.
In 1502 Machiavelli married Marietta Corsini, who bore him several children, with whom, in spite of his own infidelities, he lived on good terms, and who survived him twenty-six years. In the same year Piero Soderini was chosen gonfalonier for life, in accordance with certain changes in the constitution of the state, which were intended to bring Florence closer to the Venetian type of government. Machiavelli became intimately connectedwith Soderini, assisted him in carrying out his policy, suggested important measures of military reform which Soderini adopted, and finally was involved in ruin by his fall.
The year 1502 was marked by yet another decisive incident in Machiavelli’s life. In October he was sent, much against his will, as envoy to the camp of Cesare Borgia, duke of Valentinois. The duke was then in Romagna, and it was Machiavelli’s duty to wait upon and watch him. He was able now to observe those intricate intrigues which culminated in Cesare’s murder of his disaffected captains. From what remains of Machiavelli’s official letters, and from his tract upon the Modo che tenne il duca Valentino per ammazzar Vitellozzo Vitelli, we are able to appreciate the actual relations which existed between the two men, and the growth in Machiavelli’s mind of a political ideal based upon his study of the duke’s character. Machiavelli conceived the strongest admiration for Cesare’s combination of audacity with diplomatic prudence, for his adroit use of cruelty and fraud, for his self-reliance, avoidance of half-measures, employment of native troops, and firm administration in conquered provinces. More than once, in letters to his friend Vettori, no less than in the pages of the Principe, Machiavelli afterwards expressed his belief that Cesare Borgia’s behaviour in the conquest of provinces, the cementing of a new state out of scattered elements, and the dealing with false friends or doubtful allies, was worthy of all commendation and of scrupulous imitation. As he watched Cesare Borgia at this, the most brilliant period of his adventurous career, the man became idealized in his reflective but imaginative mind. Round him, as a hero, he allowed his own conceptions of the perfect prince to cluster. That Machiavelli separated the actual Cesare Borgia, whom he afterwards saw, ruined and contemptible, at Rome, from this radiant creature of his political fancy, is probable. That the Cesare of history does not exactly match the Duca Valentino of Machiavelli’s writings is certain. Still the fact remains that henceforth Machiavelli cherished the ideal image of the statesman which he had modelled upon Cesare, and called this by the name of Valentino.
On his return to Florence early in January 1503, Machiavelli began to occupy himself with a project which his recent attendance upon Cesare Borgia had strengthened in his mind. The duties of his office obliged him to study the conditions of military service as they then existed in Italy. He was familiar with the disadvantages under which republics laboured when they engaged professional captains of adventure and levied mercenary troops. The bad faith of the condottiere Paolo Vitelli (beheaded at Florence in 1499) had deeply impressed him. In the war with Pisa he had observed the insubordination and untrustworthiness of soldiers gathered from the dregs of different districts, serving under egotistical and irresponsible commanders. His reading in Livy taught him to admire the Roman system of employing armies raised from the body of the citizens; and Cesare Borgia’s method of gradually substituting the troops of his own duchy for aliens and mercenaries showed him that this plan might be adopted with success by the Italians. He was now determined, if possible, to furnish Florence with a national militia. The gonfalonier Soderini entered into his views. But obstacles of no small magnitude arose. The question of money was immediately pressing. Early in 1503 Machiavelli drew up for Soderini a speech, Discorso sulla provisione del danaro, in which the duty and necessity of liberal expenditure for the protection of the state were expounded upon principles of sound political philosophy. Between this date and the last month of 1506 Machiavelli laboured at his favourite scheme, working out memorials on the subject for his office, and suggesting the outlines of a new military organization. On the 6th of December 1506 his plan was approved by the signoria, and a special ministry, called the nove di ordinanza e milizia, was appointed. Machiavelli immediately became their secretary. The country districts of the Florentine dominion were now divided into departments, and levies of foot soldiers were made in order to secure a standing militia. A commander-in-chief had to be chosen for the new troops. Italian jealousy shrank from conferring this important office on a Florentine, lest one member of the state should acquire a power dangerous to the whole. The choice of Soderini and Machiavelli fell, at this juncture, upon an extremely ineligible person, none other than Don Micheletto, Cesare Borgia’s cut-throat and assassin. It is necessary to insist upon this point, since it serves to illustrate a radical infirmity in Machiavelli’s genius. While forming and promoting his scheme, he was actuated by principles of political wisdom and by the purest patriotism. But he failed to perceive that such a ruffian as Micheletto could not inspire the troops of Florence with that devotion to their country and that healthy moral tone which should distinguish a patriot army. Here, as elsewhere, he revealed his insensibility to the ethical element in human nature.
Meanwhile Italy had been the scene of memorable events, in most of which Machiavelli took some part. Alexander VI. had died suddenly of fever. Julius II. had ascended the papal chair. The duke of Valentinois had been checked in mid-career of conquest. The collapse of the Borgias threw Central Italy into confusion; and Machiavelli had, in 1505, to visit the Baglioni at Perugia and the Petrucci at Siena. In the following year he accompanied Julius upon his march through Perugia into the province of Emilia, where the fiery pope subdued in person the rebellious cities of the Church. Upon these embassies Machiavelli represented the Florentine dieci in quality of envoy. It was his duty to keep the ministry informed by means of frequent despatches and reports. All this while the war for the recovery of Pisa was slowly dragging on, with no success or honour to the Florentines. Machiavelli had to attend the camp and provide for levies amid his many other occupations. And yet he found time for private literary work. In the autumn of 1504 he began his Decennali, or Annals of Italy, a poem composed in rough terza rima. About the same time he composed a comedy on the model of Aristophanes, which is unfortunately lost. It seems to have been called Le Maschere. Giuliano de’ Ricci tells us it was marked by stringent satire upon great ecclesiastics and statesmen, no less than by a tendency to “ascribe all human things to natural causes or to fortune.” That phrase accurately describes the prevalent bias of its author’s mind.
The greater part of 1506 and 1507 was spent in organizing the new militia, corresponding on the subject, and scouring the country on enlistment service. But at the end of the latter year European affairs of no small moment diverted Machiavelli from these humbler duties. Maximilian was planning a journey into Italy in order to be crowned emperor at Rome, and was levying subsidies from the imperial burghs for his expenses. The Florentines thought his demands excessive. Though they already had Francesco Vettori at his court, Soderini judged it advisable to send Machiavelli thither in December. He travelled by Geneva, all through Switzerland, to Botzen, where he found the emperor. This journey was an important moment in his life. It enabled him to study the Swiss and the Germans in their homes; and the report which he wrote on his return is among his most effective political studies. What is most remarkable in it is his concentrated effort to realize the exact political weight of the German nation, and to penetrate the causes of its strength and weakness. He attempts to grasp the national character as a whole, and thence to deduce practical conclusions. The same qualities are noticeable in his Ritratti delle cose di Francia, which he drew up after an embassy to Louis XII. at Blois in 1510. These notes upon the French race are more scattered than the report on German affairs. But they reveal no less acumen combined with imaginative penetration into the very essence of national existence.
returned from Germany in June 1508. The rest of that year and a large part of 1509 were spent in the affairs of the militia and the war of Pisa. Chiefly through his exertions the war was terminated by the surrender of Pisa in June 1509. Meanwhile the league of Cambray had disturbed the peace of Italy, and Florence found herself in a perilous position between Spain and France. Soderini’s government grew weaker. The Medicean party lifted up its head. To the league of Cambray succeeded the Holy League. The battle of Ravenna was fought, and the French retired from Italy. The Florentines had been spectators rather than actors in these great events. But they were now destined to feel the full effects of them. The cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici, who was present at the battle of Ravenna, brought a Spanish army into Tuscany. Prato was sacked in the August of 1512. Florence, in extreme terror, deposed the gonfalonier, and opened her gates to the princes of the house of Medici.
The government on which Machiavelli depended had fallen, never to rise again. The national militia in which he placed unbounded confidence had proved inefficient to protect Florence in the hour of need. He was surrounded by political and personal enemies, who regarded him with jealousy as the ex-gonfalonier’s right-hand man. Yet at first it appears that he still hoped to retain his office. He showed no repugnance to a change of masters, and began to make overtures to the Medici. The nove della milizia were, however, dissolved; and on the 7th of November 1512 Machiavelli was deprived of his appointments. He was exiled from Florence and confined to the dominion for one year, and on the 17th of November wasMachiavelli now entered upon a period of life to which we owe the great works that have rendered his name immortal. But it was one of prolonged disappointment and annoyance. He had not accustomed himself to economical living; and, when the emoluments of his office were withdrawn, he had barely enough to support his family. The previous years of his manhood had been spent in continual activity. Much as he enjoyed the study of the Latin and Italian classics, literature was not his business; nor had he looked on writing as more than an occasional amusement. He was now driven in upon his books for the employment of a restless temperament; and to this irksomeness of enforced leisure may be ascribed the production of the Principe, the Discorsi, the Arte della guerra, the comedies, and the Historie fiorentine. The uneasiness of Machiavelli’s mind in the first years of this retirement is brought before us by his private correspondence. The letters to Vettori paint a man of vigorous intellect and feverish activity, dividing his time between studies and vulgar dissipations, seeking at one time distraction in low intrigues and wanton company, at another turning to the great minds of antiquity for solace. It is not easy to understand the spirit in which the author of the Principe sat down to exchange obscenities with the author of the Sommario della storia d’Italia. At the same time this coarseness of taste did not blunt his intellectual sagacity. His letters on public affairs in Italy and Europe, especially those which he meant Vettori to communicate to the Medici at Rome, are marked by extraordinary fineness of perception, combined, as usual in his case, with philosophical breadth. In retirement at his villa near Percussina, a hamlet of San Casciano, Machiavelli completed the Principe before the end of 1513. This famous book is an analysis of the methods whereby an ambitious man may rise to sovereign power. It appears to have grown out of another scarcely less celebrated work, upon which Machiavelli had been engaged before he took the Principe in hand, and which he did not finish until some time afterwards. This second treatise is the Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio. prohibited from setting foot in the Palazzo Pubblico. Ruin stared him in the face; and, to make matters worse, he was implicated in the conspiracy of Pier Paolo Boscoli in February 1513. Machiavelli had taken no share in that feeble attempt against the Medici, but his name was found upon a memorandum dropped by Boscoli. This was enough to ensure his imprisonment. He was racked, and only released upon Giovanni de’ Medici’s election to the papacy in March 1513. When he left his dungeon he retired to a farm near San Casciano, and faced the fact that his political career was at an end.
Cast in the form of comments on the history of Livy, the Discorsi are really an inquiry into the genesis and maintenance of states. The Principe is an offshoot from the main theme of the Discorsi, setting forth Machiavelli’s views at large and in detail upon the nature of principalities, the method of cementing them, and the qualities of a successful autocrat. Being more limited in subject and more independent as a work of literary art, this essay detaches itself from the main body of the Discorsi, and has attracted far more attention. We feel that the Principe is inspired with greater fervency, as though its author had more than a speculative aim in view, and brought it forth to serve a special crisis. The moment of its composition was indeed decisive. Machiavelli judged the case of Italy so desperate that salvation could only be expected from the intervention of a powerful despot. The unification of Italy in a state protected by a national army was the cherished dream of his life; and the peroration of the Principe shows that he meant this treatise to have a direct bearing on the problem. We must be careful, however, not to fall into the error of supposing that he wrote it with the sole object of meeting an occasional emergency. Together with the Discorsi, the Principe contains the speculative fruits of his experience and observation combined with his deductions from Roman history. The two works form one coherent body of opinion, not systematically expressed, it is true, but based on the same principles, involving the same conclusions, and directed to the same philosophical end. That end is the analysis of the conception of the state, studied under two main types, republican and monarchical. Up to the date of Machiavelli, modern political philosophy had always presupposed an ideal. Medieval speculation took the Church and the Empire for granted, as divinely appointed institutions, under which the nations of the earth must flourish for the space of man’s probation on this planet. Thinkers differed only as Guelfs and Ghibellines, as leaning on the one side to papal, on the other to imperial supremacy. In the revival of learning, scholarship supplanted scholasticism, and the old ways of medieval thinking were forgotten. But no substantial philosophy of any kind emerged from humanism; the political lucubrations of the scholars were, like their ethical treatises, for the most part rhetorical. Still the humanists effected a delivery of the intellect from what had become the bondage of obsolete ideas, and created a new medium for the speculative faculty. Simultaneously with the revival, Italy had passed into that stage of her existence which has been called the age of despots. The yoke of the Empire had been shaken off. The Church had taken rank among Italian tyrannies. The peninsula was, roughly speaking, divided into principalities and sovereign cities, each of which claimed autocratic jurisdiction. These separate despotisms owned no common social tie, were founded on no common jus or right, but were connected in a network of conflicting interests and changeful diplomatic combinations. A keen and positive political intelligence emerged in the Italian race. The reports of Venetian and Florentine ambassadors at this epoch contain the first germs of an attempt to study politics from the point of view of science.
At this moment Machiavelli intervenes. He was conscious of the change which had come over Italy and Europe. He was aware that the old strongholds of medieval thought must be abandoned, and that the decaying ruins of medieval institutions furnished no basis for the erection of solid political edifices. He felt the corruption of his country, and sought to bring the world back to a lively sense of the necessity for reformation. His originality consists in having extended the positive intelligence of his century from the sphere of contemporary politics and special interests to man at large regarded as a political being. He founded the science of politics for the modern world, by concentrating thought upon its fundamental principles. He began to study men, not according to some preconception, but as he found them—men, not in the isolation of one century, but as a whole in history. He drew his conclusions from the nature of mankind itself, “ascribing all things to natural causes or to fortune.” In this way he restored the right method of study, a method which had been neglected since the days of Aristotle. He formed a conception of the modern state, which marked the close of the middle ages, and anticipated the next phase of European development. His prince, abating those points which are purely Italian or strongly tinctured with the author’s personal peculiarities, prefigured the monarchs of the 16th and 17th centuries, the monarchs whose motto was L’état c’est moi! His doctrine of a national militia foreshadowed the system which has given strength in arms to France and Germany. His insight into the causes of Italian decadence was complete; and the remedies which he suggested, in the perorations of the Principe and the Arte della guerra, have since been applied in the unification of Italy. Lastly, when we once have freed ourselves from the antipathy engendered by his severance of ethics from the field of politics, when we have once made proper allowance for his peculiar use of phrases like frodi onorevoli or scelleratezze gloriose, nothing is left but admiration for his mental attitude. That is the attitude of a patriot, who saw with open eyes the ruin of his country, who burned above all things to save Italy and set her in her place among the powerful nations, who held the duty of self-sacrifice in the most absolute sense, whose very limitations and mistakes were due to an absorbing passion for the state he dreamed might be reconstituted. It was Machiavelli’s intense preoccupation with this problem—what a state is and how to found one in existing circumstances—which caused the many riddles of his speculative writings. Dazzled, as it were, with the brilliancy of his own discovery, concentrated in attention on the one necessity for organizing a powerful coherent nation, he forgot that men are more than political beings. He neglected religion, or regarded it as part ofthe state machinery. He was by no means indifferent to private virtue, which indeed he judged the basis of all healthy national existence; but in the realm of politics he postponed morals to political expediency. He held that the people, as distinguished from the nobles and the clergy, were the pith and fibre of nations; yet this same people had to become wax in the hands of the politician—their commerce and their comforts, the arts which give a dignity to life and the pleasures which make life liveable, neglected—their very liberty subordinated to the one tyrannical conception. To this point the segregation of politics from every other factor which goes to constitute humanity had brought him; and this it is which makes us feel his world a wilderness, devoid of atmosphere and vegetation. Yet some such isolation of the subject matter of this science was demanded at the moment of its birth, just as political economy, when first started, had to make a rigid severance of wealth from other units. It is only by a gradual process that social science in its whole complexity can be evolved. We have hardly yet discovered that political economy has unavoidable points of contact with ethics.
From the foregoing criticism it will be perceived that all the questions whether Machiavelli meant to corrupt or to instruct the world, to fortify the hands of tyrants or to lead them to their ruin, are now obsolete. He was a man of science—one who by the vigorous study of his subject matter sought from that subject-matter itself to deduce laws. The difficulty which remains in judging him is a difficulty of statement, valuation, allowance. How much shall we allow for his position in Renaissance Italy, for the corruption in the midst of which he lived, for his own personal temperament? How shall we state his point of departure from the middle ages, his sympathy with prevalent classical enthusiasms, his divination of a new period? How shall we estimate the permanent worth of his method, the residuum of value in his maxims?
After finishing the Principe, Machiavelli thought of dedicating it to one of the Medicean princes, with the avowed hope that he might thereby regain their favour and find public employment. He wrote to Vettori on the subject, and Giuliano de’ Medici, duke of Nemours, seemed to him the proper person. The choice was reasonable. No sooner had Leo been made pope than he formed schemes for the aggrandizement of his family. Giuliano was offered and refused the duchy of Urbino. Later on, Leo designed for him a duchy in Emilia, to be cemented out of Parma, Piacenza, Reggio and Modena. Supported by the power of the papacy, with the goodwill of Florence to back him, Giuliano would have found himself in a position somewhat better than that of Cesare Borgia; and Borgia’s creation of the duchy of Romagna might have served as his model. Machiavelli therefore was justified in feeling that here was an opportunity for putting his cherished schemes in practice, and that a prince with such alliances might even advance to the grand end of the unification of Italy. Giuliano, however, died in 1506. Then Machiavelli turned his thoughts towards Lorenzo, duke of Urbino. The choice of this man as a possible Italian liberator reminds us of the choice of Don Micheletto as general of the Florentine militia. To Lorenzo the Principe was dedicated, but without result. The Medici, as yet at all events, could not employ Machiavelli, and had not in themselves the stuff to found Italian kingdoms.Machiavelli, meanwhile, was reading his Discorsi to a select audience in the Rucellai gardens, fanning that republican enthusiasm which never lay long dormant among the Florentines. Towards the year 1519 both Leo X. and his cousin, the cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, were much perplexed about the management of the republic. It seemed necessary, if possible, in the gradual extinction of their family to give the city at least a semblance of self-government. They applied to several celebrated politicians, among others to Machiavelli, for advice in the emergency. The result was a treatise in which he deduced practical conclusions from the past history and present temper of the city, blending these with his favourite principles of government in general. He earnestly admonished Leo, for his own sake and for Florence, to found a permanent and free state system for the republic, reminding him in terms of noble eloquence how splendid is the glory of the man who shall confer such benefits upon a people. The year 1520 saw the composition of the Arte della guerra and the Vita di Castruccio.
The first of these is a methodical treatise, setting forth Machiavelli’s views on military matters, digesting his theories respecting the superiority of national troops, the inefficiency of fortresses, the necessity of relying upon infantry in war, and the comparative insignificance of artillery. It is strongly coloured with his enthusiasm for ancient Rome; and specially upon the topic of artillery it displays a want of insight into the actualities of modern warfare. We may regard it as a supplement or appendix to the Principe and the Discorsi, since Machiavelli held it for a fundamental axiom that states are powerless unless completely armed in permanence. The peroration contains a noble appeal to the Italian liberator of his dreams, and a parallel from Macedonian history, which, read by the light of this century, sounds like a prophecy of Piedmont.
The Vita di Castruccio was composed at Lucca, whither Machiavelli had been sent on a mission. This so-called biography of the medieval adventurer who raised himself by personal ability and military skill to the tyranny of several Tuscan cities must be regarded in the light of an historical romance. Dealing freely with the outline of Castruccio’s career, as he had previously dealt with Cesare Borgia, he sketched his own ideal of the successful prince. Cesare Borgia had entered into the Principe as a representative figure rather than an actual personage; so now conversely the theories of the Principe assumed the outward form and semblance of Castruccio. In each case history is blent with speculation in nearly the same proportions. But Castruccio, being farther from the writer’s own experience, bears weaker traits of personality.
In the same year, 1520, Machiavelli, at the instance of the cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, received commission from the officers of the Studio pubblico to write a history of Florence. They agreed to pay him an annual allowance of 100 florins while engaged upon the work. The next six years were partly employed in its composition, and he left a portion of it finished, with a dedication to Clement VII., when he died in 1527. In the Historie fiorentine Machiavelli quitted the field of political speculation for that of history. But, having already written the Discorsi and the Principe, he carried with him to this new task of historiography the habit of mind proper to political philosophy. In his hands the history of Florence became a text on which at fitting seasons to deliver lessons in the science he initiated. This gives the work its special character. It is not so much a chronicle of Florentine affairs, from the commencement of modern history to the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici in 1492, as a critique of that chronicle from the point of view adopted by Machiavelli in his former writings. Having condensed his doctrines in the Principe and the Discorsi, he applies their abstract principles to the example of the Florentine republic. But the History of Florence is not a mere political pamphlet. It is the first example in Italian literature of a national biography, the first attempt in any literature to trace the vicissitudes of a people’s life in their logical sequence, deducing each successive phase from passions or necessities inherent in preceding circumstances, reasoning upon them from general principles, and inferring corollaries for the conduct of the future. In point of form the Florentine History is modelled upon Livy. It contains speeches in the antique manner, which may be taken partly as embodying the author’s commentary upon situations of importance, partly as expressing what he thought dramatically appropriate to prominent personages. The style of the whole book is nervous, vivid, free from artifice and rhetoric, obeying the writer’s thought with absolute plasticity. Machiavelli had formed for himself a prose style, equalled by no one but by Guicciardini in his minor works, which was far removed from the emptiness of the latinizing humanists and the trivialities of the Italian purists. Words in his hands have the substance, the self-evidence of things. It is an athlete’s style, all bone and sinew, nude, without superfluous flesh or ornament.
It would seem that from the date of Machiavelli’s discourse to Leo on the government of Florence the Medici had taken him into consideration. Writing to Vettori in 1513, he had expressed his eager wish to “roll stones” in their service; and this desire was now gratified. In 1521 he was sent to Carpi to transact a petty matter with the chapter of the Franciscans, the chief known result of the embassy being a burlesque correspondence with Francesco Guicciardini. Four years later, in 1525, he received a rather more important mission to Venice. But Machiavelli’s public career was virtually closed; and the interest of his biography still centres in his literary work. We have seen that already, in 1504, he had been engaged upon a comedy in the manner of Aristophanes, which is now unfortunately lost. A translation of the Andria and three original comedies from his pen are extant, the precise dates of which are uncertain, though the greatest of them was first printed at Rome in 1524. This is the Mandragola, which may be justly called the ripest and most powerful play in the Italian language.
The plot is both improbable and unpleasing. But literary criticism is merged in admiration of the wit, the humour, the vivacity, the satire of a piece which brings before us the old life of Florence in a succession of brilliant scenes. If Machiavelli had any moral object when he composed the Mandragola, it was to paint in glaring colours the corruption of Italian society. It shows how abold and plausible adventurer, aided by the profligacy of a parasite, the avarice and hypocrisy of a confessor, and a mother’s complaisant familiarity with vice, achieves the triumph of making a gulled husband bring his own unwilling but too yielding wife to shame. The whole comedy is a study of stupidity and baseness acted on by roguery. About the power with which this picture of domestic immorality is presented there can be no question. But the perusal of the piece obliges us to ask ourselves whether the author’s radical conception of human nature was not false. The same suspicion is forced upon us by the Principe. Did not Machiavelli leave good habit, as an essential ingredient of character, out of account? Men are not such absolute fools as Nicia, nor such compliant catspaws as Ligurio and Timoteo; women are not such weak instruments as Sostrata and Lucrezia. Somewhere, in actual life, the stress of craft and courage acting on the springs of human vice and weakness fails, unless the hero of the comedy or tragedy, Callimaco or Cesare, allows for the revolt of healthier instincts. Machiavelli does not seem to have calculated the force of this recoil. He speculates a world in which virtù, unscrupulous strength of character, shall deal successfully with frailty. This, we submit, was a deep-seated error in his theory of life, an error to which may be ascribed the numerous stumbling-blocks and rocks of offence in his more serious writings.
Some time after the Mandragola, he composed a second comedy, entitled Clizia, which is even homelier and closer to the life of Florence than its predecessor. It contains incomparable studies of the Florentine housewife and her husband, a grave business-like citizen, who falls into the senile folly of a base intrigue. There remains a short piece without title, the Commedia in prosa, which, if it be Machiavelli’s, as internal evidence of style sufficiently argues, might be accepted as a study for both the Clizia and the Mandragola. It seems written to expose the corruption of domestic life in Florence, and especially to satirize the friars in theirpart of go-betweens, tame cats, confessors and adulterers.
Of Machiavelli’s minor poems, sonnets, capitoli and carnival songs there is not much to say. Powerful as a comic playwright, he was not a poet in the proper sense of the term. The little novel of Belfagor claims a passing word, if only because of its celebrity. It is a good-humoured satire upon marriage, the devil being forced to admit that hell itself is preferable to his wife’s company. That Machiavelli invented it to express the irritation of his own domestic life is a myth without foundation. The story has a medieval origin, and it was almost simultaneously treated in Italian by Machiavelli, Straparola and Giovanni Brevio.
In the spring of 1526 Machiavelli was employed by Clement VII. to inspect the fortifications of Florence. He presented a report upon the subject, and in the summer of the same year received orders to attend Francesco Guicciardini, the pope’s commissary of war in Lombardy. Guicciardini sent him in August to Cremona, to transact business with the Venetian provveditori. Later on in the autumn we find him once more with Guicciardini at Bologna. Thus the two great Italian historians of the 16th century, who had been friends for several years, were brought into relations of close intimacy.
After another visit to Guicciardini in the spring of 1527, Machiavelli was sent by him to Civita Vecchia. It seemed that he was destined to be associated in the papal service with Clement’s viceroy, and that a new period of diplomatic employment was opening for him. But soon after his return to Florence he fell ill. His son Piero said that he took medicine on the 20th of June which disagreed with him; and on the 22nd he died, having received the last offices of the Church.
There is no foundation for the legend that he expired with profane sarcasms upon his lips. Yet we need not run into the opposite extreme, and try to fancy that Machiavelli, who had professed Paganism in his life, proved himself a believing Christian on his deathbed. That he left an unfavourable opinion among his fellow citizens is very decidedly recorded by the historian Varchi. The Principe, it seems, had already begun to prejudice the world against him; and we can readily believe that Varchi sententiously observes, that “it would have been better for him if nature had given him either a less powerful intellect or a mind of a more genial temper.” There is in truth a something crude, unsympathetic, cynical in his mental attitude toward human nature, for which, even after the lapse of more than three centuries, we find it difficult to make allowance. The force of his intellect renders this want of geniality repulsive. We cannot help objecting that one who was so powerful could have been kindlier and sounder if he willed. We therefore do him the injustice of mistaking his infirmity for perversity. He was colour-blind to commonplace morality; and we are angry with him because he merged the hues of ethics in one grey monotone of politics.
In person Machiavelli was of middle height, black-haired, with rather a small head, very bright eyes and slightly aquiline nose. His thin, close lips often broke into a smile of sarcasm. His activity was almost feverish. When unemployed in work or study he was not averse to the society of boon companions, gave himself readily to transient amours, and corresponded in a tone of cynical bad taste. At the same time he lived on terms of intimacy with worthy men. Varchi says that “in his conversation he was pleasant, obliging to his intimates, the friend of virtuous persons.” Those who care to understand the contradictions of which such a character was capable should study his correspondence with Vettori. It would be unfair to charge what is repulsive in their letters wholly on the habits of the times, for wide familiarity with the published correspondence of similar men at the same epoch brings one acquainted with little that is so disagreeable. (J. A. S.)
Among the many editions of Machiavelli’s works the one in 8 vols., dated Italia, 1813, may be mentioned, and the more comprehensive ones published by A. Parenti (Florence, 1843) and by A. Usigli (Florence, 1857). P. Fanfani and L. Passerini began another, which promised to be the most complete of all; but only 6 vols. were published (Florence, 1873–1877); the work contains many new and important documents on Machiavelli’s life. The best biography is the standard work of Pasquale Villari, La Storia di Niccolò Machiavelli e de’ suoi tempi (Florence, 1877–1882; latest ed., 1895; Eng. trans. by Linda Villari, London, 1892); in vol. ii. there is an exhaustive criticism of the various authors who have written on Machiavelli. See also T. Mundt, Niccolò Machiavelli und das System der modernen Politik (3rd ed., Berlin, 1867); E. Feuerlein, “Zur Machiavelli-Frage” in H. von Sybel’s Histor. Zeitschrift (Munich, 1868); P. S. Mancini, Prelezioni con un saggio sul Machiavelli; F. Nitti, Machiavelli nella vita e nelle opere (Naples, 1876); O. Tomasini, La Vita e gli scritti di Niccolò Machiavelli (Turin, 1883); L. A. Burd, Il Principe, by Niccolò Machiavelli (Oxford, 1891); Lord Morley, Machiavelli (Romanes lecture, Oxford, 1897). The Cambridge Modern History, vol. i. (Cambridge, 1903), contains an essay on Machiavelli by L. A. Burd, with a very full biography.