History of Florence by Niccolo Machiavelli




Introduction by
Professor of Romanic Languages and Literature,
University of Pennsylvania.


Niccolo Machiavelli, the first great Italian historian, and one of the
most eminent political writers of any age or country, was born at
Florence, May 3, 1469. He was of an old though not wealthy Tuscan
family, his father, who was a jurist, dying when Niccolo was sixteen
years old. We know nothing of Machiavelli's youth and little about his
studies. He does not seem to have received the usual humanistic
education of his time, as he knew no Greek.[*] The first notice of
Machiavelli is in 1498 when we find him holding the office of
Secretary in the second Chancery of the Signoria, which office he
retained till the downfall of the Florentine Republic in 1512. His
unusual ability was soon recognized, and in 1500 he was sent on a
mission to Louis XII. of France, and afterward on an embassy to Cæsar
Borgia, the lord of Romagna, at Urbino. Machiavelli's report and
description of this and subsequent embassies to this prince, shows his
undisguised admiration for the courage and cunning of Cæsar, who was a
master in the application of the principles afterwards exposed in such
a skillful and uncompromising manner by Machiavelli in his /Prince/.

The limits of this introduction will not permit us to follow with any
detail the many important duties with which he was charged by his
native state, all of which he fulfilled with the utmost fidelity and
with consummate skill. When, after the battle of Ravenna in 1512 the
holy league determined upon the downfall of Pier Soderini,
Gonfaloniere of the Florentine Republic, and the restoration of the
Medici, the efforts of Machiavelli, who was an ardent republican, were
in vain; the troops he had helped to organize fled before the
Spaniards and the Medici were returned to power. Machiavelli attempted
to conciliate his new masters, but he was deprived of his office, and
being accused in the following year of participation in the conspiracy
of Boccoli and Capponi, he was imprisoned and tortured, though
afterward set at liberty by Pope Leo X. He now retired to a small
estate near San Casciano, seven miles from Florence. Here he devoted
himself to political and historical studies, and though apparently
retired from public life, his letters show the deep and passionate
interest he took in the political vicissitudes through which Italy was
then passing, and in all of which the singleness of purpose with which
he continued to advance his native Florence, is clearly manifested. It
was during his retirement upon his little estate at San Casciano that
Machiavelli wrote /The Prince/, the most famous of all his writings,
and here also he had begun a much more extensive work, his /Discourses
on the Decades of Livy/, which continued to occupy him for several
years. These /Discourses/, which do not form a continuous commentary
on Livy, give Machiavelli an opportunity to express his own views on
the government of the state, a task for which his long and varied
political experience, and an assiduous study of the ancients rendered
him eminently qualified. The /Discourses/ and /The Prince/, written at
the same time, supplement each other and are really one work. Indeed,
the treatise, /The Art of War/, though not written till 1520 should be
mentioned here because of its intimate connection with these two
treatises, it being, in fact, a further development of some of the
thoughts expressed in the /Discorsi/. /The Prince/, a short work,
divided into twenty-six books, is the best known of all Machiavelli's
writings. Herein he expresses in his own masterly way his views on the
founding of a new state, taking for his type and model Cæsar Borgia,
although the latter had failed in his schemes for the consolidation of
his power in the Romagna. The principles here laid down were the
natural outgrowth of the confused political conditions of his time.
And as in the /Principe/, as its name indicates, Machiavelli is
concerned chiefly with the government of a Prince, so the /Discorsi/
treat principally of the Republic, and here Machiavelli's model
republic was the Roman commonwealth, the most successful and most
enduring example of popular government. Free Rome is the embodiment of
his political idea of the state. Much that Machiavelli says in this
treatise is as true to-day and holds as good as the day it was
written. And to us there is much that is of especial importance. To
select a chapter almost at random, let us take Book I., Chap. XV.:
"Public affairs are easily managed in a city where the body of the
people is not corrupt; and where equality exists, there no
principality can be established; nor can a republic be established
where there is no equality."

No man has been more harshly judged than Machiavelli, especially in
the two centuries following his death. But he has since found many
able champions and the tide has turned. /The Prince/ has been termed a
manual for tyrants, the effect of which has been most pernicious. But
were Machiavelli's doctrines really new? Did he discover them? He
merely had the candor and courage to write down what everybody was
thinking and what everybody knew. He merely gives us the impressions
he had received from a long and intimate intercourse with princes and
the affairs of state. It was Lord Bacon, I believe, who said that
Machiavelli tells us what princes do, not what they ought to do. When
Machiavelli takes Cæsar Borgia as a model, he in nowise extols him as
a hero, but merely as a prince who was capable of attaining the end in
view. The life of the State was the primary object. It must be
maintained. And Machiavelli has laid down the principles, based upon
his study and wide experience, by which this may be accomplished. He
wrote from the view-point of the politician,--not of the moralist.
What is good politics may be bad morals, and in fact, by a strange
fatality, where morals and politics clash, the latter generally gets
the upper hand. And will anyone contend that the principles set forth
by Machiavelli in his /Prince/ or his /Discourses/ have entirely
perished from the earth? Has diplomacy been entirely stripped of fraud
and duplicity? Let anyone read the famous eighteenth chapter of /The
Prince/: "In what Manner Princes should keep their Faith," and he will
be convinced that what was true nearly four hundred years ago, is
quite as true to-day.

Of the remaining works of Machiavelli the most important is the
/History of Florence/ written between 1521 and 1525, and dedicated to
Clement VII. The first book is merely a rapid review of the Middle
Ages, the history of Florence beginning with Book II. Machiavelli's
method has been censured for adhering at times too closely to the
chroniclers like Villani, Cambi, and Giovanni Cavalcanti, and at
others rejecting their testimony without apparent reason, while in its
details the authority of his /History/ is often questionable. It is
the straightforward, logical narrative, which always holds the
interest of the reader that is the greatest charm of the /History/.
Of the other works of Machiavelli we may mention here his comedies the
/Mandragola/ and /Clizia/, and his novel /Belfagor/.

After the downfall of the Republic and Machiavelli's release from
prison in 1513, fortune seems never again to have favoured him. It is
true that in 1520 Giuliano de' Medici commissioned him to write his
/History of Florence/, and he afterwards held a number of offices, yet
these latter were entirely beneath his merits. He had been married in
1502 to Marietta Corsini, who bore him four sons and a daughter. He
died on June 22, 1527, leaving his family in the greatest poverty, a
sterling tribute to his honesty, when one considers the many
opportunities he doubtless had to enrich himself. Machiavelli's life
was not without blemish--few lives are. We must bear in mind the
atmosphere of craft, hypocrisy, and poison in which he lived,--his was
the age of Cæsar Borgia and of Popes like the monster Alexander VI.
and Julius II. Whatever his faults may have been, Machiavelli was
always an ardent patriot and an earnest supporter of popular
government. It is true that he was willing to accept a prince, if one
could be found courageous enough and prudent enough to unite
dismembered Italy, for in the unity of his native land he saw the only
hope of its salvation.

Machiavelli is buried in the church of Santa Croce at Florence, beside
the tomb of Michael Angelo. His monument bears this inscription:

"Tanto nomini nullum par eulogium."

And though this praise is doubtless exaggerated, he is a son of whom
his country may be justly proud.

Hugo Albert Rennert.

[*] Villari, /Niccolo Machiavelli e i suoi tempi/, 2d ed. Milan,
1895-97, the best work on the subject. The most complete
bibliography of Machiavelli up to 1858 is to be found in Mohl,
/Gesch. u. Liter. der Staatswissenshaften/, Erlangen, 1855, III.,
521-91. See also /La Vita e gli scritti di Niccolo Machiavelli
nella loro Relazione col Machiavellismo/, by O. Tommasini, Turin,
1883 (unfinished).

The best English translation of Machiavelli with which I am
acquainted is: The Historical, Political, and Diplomatic writings
of Niccolo Machiavelli, translated by Christian E. Detmold. Osgood
& Co., Boston, 1882, 4 vols. 8vo.
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