A History of Italian Literature/Chapter XII

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We have now traversed nearly three centuries of Italian literature without encountering one really great prose-writer, Boccaccio only excepted. Unquestionably the development of Italian prose was retarded by the cultivation of Latin, which deprived it of ornaments in Petrarch, Pontano, and Æneas Sylvius—to say nothing of the buried talent which the example of such writers would have called into activity. With every allowance on these accounts, it is still remarkable how generally the path of the historian of early Italian literature lies amid the flowers of poetry and fiction. But the time had now come when, as in Greece, the national genius was about to assert itself in prose, and, also as in Greece, the movement was heralded by historians. After a long interval, due to the exclusive cultivation of ancient models, thef Italian Herodotus, Giovanni Villani, was to be followed by two men who might dispute the character of the Italian Thucydides, who at all events belonged to that invaluable class of historians who, like Thucydides, Polybius, and Procopius, are statesmen too, and participators in the events of which they are the narrators and the judges. This advantage was possessed in an eminent degree by Francesco Guicciardini, the historian of contemporary times; and though Niccolo Machiavelli did not write his principal work as a contemporary, his knowledge of the Florentine constitution was so intimate as almost to invest him with the authority of an eye-witness of the Florentine revolutions of the past.

Niccolò Machiavelli, the first Italian and almost the first modern to display eminent genius as an historical and political writer, was born at Florence, May 3, 1469. His family had been illustrious for public services; his father, whom he lost at sixteen, was a jurist; his mother was a poetess. Little is known of his life until we find him in 1494 secretary to Marcello Virgilio, a learned man who four years afterwards became head of the chancery of the Republic, a post somewhat resembling Milton's Latin Secretaryship under the Commonwealth, but allowing more active participation in the business of diplomacy. Machiavelli rose along with his patron, and in 1500 was entrusted with a mission to France. In the following year he had a more arduous part to play as envoy to Caesar Borgia, then consolidating his power in the Romagna, but for the moment pressed with great difficulties. Machiavelli's reports of his mission have been preserved, and attest the impression made upon him by Caesar's supremacy in ability and villainy, which continued to fascinate him when years afterwards he composed his manual of political statecraft.

Judged in the sinister light which his writings have seemed to throw back upon his actions, he has been accused of having counselled and devised the coup by which Caesar destroyed his treacherous condottieri at Sinigaglia, as if the Borgia needed any tuition for an exploit of this nature. He is also censured for recording it without disapproval; but if Caesar had never done anything worse than rid the Romagna of its vermin, history would not be severe with him. Two years later, employed upon a mission to Rome, he beheld Caesar's fall, and the elevation of Pope Julius, whom he accompanied on yet another mission to the conquest of Bologna. He was also despatched about this time on embassies to Germany and France, and his observations on the circumstances and characteristics of both nations exhibit great sagacity. Soon afterwards the affairs of the Republic became troubled, hemmed in as she was between the transalpine powers and the Pope and the exiled Medici. Machiavelli was actively engaged in organising her military resources, but his efforts were fruitless. The restoration of the Medici was effected in September 1512. Machiavelli lost his employments, and soon afterwards, upon suspicion of participation in a conspiracy, was thrown into prison, tortured, and owed his deliverance to an amnesty granted as an act of grace by the Medicean Pope Leo upon his election in 1513.

He retired to a small estate, where, as he tells us in a most interesting letter which has reached our times, he consoled himself with the study of the ancients, familiar intercourse with his rustic neighbours, and the composition of his Prince. The chief purpose of this famous work certainly was not to recommend himself to the Medici, but he would willingly have made it subservient to that end. They neglected him, however, until 1519, when Cardinal Medici, afterwards Pope Clement VII., called upon him for a memoir on the best method of administering the Florentine government, in which Machiavelli showed much dexterity in reconciling the interests of the house of Medici with the interests of his country. His advice was not followed; but the Cardinal commissioned him to write the history of Florence. He had previously employed his leisure in the production of his memorable discourses on Livy, his comedy the Mandragola, and his life of Castruccio Castracani. In 1527 he was employed in fortifying Florence against an apprehended attack of the Imperial army, which fell upon Rome, and he afterwards accompanied the forces sent to make a show of delivering the Pope. During his absence the Medicean government was overthrown, an event highly agreeable to his secret wishes; but his compliances had rendered him odious to the patriotic party, and he returned to his native city to find himself the object of general aversion and suspicion. His mortification probably hastened his death, which took place on June 21, 1527.

Of all Machiavelli's writings the Prince is the most famous, and deservedly, for it is the most characteristic. Few subjects of literary discussion have occasioned more controversy than the purpose of this celebrated book. Some have beheld in it a manual for tyrants, like the memoirs of Tiberius, so diligently perused by Domitian; others have regarded it as a refined irony upon tyranny, on the sarcastic plan of Swift's Directions to Servants, if so humble an analogy be permissible. From various points of view it might alternately pass for either, but its purpose is accurately conveyed by neither interpretation. Machiavelli was a sincere though too supple a republican, and by no means desired the universal prevalence of tyranny throughout Italy. If he had written with the sole view of ingratiating himself with the Medici—probably in fact a subordinate motive with him, and the rather as there actually was a project for investing Giuliano de' Medici with the sovereignty of the Romagna, the theatre of Caesar Borgia's exploits—he would have been much more earnest in pressing it upon their attention. If, on the other hand, satire had been his chief object, this would have been more mordant and poignant; his power of contemptuous irony is only revealed in the short chapter on the Papal monarchy. His aim probably was to show how to build up a principality capable of expelling the foreigner and restoring the independence of Italy. But this intention could not be safely expressed, and hence his work seems repulsive, because the reason of state which he propounds as an apology for infringing the moral code appears not patriotic, but purely selfish.

In our day we have seen Italian independence won by appeals to the patriotism of the nation at large. This was impossible in Machiavelli's time; nor, had it been otherwise, would his lips have been touched with the live coal of a Mazzini. He could only speak as a politician to politicians, and addressing himself as it were to a body of scientific experts, he designedly excludes all considerations of morality. His treatise appears antiquated in our day, when the national conscience is as easily manipulated as the conscience of the individual; in oligarchical ages it passed not unreasonably for a perfect manual of statecraft, and exercised great influence upon the statesmen of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Frederick the Great assailed it vehemently in his youth, but lived to compliment it by what has been described as the sincerest form of flattery. In Frederick's century, when public affairs actually were in the hands of a few able rulers, it was worth attacking and defending; in the present democratic age, when a statesman who squared his conduct by its maxims would soon find himself the object of popular odium, its interest, except as regards its weighty plea for a popular army, is mainly historical and psychological. There is an intimate connection between the Prince and the seven books on the Art of War, written about 1520. In the Prince Machiavelli insists particularly upon the part which the habit of relying upon treacherous and mutinous mercenaries, and the consequent decay of public spirit among the citizens, had had in bringing about the ruin of the Italian states. In the Art of War he shows how the citizen army he recommends is to be organised and led in battles and sieges. His experience of military affairs as an eye-witness, as well as an administrator, had been considerable, and he is by no means to be slighted as a tactical writer; but the military art was on the eve of great changes, which rendered much of his wisdom obsolete.

The Discourses on Livy's Decades occupy a middle position between political and historical science. They are entirely grounded on the study of Livy; but their main importance consists not in the commentary upon the transactions Livy has related, but in the application of these to the general principles of politics and to the circumstances of the writer's own country. They may be defined as in some sort the Prince rewritten on a larger scale, and copiously illustrated by historical examples; but the effect is much more pleasing. In the other book Machiavelli appears as the mere scientific analyst of politics, and his real purpose might be reasonably questioned; but the Discourses leave no doubt of his genuine patriotism and of his preference of morality to obliquity, except where, as it seems to him, the interest of the state interferes. The problem of the permissibility of an act reprehensible in the abstract, but required by the safety of the state—as, for example, Mohammed Ali's massacre of the Mamelukes—is a very difficult one, and Machiavelli cannot be fairly judged from the standpoint of the nineteenth century. He had not seen the trial and failure of his ideal prince on a colossal scale in the person of Napoleon. It was a cardinal error of his to deny a capacity of improvement to human nature and to assume that mankind would be essentially the same in all ages. We see, on the contrary, that the general standard of righteousness has been greatly raised since his time; and that, even if this were not so, the conditions of modern society are adverse to Machiavellian policy: to import this perception, however, into the criticism of his work would be but to reverse his own mistake. Many other criticisms might be addressed to him: he did not, for example, foresee that another set of patriots, from their own point of view, might arise, whose conception of the summum bonum in polity would be entirely different from his own; and that within a few years his maxims might serve as an arsenal for the Jesuits, whose objects would have been his utter abomination. With all his faults and oversights, nothing can deprive Machiavelli of the glory of having been the modern Aristotle in politics, the first, or at least the first considerable writer who derived a practical philosophy from history, and exalted statecraft into science.

Machiavelli's History of Florence is not, like his Discourses, a work of profound thought, nor is it authoritative in any respect. It rather exhibits him as the elegant and accomplished man of letters, and is perhaps the first successful restoration of the classical style of history to a European vernacular. His great contemporary Guicciardini had indeed anticipated him with a fragment on the same subject, but this long remained unpublished, and it is not likely that Machiavelli ever saw it. Machiavelli has not delved deep for materials; much of the early part of his history is taken almost literally from Flavio Biondo and other predecessors. He has sometimes departed unjustifiably from strict matter of fact, not by invention or serious misrepresentation, but by accentuating and slightly modifying actual incidents to give them the particular colour he desires. In the main, however, his work is a faithful as well as an animated picture of the public life of a community in its characteristics more nearly akin to the ancient commonwealth of Athens than any the earth has seen since this disappeared from her face. The quality which will preserve even a bad history, and without which a good one will only live as a book of reference, is never absent from Machiavelli's—he entertains while he instructs. His work, which was composed after 1520 by order of Cardinal Giulio de' Medici, is divided into eight books, and extends from the beginning of Florentine history to the death of Lorenzo de' Medici in 1492. The intimate connection of Florence with the general course of Italian politics leads to frequent digressions and copious notices of neighbouring states. Another historical work of Machiavelli's, the Life of Castruccio Castracani, Prince of Lucca in the fourteenth century, is little more than a romance, in which he has endeavoured to depict the ideal soldier and statesman.

Machiavelli's plays and poems will be noticed elsewhere. They in no respect detract from his reputation. He came nearer than any contemporary, except Leonardo da Vinci, to approving himself a universal genius. No man of his time stands higher intellectually, and his want of moral elevation is largely redeemed by his ample endowment with the one virtue chiefly needful to an Italian in his day, but of which too many Italians were destitute—patriotism.

Patriotism cannot be denied to Machiavelli's great counterpart, Francesco Guicciardini, and if it seems colder and more stained by unworthy subserviency and political cynicism, it must be remembered that these defects are the defects of the qualities in which Guicciardini surpassed his rival. Machiavelli was a genius of the creative order, and hence, with all his astuteness, occasionally somewhat Utopian; his life was free, and his muse licentious. Guicciardini had a great practical genius, infallible within a narrow sphere. He does not invent or generalise; his wisdom comes mainly by experience, and he accepts things for what they are. "His originality," says Signor Villari, "though doubtless considerable, was devoted to giving an exact and most lucid shape to the current doctrines of his day." "A sound judgment," he himself says in his Ricordi, "is better than a pregnant wit." He is correct in all the relations of life, and has not the least turn for writing comedies. Machiavelli, after all his experiences, still hopes like an enchanted maiden for the ideal prince. Guicciardini knows that there is none such, and that, even if there were, the barbarians would be too strong for him. He coldly accepts the situation and hires himself out to a bad Government, with this redeemng quality, that it is still a Government of Italians by Italians. It may be said that Machiavelli was willing to enter the service of the Medici, and such is the fact; but Florence had owed glorious days to Cosmo and Lorenzo, and Machiavelli could never have thought or written of them as Guicciardini did of his Papal employers:

"No one can have a stronger detestation than mine for the avarice, ambition, and sloth of the priesthood. Nevertheless, the position I have always held with several pontiffs has compelled me to love them, for mine own advantage; and but for this consideration I should have loved Martin Luther as myself, not for the purpose of freeing myself from the laws introduced by the Christian religion, as it is generally interpreted and understood, but in order to see this herd of wretches reduced to their proper condition, namely, that of their being left either without vices or without authority."

It had not always been so. The Papal satellite had been a trusted envoy of the Florentine Government. Born in 1483, he had studied law at Ferrara and Padua, become an advocate on his return to Florence, married advantageously, and in 1512 discharged a mission to Spain, where he graduated in diplomacy under the eye of the most crafty and faithless prince of the Age of Perfidy, Ferdinand the Catholic. The revolution which restored the Medici occurred in his absence. He accepted the situation, but instead of serving the Government at home, passed into the employment of the Medicean Pope, Leo X., to whom he must have been highly recommended, for he immediately received the government of Modena, Reggio, and Parma, recently added to the states of the Church, in which he showed the utmost energy and sagacity in suppressing malefactors and preserving order. From 1524 to 1527 he was President of the Romagna, and until 1534, when he retired from the Pope's service, Governor of Bologna, and all evidence goes to show that the Papal power was never more faithfully served than by the man who held it in such abhorrence. He cannot be acquitted of having favoured the overthrow of Florentine liberty in 1530, and is accused of acts of cupidity and vengeance which do not seem in harmony with his general character. He returned to his native city in 1534, hoping to play an important part under the restored dynasty; but the youthful Duke Cosmo, who needed no tutor in the arts of intrigue and dissimulation, gently thrust him aside, and the disappointed politician solaced his latter years with the composition of his history. Six years of literary leisure gave him a renown which his twenty years of active concern with the world's business would never have procured him. He died in 1540, leaving his history still in want of the last touches.

It is, nevertheless, the leading fault of this very great book to have had too many touches already. Guicciardini, like Gibbon, thought much of his dignity, and assumed his historical as poets are said to assume their singing robes. He dropped the easy and vigorous style in which his fragment upon Florentine history had been composed in his youth, and wrote in a dignified and ambitious manner for which nature did not qualify him. Hence he is tedious, and the impression of tameness is enhanced by the unsatisfactory character of the incidents narrated, and the author's general deficiency in enthusiasm. With all these defects it is still one of the most valuable histories ever written. It might be entitled the History of the Decline and Fall of Italy, from the French invasion in 1494. For us the sadness of the picture is relieved by our knowledge of the splendour of literature and art in an age of complete dissolution of the body politic; but these redeeming circumstances do not enter into Guicciardini's view: he can only write as Polybius wrote of the downfall of Greece. He has much in common with this historian: both men of affairs; both largely concerned with the events they describe; both embittered by public calamities and contemptuous of the capacity of their countrymen; both patriotic children of a ruined state, while compelled, and not wholly averse, to adopt intimate association with the conqueror; neither of them the master of a good style, but compensating this defect by good sense and the invaluable political lessons they derive from the transactions they record.

Another statesman-historian, Ranke, has brought heavy charges against Guicciardini, both of plagiarism and of wilful manipulation of facts, but he seems to have been successfully answered by Signor Villari in his Life of Machiavelli. Villari, who has had access to the archives of Guicciardini's family, is able to show the extent to which he availed himself of MS. materials, and his care in working them up into his history. Many of his statements which have since been shown to be erroneous, were in conformity with the general belief of his time.

Guicciardini's literary glory was enhanced, though his moral character suffered some injury, by the publication of his inedited writings in ten volumes in 1857 and following years. These include, with other important matter, the fragment of Florentine history to which reference has been made; his official correspondence as diplomatist and governor, full of historical information and practical sagacity; the considerations on Machiavelli, his friend and fellow-expert in politics, characteristic of the natures of the two men, so eminent respectively in theory and in practice; the Dialogue on the Government of Florence, avowing this ostensible partisan of the Medici's secret preference for a republic, though an oligarchical one; most important of all, the Ricordi politici e civili, maxims and memoranda of a statesman. These are purely aphoristic, without system or unity beyond that which they necessarily derive from the constitution of the mind upon which they have been impressed by experience and reflection.

"He fully understood," says Villari, "that by this plan his counsels and political maxims became nothing more than simple observations, palliatives and tricks for the wiser or less wise guidance of the social machine, apart from all radical reform or the creation of any new system of political science or moral philosophy, and still less of any new state or new people. But he neither hoped nor desired to entertain hopes of so lofty a nature. System he did not seek, daring hypotheses were not to his taste; he merely gathered the fruit of his own and others' daily experience." In a word, Guicciardini was a realist; Machiavelli, for all his worldly wisdom, an idealist. As the Bishop of London has remarked: "It is the weakness of Machiavelli's political method that, while professing to deal with politics in a practical spirit, he is not practical enough." It would seem Guicciardini's chief fault to have taken too limited a view of human affairs, and to have judged too exclusively from what was happening in his own corner. The imperfection of historical materials, however, rendered any attempt at a philosophy of history extremely difficult, and Guicciardini's time was too much occupied by administrative labours for profound investigation. Notwithstanding his opportunism and political pessimism, he had an ideal, and he tells us plainly what it was:

"I desire to see three things before my death—but I doubt I may live long enough without seeing any of them—a well-ordered republican mode of life in our own city, the deliverance of Italy from all barbarians, and the world freed from the tyranny of these execrable priests."

The mutability of the world might almost seem to justify Guicciardini's hand-to-mouth method of getting through it. We have seen Petrarch two centuries earlier calling for the Pope's return to Rome as the panacea for all the ills of Italy. Guicciardini would have sided with him in that age; in his own the same genius of liberty which spoke by Petrarch's mouth to demand the Pope's restoration speaks by his to demand the Pope's expulsion. It was not given to him to see the great value in evil times of the temporal power—in good times monstrous—as an asylum for what little of independence could still subsist in Italy, and a testimony, however feeble, to a moral and spiritual unity destined to develop into a national unity. But against the Papal sway on its own merits, apart from the accidental circumstances of the time, Guicciardini and Machiavelli prophesy like the two witnesses of the Apocalypse.

This work was published before January 1, 1925, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.