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Machiavelli, Niccolo (1469-1527)

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Source: The editor's introduction to The Historical, Political, and Diplomatic Writings of Niccolo Machiavelli, tr. from the Italian, by Christian E. Detmold (Boston, J. R. Osgood and company, 1882). Vol. 1. History of Florence.


The following sketch of the life of Machiavelli is, so far as the facts are concerned, translated almost verbatim from Luigi Passerini’s article on Machiavelli, prefatory to the edition of his works by L. Passerini and G. Milanesi; that being the most concise and correct of the many biographies of the Florentine Secretary, and supported throughout by official documents.

The origin of the Machiavelli family dates from the old Marquis Hugo of Tuscany, who flourished in the middle of the ninth century. The family were lords proprietors of Monte Spertoli, in the Val di Pesa; but desirous of enjoying the right of citizenship of Florence, they moved into the city and established themselves in the quarter of Oltr’ Arno. They became attached to the Guelf party, and a number of the ancestors of Niccolo were honored with the highest dignities in the government. Bernardo, the father of Niccolo, was a respectable jurisconsult, or, as it was then termed, judge, and treasurer of the Marches of Ancona. He had married Bartolomea Nelli, widow of Niccolo Benozzi, who was of an equally distinguished family, tracing their origin back to the old Counts of Borgo Nuovo di Fuecchio, known before the ninth century; and a number of the members of this family had also enjoyed the honors of some of the most important offices in the government of Florence. With all this the family were poor, receiving but a very scanty income from their landed possessions, and having to depend almost entirely upon the modest compensation which Bernardo derived from his profession.

Niccolo Machiavelli was born on the 3d of May, 1469; little or nothing is known of his early years, or who directed his first studies, though there is reason to believe that it was his mother, who was a great lover of poetry and had herself written some religious verses. Being desirous of devoting himself to the service of the government, he was placed about the year 1494 under the direction of Marcello Virgilio Adriani, in the Second Chancellery, whose business was mainly with the ambassadors and with all matters concerning war. It is probable that by way of beginning his political career he chose a moment when, in consequence of the expulsion of Piero de’ Medici, there was an entire reform of the institutions of the republic, by establishing them upon a wider and more democratic basis. Fra Girolamo Savonarola had at that time a large share in the affairs of the government; but it cannot be truly said that Machiavelli was indebted to him for his admission to the public service, as has been asserted by some, misled probably by another of the family bearing the same name, and who was amongst the warmest supporters of Savonarola’s faction, whilst the writings of our Niccolo show clearly that he was neither friend nor admirer of the terrible Dominican.

Machiavelli very soon gave proof of superior ability in the career which he had chosen; so that when the post of Secretary became vacant, in 1498, it was given to him by a decree of the Major Council on the 19th of June, 1498, although very able men, and more advanced in years than he, competed for the place. Amongst these was Francesco Baroni, who had but lately rendered valuable service to the state in the trial of Fra Girolamo Savonarola.

Machiavelli had scarcely held the office a few weeks, when, by another resolution of the Signoria, he was on the 14th of July chosen Secretary of the Ten of Liberty; at all times a most important office, inasmuch as he had to occupy himself with military matters, which had become much more important at that time, when Florence was engaged in war with Pisa for the purpose of bringing that revolted city back to her duty, and at the same time had to defend herself against the Venetians, who, at the instigation of the Medici, were moving against the Florentine republic. Although elected only for the month of August, Machiavelli remained nevertheless in charge for about fifteen years, an unquestionable proof that a person more capable of filling the post than he could not be found. And in fact the documents that remain to us of those times show the very large share he had in all the affairs of state, political as well as military; and the many records of external relations, as well as matters of war, written at the dictation of Niccolo Machiavelli, bear witness that nothing important was done whilst he was in office without his direction and counsel.

Besides the despatch of the ordinary business of his office, he was frequently employed by the Signoria, or more correctly speaking by the “Ten of Liberty and Peace,” to whom this business belonged, in missions of the greatest interest. The series of these missions begins in November, 1498, with that to the Lord of Piombino, at that time in the military service of the republic, to request him to join the Florentine forces before the walls of Pisa. He was sent to him a second time on the 24th of March, 1499, whilst Jacopo d’ Appiano was at Pontedera, to urge him to do his duty, and not to insist upon an increase of pay which he demanded. This mission was followed by another to the Lady Catharine Sforza Riario, at Furli, in July of the same year, in relation to the condotta of her son Ottaviano.

Machiavelli was several times sent as commissary to the army besieging Pisa, where he was exposed to very great fatigue and even danger of life. But in July, 1500, he was charged with the still more important duty of proceeding to the court of France, together with Francesco della Casa, ambassador to Louis XII., to explain to him the truth respecting the ill conduct of his troops, which he had sent against the Pisans at the request of the republic of Florence; and to vindicate the Florentine republic from the charges made by these rapacious mercenaries, for the purpose of exculpating themselves for their shameful conduct. Machiavelli, having been an eyewitness to the whole affair, was the soul of this embassy, from which he returned to Florence, after about six months’ absence, on the 14th of January, 1501, when he immediately resumed his old office in the Chancellery of the Ten of Liberty; but for a very short time only, as by the end of the same month he had to proceed to Pistoja, which was all in confusion in consequence of the feud between the parties of the Panteatichi and the Cancellieri. After this he had to proceed in the summer to Cascina and Sienna, on business relating to the Pisan war. In August he went again to Pistoja, where he succeeded in making the opposing factions swear to keep the peace; which, however, was but ephemeral, for a peace imposed by menaces is not durable. After a little while the parties resumed their arms, and blood flowed in the streets; so that it became necessary for Machiavelli to return there in October, in company with Niccolo Valori.

Between the months of May and October he went several times to Arezzo; also to Vitellozzo Vitelli, Condottiere of the Duke Valentino, who had instigated that city to revolt; and also to the Florentine commissaries who were with the French army. On his return he presented to the Signoria a communication “On the Manner in which the revolted Population of the Val di Chiana should be treated,” of which, however, only a fragment remains.

His mission to Cesare Borgia, whom he found at Imola in the early part of October, and whom he followed through the Romagna and Umbria until the 23d of January, 1503, is so well known as to make it unnecessary to enlarge upon its object here; particularly as it gave rise to Machiavelli’s well-known “Description of the Manner in which the Duke Valentino proceeded to kill Vitellozzo Vitelli, Oliverotto da Fermo, the Signor Paolo and the Duke Gravina Orsini.” The Duke of Romagna, believing that this act, which he regarded as necessary for his own defence, did not displease the Florentine republic, induced his father, Pope Alexander VI., to request the government of the republic to contract an alliance with the Borgia family. This caused Piero Soderini to send Machiavelli to Sienna as ambassador to Pandolfo Petrucci on the 26th of April, 1503, to inform him of the fact, and to invite him to make common cause with the Florentines. But whilst the negotiations were pending, Pope Alexander VI. died, and Machiavelli was sent to Volterra to concert measures with Cardinal Francesco Soderini respecting the election of a new Pope. He accompanied this prelate as far as Val d’ Arno, whilst on his way to Rome; and afterwards, on the 24th of October, he left himself for the Eternal City, where the conclave was assembled for the election of another new Pope in place of Pius III., who had died only twenty-six days after his election, and where Machiavelli remained until the 22d of December.

He was not permitted to enjoy a long repose, for on the 12th of January, 1504, we find him charged with a mission to Firenzuola; the object of which, however, is not known. A few days later he received instructions to proceed a second time to the court of France. He did not leave, however, until the 19th of January, and negotiated with King Louis XII. at Lyons, respecting the object of his mission; and on his return, which must have been near the close of February, he was glad to bring the Signoria the assurance that in the truce concluded between France and Spain it was stipulated that the republic of Florence should be comprised, and that the apprehensions excited by the success of the Spanish arms were groundless.

In April of the same year Machiavelli was at Piombino, with the apparent object of informing Jacopo IV. d’ Alviano, lord of the place, of certain dangers that threatened him, and to counsel him; but with the real purpose of ascertaining exactly his disposition, and to bring him back to his good faith to the republic. Having returned to Florence, he had barely time to lift his foot from the stirrup, when he had, on the 8th of the same month, to proceed to Castiglione del Lago, to urge Gianpaolo Baglioni, then in the pay of the republic, to perform his duty, and to take the field with his troops against the Pisans, which he refused to do on the ground of his having to guard himself against enemies whom he had in Perugia, and by whom his power was menaced. As Baglioni persisted in his refusal, Machiavelli went to Mantua to conclude a condotta with the Marquis Giovan Francesco to enter the service of the republic. But he failed in his efforts, owing to the immoderate demands of the Gonzaga. After that he was sent in July to Sienna, to thank Pandolfo Petrucci for the information which he had secretly given to the Signoria of the hostile intentions of Bartolommeo d’ Alviano, who was preparing to carry help to the Pisans, and to treat with Pandolfo about a condotta in the pay of the republic. But as the latter was cunningly playing a double part and contemplated treason, Machiavelli, who knew him well, and surpassed him in sagacity, drew from him the information which he wanted most; and then left him without concluding any engagement with him. Bartolommeo d’ Alviano actually started for Pisa; but at Torre San Vincenzo he encountered Antonio Giacomini, and was completely defeated by him, so that he had to take to flight.

The Florentines thought that the favorable moment had arrived for capturing the revolted city, and for that purpose the Ten sent the Secretary to the besieging army to concert measures for the attempt. He fulfilled his duty, but the enterprise failed in consequence of the cowardly conduct of the mercenary soldiers.

This experience completely satisfied Machiavelli how little reliance could be placed upon hireling troops, and how necessary it was for every state to have an army of its own. Having convinced the Ten of the advantage of enrolling the subjects of the republic, he was intrusted with the charge of making a beginning of the work, and from the month of December, 1505, until towards the end of March of the following year, Machiavelli devoted himself to this business; and we have accounts of his presence in the Val di Sieve, in the Mugello, and in the Casentino.

Interrupting at this point the course of his missions, it seems opportune here to show how, from the time that he assumed office, the great mind of the Secretary became convinced that the military system of the Italians was false; for it had undermined valor and discipline, and had made that beautiful country the easy prey of every foreign robber.

He perceived, therefore, that it would be necessary to abolish the system of mercenary troops, and to constitute a national army. But as it requires time to eradicate inveterate prejudices, which can only be done gradually, he began by inducing the Ten to order the enrolment of one man for every hearth in the Florentine dominions. The first step was taken in 1500; meantime, however, it was ordered that all the men capable of bearing arms, in every family, should be registered; and when the opportune moment seemed to him to have come, he succeeded in having an order passed by the Ten, that there should always be ten thousand men kept under arms under the banner of the Lily, and that that number should be made up by selecting the most suitable men from amongst those that were already inscribed, in proportion to the number of the population of the different places.

As the burden of the business relating to war was increased, Machiavelli began to influence public opinion upon this point by pronouncing, in March, 1503, a discourse in the General Council exhorting the people to arm themselves for their own defence, rather than resort to mercenary troops, and endeavoring to stir them up to make the necessary sacrifices for supplying the means for this purpose. Afterwards he presented a written communication to the Ten, the manuscript of which is amongst the treasures transferred from the Royal to the National Library, by which he succeeded in inducing them to intrust the organization of the army to a magistracy of nine citizens, to be appointed by them, who should be called the “Nine of Ordinance and Militia,” and should occupy themselves with the formation of the companies, the training and discipline of the soldiers, and should see that the prescribed number of men was always complete, armed, drilled, and ready to take the field; all other authority over the army, and the exclusive right to mobilize and send it into the field, remaining with the Ten. Machiavelli was secretary and the very soul of the magistracy of the Nine; and to him are due the celebrated decree of the 6th of December, 1506, by which this new magistracy was instituted, and the instructions for the infantry, as well as another decree of the 20th of March, 1512, which established the regulations for the mounted troops. With these institutions Machiavelli laid the foundation for the military system of the present time, and initiated that which was afterwards taken up by Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy, and was the glory of Piedmont, and later of Prussia, which imitated it, — making of the military profession a national institution, and not a trade. He introduced, moreover, a bold innovation in demonstrating the superiority of infantry over cavalry, which was highly praised by those contemporaries who were in position to appreciate its full importance. There exist several letters in the archives relating to it, amongst which are two full of patriotic enthusiasm, written by Cardinal Soderini in praise of this fact, — the one addressed to his brother Piero, and the other to Machiavelli.

In the autumn of 1504 Machiavelli wrote the Decennali in terza rima, and dedicated them to Alamanno Salviati; it is probable that he had the work printed about the end of that year, or in the beginning of the next, under the care of his colleague in the Chancellery, Ser Agostino di Matteo. The title of this extremely rare little volume is “Nicolai Malclavelli Florentini Compendium Rerum Decennii in Italiam Gestarum ad Viros Florentions, incipit feliciter.” It bears neither the printer’s name, nor the place or date.

Resuming now the interrupted series of Machiavelli’s missions, it appears that, whilst he was occupied with the reorganization of the militia, he was sent a second time to the court of Rome, on the 25th of August, 1506. He did not return until the 1st of November, having accompanied Julius II. as far as Imola; the Pope’s aim being the recovery of Bologna. The particular object of this mission was to show to the irascible and suspicious Pontiff the good disposition of the Florentines, and their great desire to favor his attempt against Bologna. On the 14th of March, 1507, Machiavelli went to enroll and select infantry in the Val di Tevere, in the Val di Chiana, in Chianti, and in the vales of Elsa and Cecina, and was gone thirty-four days. In May he was charged again to proceed to the lord of Piombino; but he had hardly reached Volterra when he received orders to return, the motive of his mission having ceased to exist. The object for which the Ten sent Machiavelli to Sienna in August was not a serious one; for he was merely to ascertain the extent of the retinue of the Cardinal Legate Bernardino Caravajal, whose arrival was expected in Florence. But the mission to the Emperor Maximilian was of greater importance: he was sent to him in December, 1507, and remained until the 16th of June of the following year, the object being to arrive at some agreement respecting the pecuniary subsidy which the Emperor demanded of the republic on the occasion of his coming into Italy for the purpose of receiving the imperial crown from the Supreme Pontiff. Machiavelli, being a keen observer of the customs and conditions of the different peoples, made Germany a subject of special study; and to this period belong the two Reports “On the Affairs of Germany,” and the “Discourse on the Affairs of Germany and on the Emperor.”

In August he made an extraordinary levy of infantry and pioneers, and sent them into the Pisan territory to devastate the fields and to carry off the crops. The wretched inhabitants of the Vicariates of San Miniato and Pescia were subjected to similar injuries in October, because of the suspicion that they might possibly send supplies of provisions to Pisa. He spent all the following January and a couple of days of February in mustering corporals and soldiers in various provinces subject to the republic. On the 18th of February he went to inspect the army before Pisa, and had thence to proceed to Piombino in March, to negotiate an agreement with the Pisans through the mediation of Jacopo d’ Appiano, which, however, was not concluded. Having afterwards returned to the camp before Pisa, he remained there until the 8th of June. During this time he was also occupied with other missions, all which had for their object the happy termination of this war, which ended with the surrender of the city.

Thence he went to Mantua, to pay into the hands of the Emperor’s mandataries the second instalment of forty thousand ducats which the Florentines had agreed to pay him for the confirmation of the privileges conceded to the republic by his predecessors; and to obtain from the Emperor a full and explicit renunciation of all claims which he could possibly make upon the city or state of Florence, and particularly upon Pisa, which they had but so lately reconquered. This was done by an agreement in the preparation of which our Secretary had a large share. On this occasion he was also charged to proceed into Lombardy to watch personally the fierce war which the allies of Cambray were carrying on against Venice, and to report thereupon to the Signoria. This mission lasted from the 10th of November, 1509, until the 2d of January of the following year; and it was at that time that his enemies tried to ruin him, and presented a protest in December to the conservators of the laws demanding that he should be deprived of all office, as being the son of a bastard father; basing their demand upon an old law, that had fallen into desuetude. But if this storm raged for a few days, it had no evil consequences, mainly owing to the efforts of his friend and colleague, Biagio de Buonaccorsi. In March, Machiavelli was appointed arbiter to settle the dispute about the boundary between the men of the little commune of Gargonza, belonging to the republic of Florence, and those of Armaiuolo, subject to Sienna; and at the end of May he was sent into the Vicariates of San Miniato and of Pescia, to review certain companies of infantry, and to select other men to add to these companies.

The importance which the Signoria attached to having a confidential person near the king of France, who was the principal ally of the Florentines, and upon whom they relied more than upon any other, caused them, when the post of resident ambassador became vacant, to appoint Machiavelli to the place until a new one could be named. He therefore went to join the court of France, at Lyons, on the 24th of June, 1510, and followed it afterwards to Blois and Tours, returning to his own country on the 19th of October. To this third journey into France, it seems, we must refer his “Description of French Affairs,” for he made a longer stay there this time than on the former occasions, so that he had better opportunity to investigate men and things.

From November, 1510, until the end of May, 1511, he was most active, for existing documents show that he remained but a few days quiet during that period, being at one moment ambassador at Sienna, afterwards engaged in enrolling men for the infantry and cavalry, and subsequently at Pisa, at Arezzo, and at Poggibonsi, to examine and put in a state of defence the fortresses of those places. After this he was at Monaco from the 11th of May to the 5th of June, to negotiate a treaty of friendship with Luciano Grimaldi, lord of that place; and from the 24th of August to the 7th of September he went rapidly through the upper Val d’ Arno, the Val di Chiana, and the Casentino, to enroll one hundred men fit to serve on horseback.

He had hardly been back four days in Florence, when he was obliged to leave in haste for Lombardy, to have an interview at Milan with the lieutenant of King Louis XII., and to proceed immediately afterwards to Blois to treat directly with that monarch. The object of this mission was to prevent, if possible, the assembling in council at Pisa of the cardinals who were hostile to Pope Julius II., the republic having conceded to those cardinals the hospitality of Pisa, fully aware that by this act it would draw upon itself the vengeance of that implacable Pope. Machiavelli, however, did not succeed in this mission; so that, having returned to Florence on the 2d of November, he was ordered the next day to proceed to Pisa and persuade those prelates to leave that city. For this purpose a good body of soldiers was worth more than all arguments, and Machiavelli sent them into Pisa under pretext of protecting the cardinals; but these prelates were frightened by the troops; and better still, the lack of provisions subjected them to privations to which they were not accustomed. He rendered an account of this mission on the 11th of November, and left for the Romagna on the 2d of December, to register on his roll of ordinance the men suitable to serve in the infantry, and for the same purpose he went through the greater portion of the Florentine dominion from May until August, 1512.

Meantime the vengeance of Julius II. ripened, and fell terribly upon the Florentine republic. He began by summoning the Signoria to dissolve the alliance with the king of France, and to adhere to the league which he had formed against the French with Spain, England, and Venice, and which he was pleased to call “the holy league.” After the refusal of Piero Soderini, the perpetual Gonfalonier, who wanted to remain faithful to the oaths which he had taken, the Pontiff sent a Spanish army into Tuscany, which was accompanied by his Legate, the Cardinal de’ Medici, who sacked Prato so barbarously that she laments it to this day; and he encouraged the partisans of the Medici in Florence to set a conspiracy on foot to drive the Gonfalonier from the seat of government, and to replace the country under the yoke of the hated Medici family. If Soderini had had Machiavelli about him at that time, it is probable that he would have borne himself with more sagacity, and would have spared to himself and to Florence the injury and shame in which he found himself involved; although Machiavelli would probably not have advised him to detach himself entirely from France, for the Secretary remained friendly to that power even in after years, when he lived entirely removed from all public business, as his familiar letters show most clearly. But even if Machiavelli had been in Florence on that fatal day, he was nevertheless a stranger to the facts that afflicted her. The fall of Soderini actually occurred on the 30th of August, 1512, and it is proved by public documents that Machiavelli was on the 27th of August at Firenzuola, and that, with but rare and brief interruptions, he had been absent from Florence ever since the first week in May. So that it is evident that he could not have influenced the Gonfalonier in his councils, who was, however, in the habit of consulting him, but most probably could not do so on that occasion, because the demands of the Pope and the execution of his threat were an affair of but a very few days.

Speaking of this fact, it seems interesting to note that Machiavelli neither disapproved nor censured Soderini for his conduct, and the proof of this is a letter which he wrote shortly after the event to an unknown lady.* And as he preserved his esteem and friendship for the deposed Gonfalonier, and kept up a correspondence with him even during his own exile, we have the right to reject a biting epigram upon the death of Soderini attributed to Machiavelli, but which would have been an evidence of ingratitude and manifest contradiction on his part.

Nevertheless, if Machiavelli did not influence Soderini in his determination, he had to experience the painful consequences of it. For so soon as the government was changed according to the will of the new masters, Machiavelli was formally dismissed, on the 8th of November, from the office of Secretary of the Second Chancellery of the Signoria, and at the same time from the secretaryship of the Magistracy of the Ten. By another decree of the 10th of November, he was confined for a whole year within the limits of the territory of the republic; and on the 17th, he was notified that for a whole year he was not to enter the palace of the Signoria; which prohibition was, however, several times interrupted for special reasons, but always by particular authorization of the College of Priors.

But a much greater misfortune befell him in the following year, when the conspiracy of Pietropaolo Boscoli and Agostino Capponi against the lives of Giuliano and Lorenzo de’ Medici was discovered. Being suspected of participation in this conspiracy, he was shut up in the prison of the Bargello, and had there to suffer the torture, the executioner having subjected him six times to the strappado. He was also kept for some days shackled, as we must presume from his writing that he had “jesses” on his legs; it being well known that that word signifies the leather straps that hold one of the claws of the falcons. There is no mention of his torture in the public documents, nor in the resolutions of the Eight, where the condemnation of the other conspirators is recorded. But there can be no doubt about it, as he mentions it himself in a letter written to his friend Francesco Vettori on the 13th of March.

Machiavelli was doubtless innocent of being a party to this conspiracy, which originated with Paolo Boscoli, a young man of one of the old and distinguished families of Florence, who had drawn Agostino Capponi into the plot. The latter committed the imprudence of letting fall a list of the conspirators, in going into the house of the Pucci; this list was picked up, and immediately communicated to the magistracy. Many of the most distinguished citizens were implicated, and Machiavelli amongst the rest. It is quite possible, however, that the list dropped by Capponi may have been merely a memorandum of those whom the originators of the conspiracy proposed amongst themselves to draw into the plot. For the firm denial of Machiavelli under the pangs of torture ought certainly, with so honest and fearless a mind as his, to be taken for the truth, and should acquit him, not only of an unpatriotic act, but also of an act of folly in being one of a numerous body of conspirators, which folly no writer has ever exposed with greater clearness and more conclusive force of argument than himself.

Whilst this process was going on, Pope Julius II. died, and the Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici was chosen as his successor, and assumed the title of Leo X. So soon as he heard of Machiavelli’s imprisonment, he ordered his fetters to be struck off, and had him set free, as well as all the others who had been charged with being implicated in the Boscoli conspiracy. Unhappily Boscoli and Capponi, having been found guilty, were executed before the Pope’s pardon arrived. It is very possible that Giuliano de’ Medici was also active in Machiavelli’s favor; for it was to him, and not to his namesake of another family, as some have supposed, that the two sonnets were addressed which Machiavelli wrote in prison; as is clearly shown by the title of “Magnificent Signore,” and “Your Magnificence,” which belonged only to the family of the Medici.

Released from prison, but disgusted with the ingratitude of the city which he had served so long and so well, Machiavelli withdrew to his little property in the Percussina, near San Casciano, where he spent the greater part of his time in rustic occupations and games; and in the evening he passed four hours at his desk, occupied with a little work which he intended to entitle “De Principatibus,” in which he discusses “what a principality is, what kinds there are, how they are acquired, how maintained, and why they are lost.” Thus he wrote in a letter to Francesco Vettori, on the 10th of December, 1513, that he felt somewhat uncertain whether or not to give it that title; and intimating his intention of dedicating it to the Magnificent Giuliano de’ Medici. This fact ought to undeceive those who assert that he had prepared this book for Cesare Borgia; and that, having had no opportunity of presenting it to him, he afterwards used it as a homage to the Medici to gain their favor. This book is the famous treatise of “The Prince,” which he presented to Lorenzo, son of Piero de’ Medici, rather than to Giuliano, the uncle of Lorenzo, as he had at first intended. The reason of this was that Giuliano abandoned the government of Florence in 1514; having been called by his brother to Rome. Most probably Machiavelli did not wish to delay presenting his book to Lorenzo in 1516, when, after the death of Giuliano, Lorenzo began to spread his wings, in attempting the conquest of Urbino; which enterprise, according to Guicciardini, was the first step towards the dominion of all papal fiefs, and perhaps also of the kingdom of Naples.

Seeing that he was not employed by the new government, notwithstanding the unceasing efforts made in his behalf by Francesco Vettori, he lamented that he could not make himself useful to his country, whilst feeling himself capable of rendering the most valuable services, for he had not wasted his time during the fifteen years that he had studied the arts of statesmanship. Machiavelli, therefore, occupied his rare genius in benefiting his country by his writings, and by instructing the Florentine youth, who met together in the Rucellai Gardens, where the celebrated Platonic Academy, which had been instituted by the old Cosimo de’ Medici after the disasters of his family in 1490, had found hospitality. We must also refer the “Discourses upon the First Ten Books of Titus Livius” to the period between 1516 and 1519; for this work is dedicated to Cosimo Rucellai and Zenobio Buondelmonti, both born in 1495; and it is evident from the character of the work that it was not written for boys, but for young men grown up. These “Discourses” seem like a continuation of “The Prince”; for after having shown the Medici by the latter work how to grasp the sovereignty, and how to expel the foreigners from Italy, he desired by the former to point out to them the necessity of new institutions for maintaining themselves and making a state happy, after having consolidated their dominion, by basing it upon three powers; namely, the prince, the nobles, and the people. He also read at the meetings of the Academy the “Dialogue upon Language”; and he undoubtedly prepared also for this Academy the “Seven Books of the Art of War.” He did not begin this work before 1519, for he opens it with the praises of Cosimo Rucellai, who died in that year; and he certainly had finished it before November, 1520, as is proved by a letter of the 17th of that month, written by Filippo de’ Nerli, who had just then read the book. In the following year he had it printed under the title “De Re Militari,” and the edition, issued by the heirs of Filippo di Giunta, bears the date of the 16th of August. Unquestionably he was urged to this work by love of his country, seeing that he intended thereby to teach the Florentine people to defend their state with arms against whoever should, from within or without, plot against their liberty; showing at the same time by examples from antiquity the injury which results to republics from keeping mercenary armies, and explaining all things that seemed to him most suitable for instructing an army and leading it into the field.

If we are to believe two slanderous writers, Cardano and Bandello, Machiavelli was an able theoretician, but otherwise inexperienced in the practice of military affairs. And this was quite natural, for he was not accustomed to direct battalions in war, nor was this a matter that concerned him. The former of these two writers relates that, when asked by the Duke of Urbino to give a demonstration of his system, Machiavelli dared not attempt it; and the other relates that he tried in vain for two hours to put three thousand infantry in order of battle, which Giovanni de’ Medici afterwards did with the greatest ease.

During his stay in Lucca, Machiavelli wrote the Life of Castruccio Castracani, in 1520; and Zanobi Buondelmonti, to whom he sent it, acknowledges the receipt of it in a letter of the 6th of December. At the same time, accurate observer that he was of what was passing under his eyes, he also wrote the “Summary of the Affairs of Lucca.” Jacopo Nardi tells us, in the seventh book of his History, that Machiavelli did this work for Zanobi Buondelmonti, Luigi Alamanni, and Cosimo Rucellai, who loved him very much, and who, by way of courtesy, gave him some emolument, being infinitely delighted with his conversation, and holding all his works in the highest esteem.

Meanwhile the rulers of Florence, and especially the Cardinal Giuliano de’ Medici, began to have some consideration for Machiavelli, and to make use of him. In fact, he was sent to Lucca in June, 1520, to protect the interests of the Florentine merchants who were exposed to loss by the failure of Michele Guinigi; and whilst in that city he was charged by the Cardinal to ask the Signoria of Lucca to expel from their territory three Sicilians, formerly students at Pisa, but who had been banished from that university. It is very probable that the Medici decided to favor him after the “Discourse upon the Reorganization of the State of Florence”; to which he afterwards added another little treatise, without any title, relating to the same subject, (preserved amongst the manuscripts that came from the Royal to the National Library,) and which he had most probably presented to the Cardinal Giuliano de’ Medici. Both of these may be referred to the year 1519, and were certainly written before December, 1521, Leo X., to whom the former was without doubt presented, having died on the first of that month. It cannot be ascertained whether Machiavelli’s opinion was given spontaneously, or whether it had been requested; but it certainly did not displease the Pontiff. Although holding firmly to republican appearances, Machiavelli would have wished that, the powers being duly equilibrated, Leo X. should reserve the supreme arbitrament to himself, thinking perhaps that after Leo’s death Florence might recover her liberty. Lorenzo de’ Medici was already dead at that time, and therefore the hopes which Machiavelli had of making him Prince had vanished. It may also be that he had, during the lifetime of Lorenzo, tasted the bitterness of deception in having placed confidence in such a man; and unable therefore, for the moment at least, to think of the independence of Italy from foreigners, he tried to find a possible means for arriving at the necessary conciliation between the ambitious hopes of the Medici and the liberty of his country. But that was not what the Cardinal Giuliano de’ Medici desired; he ruled over the republic more absolutely than his cousin, the Pope, and it seemed to him as though he had shown enough love of country and of liberty in inviting several citizens to prominent offices, with the hope of satisfying in that way the clamors of the malcontents. Having extinguished in blood a conspiracy set on foot amongst the young men of the Oricellari Gardens, he made that the pretext for casting aside all idea of reform; and continued to govern absolutely, with the forms of a republic, but with the magistrates devoted and subject to him personally.

Another benefit bestowed by the Medici on Machiavelli was the commission to write the Florentine History, which the Cardinal Giuliano gave him, although he did so through the officials of the University, who charged Machiavelli with it on the 8th of November, 1520. But that the person who really gave him this commission was the Cardinal, appears clearly from the author’s dedication of his work to the Pope, in which Machiavelli expresses to him his gratitude in the most explicit manner. It must not, however, be passed over in silence, that public opinion had also designated him for this work; and a letter still exists from Zanobi Buondelmonti, written to Machiavelli on the 6th of September of the same year, in which he urges him, not only in his own name, but speaking also for Jacopo Nardi, Luigi Alamanni, and for all the most cultivated gentlemen of Florence, not to delay taking it in hand.

The friendship of Piero Soderini for Machiavelli continued uninterruptedly; and of the many proofs of the zeal with which he endeavored to relieve Machiavelli’s misfortunes, there remains a letter written by Soderini in 1521, from which it appears that he was occupied in obtaining for Machiavelli the office of secretary of the republic of Ragusa, which, however, he declined to accept; and that in place of it he obtained for him the post of secretary to Prosper Colonna, with very liberal pay, which Machiavelli also refused, in the hope probably of a brighter future.

In May, 1521, he received from the Magistracy of the Eight of Practice the commission to go to Carpi, where the Chapter of the Minorite Brothers of San Francesco was assembled, and to request them to constitute the Florentine dominion a separate chapter; and also to select a good preacher for the church of Santa Maria del Fiore. He accepted and fulfilled this mission, but laughing all the while at the friars and the people of Carpi, as appears from his letters to his friend Francesco Guicciardini.

Fully four years elapsed before he was again actively employed; the cause of this was probably the conspiracy against the Medici, which was set on foot by some of the young men of the Oricellari Gardens, and which cost the lives of Jacopo Diacelto and Luigi Alamanni, who were beheaded on the 7th of June, 1522. According to the testimony of the historian Nardi, Machiavelli was not altogether free from blame for the thoughts and actions of the conspirators, although he was not subjected to any trouble on that account. In August, 1525, finally, he was sent as Ambassador to Venice, to claim before the Doge and the Senate the restitution of the money and objects taken by a certain Giovanbattista Donato from three young Florentines, who were coming from Ragusa; but the documents do not tell us what result this mission produced.

To this period must be referred the two very amusing and witty, but not over moral comedies, “The Mandragola” and “Clizia.” Although there is evidence that the Mandragola was written in 1520, and studied to be performed before Pope Leo X. (as appears from a letter written by Machiavelli from Rome on the 26th of April of that year), yet it was performed for the first time in 1525, by the Academicians of the Cazzuola, in the house of Bernardino di Giordano; the scenery for it having been prepared by the painter Andrea del Sarto and the famous architect Bastiano Aristotele da San Gallo. Vasari relates that the Cardinal Silvio Passerini, with the young Alessandro and Ippolito de’ Medici, was present at the performance. The familiar letters of Machiavelli tell us, moreover, that at the request of Francesco Guicciardini, governor of the Romagna, the Mandragola was repeated at Bologna during the Carnival of 1526; and in March of the same year it was performed with the greatest success at Rome. The Clizia followed soon after, and was also performed by the Academicians of the Cazzuola in the house of Jacopo, the furnace-man, near the gate of San Frediano; and Vasari tells us that the Cardinal of Cortona was so much pleased with the scenery made by San Gallo, that he took him under his protection from that day, and employed him in various magnificent works.

Machiavelli has been blamed for having written these comedies; he anticipated this himself, and in his prologue to the Mandragola, addressed to the public, he says: “And if this play seems unworthy to occupy the leisure of a wise and grave man, deign to excuse him, and bear in mind that he tries by these distractions to soften the sorrows that pursue him. For he can no longer turn his thoughts elsewhere, and has been forbidden to show in any other way the qualities he may possess,” etc. These comedies, however, suited the taste of the period when they were written, as their popularity attests. They are certainly no worse than the tales of Boccaccio, and infinitely more spirited and witty.

Pope Clement VII., being free from all suspicion against Machiavelli, now wished to employ him in a matter for which he believed him better qualified than any one else; and therefore charged him, in March, 1526, to visit the fortifications of Florence in company with some military architects, for the purpose of examining their defects and needs; and to prepare a project for fortifying the whole city, so as to be able to resist the attacks of a hostile army. Machiavelli made a full report of this commission, which he sent to the Pope at Rome. It was probably in consequence of this that he was sent to the camp, to Francesco Guicciardini, commissary of the Pope, in the army of the allies against the Emperor Charles V.; and was sent by Guicciardini in August of the same year as envoy to the Venetian Proveditore, who was beseiging Cremona, to hasten the capture of that place, or rather to persuade him to abandon this siege, and to unite all the forces for the more important acquisition of Genoa. About this time the Pope had, at the request of Jacopo Salviati, destined Machiavelli to an honorable office at court; but as he would not abandon his mission, this post was given to some one else. Machiavelli was sent, in November, a second time to the same Guicciardini, the Pope’s lieutenant, and living at that time in Modena, with instructions that were most honorable for him, from the Cardinal Passerini, who governed Florence at that time as tutor of the young Ippolito and Alessandro de’ Medici. The Cardinal, always timid, saw supreme danger imminent for Florence; for the Pope was almost a prisoner of the Colonnese at Rome, whilst a numerous German army was descending upon Italy; so that he would have preferred that Guicciardini had sent him substantial aid into the city, or rather that he should have managed to bring about some agreement with the enemy. The lieutenant, however, did nothing that was asked of him, for the simple reason that he could not do it, and therefore it became necessary to send Machiavelli to him once more, who went accordingly, in February, 1527. The negotiations of the ambassador were protracted, he having been charged to follow Guicciardini wherever the particular duties of his office might call him. They proved, nevertheless, to have no result; as the troops of the lieutenant were insufficient to restrain the violence of the German hordes that had invaded the Bolognese territory and were laying it waste.

Machiavelli returned to Florence on the 22d of April, but nothing is heard of him during the sedition against the Medici on the 26th of that month, which, however, was quickly put down; nor on the occasion of the subsequent events that led to the expulsion of the Cardinal Passerini with his pupils, and to the claim of the Florentines for the restoration of their liberties. Perhaps Machiavelli was not in Florence at the time, and had already returned to Guicciardini, by whom he was certainly sent to Andrea Doria, who was at Civita Vecchia, to obtain a brigantine from him. He was in this port on the 22d of May, as appears from one of his letters, and embarked the next day on a galley that escorted the Marchioness of Mantua, and a few days after landed with her at Livorno.

Being thus restored to his country, Machiavelli lived in obscurity the few days that were left him of life, until the 22d of June, 1527, when he died like a Christian, as is proved by a letter written by his son Piero to his relative Francesco Nelli.

Thus far the facts relating to Machiavelli’s life have been, as before stated, mainly taken from L. Passerini’s article, referred to at the beginning of this biography For the subsequent remarks the author of these translations is alone responsible.

The story related by Benedetto Varchi, and believed by many, that Machiavelli died from disappointment because Donato Giannotti was preferred to him in the appointment to the office of Secretary to the Ten of Liberty and Peace, is manifestly incorrect, for Machiavelli died before Giannotti was elected to that office. His son Piero attests most positively that he died from pains in his stomach, resulting from a medicine which he had taken on the 20th of June. Equally unfounded is the story of his having lived unhappily with his wife, and that in his novel of “Belphegor,” the Lady Onesta was intended to represent her; for although his frequent, nay, almost constant absences from Florence did not permit him to be a very devoted husband, which rôle was perhaps not entirely suited to Machiavelli’s character, yet there is no evidence that he did not always treat his wife with every degree of respect; and the best proof of the good relations existing between them is the fact that in both his wills he speaks of his wife with esteem and affection, and intrusts her with the sole management of his property and the guardianship of his children.

Of Machiavelli’s life little more can really be said than that, until the fall of Soderini and the return of the Medici in 1512, it was entirely devoted to the service of the state, either as Secretary of the Magistracy of the Ten, or in missions to foreign courts or to different states in Italy, in all of which he displayed as much zeal as capacity. These missions must often have been very distasteful and irksome to him, especially when sent as an envoy to the King of France or to the Emperor of Germany, to solicit the armed intervention of the one in the affairs of Italy, or to pay tribute to the other for a guaranty of the integrity of the republic. The eight years intervening between the time of his removal from office and the year 1521, when he was again employed by the government, were spent at his villa near Casciano in rural pastimes, and literary occupation, and in a highly interesting correspondence with various friends, chiefly with Francesco Vettori. He died poor, as he had lived, a good proof of his strict honesty, taking into consideration the opportunities he had to enrich himself in his many years’ services to the state. During his frequent and important missions his pay never exceeded ten lire per day, out of which pittance he had to pay for his servants and horses, and frequently for the postage and express messengers to carry his despatches to the government of Florence, which often obliged him to borrow and to draw upon his own resources. And from this scanty pay of ten lire per day his salary as Secretary to the Ten was regularly deducted. We consequently find in his despatches frequent appeals, at times pathetic, at times humorous, but always urgent, to the government of Florence for increase of pay, or pecuniary assistance of some kind.

He was personally esteemed by the most distinguished men of Florence of his time, for he was of most cheerful social temper, and his conversation was full of learning and wit. He was a good Catholic, but no Papist; on the contrary, he attributed nearly all the miseries of Italy to the efforts of the Popes to maintain and increase the temporal power and possessions of the Church.* This brought upon him the enmity of the Church, the violent criticisms, perversions, and finally the condemnation of his writings, and their being placed in the Index Expurgatorius.

There are many editions of Machiavelli’s works. The most perfect, so far as it goes, is the one printed at Florence in 1875, under the direction of L. Passerini and G. Milanesi, containing a large number of letters from the Florentine government and others to Machiavelli, which throw much light upon the various missions, the whole being carefully revised according to the original documents. Unfortunately, the untimely death of one of the editors put a stop to the completion of this edition. As early as 1772 an edition was published in London in three volumes, large quarto, containing all the works of Machiavelli then known, with a Preface by Baretti. Ten years later, however, in 1782, Lord Nassau Clavering, Earl Cowper, published at his own expense a handsome one in four volumes quarto, truly worthy of the Florentine Secretary. This edition is still greatly prized to this day, and has served as the standard for all subsequent to it. It was also due to the persistent efforts of the same generous Englishman, that the Grand Duke Leopold of Tuscany had a monument erected over the until then obscure tomb of Machiavelli, by the side of that of Michael Angelo in the church of Santa Croce at Florence, where the remains of Machiavelli had been buried in the family vault, and had remained unnoticed for two and a half centuries. This monument was designed by the Chevalier Alberto Rombotti, and executed in marble by the sculptor Spinazzi in the year 1787; it bears the following Latin inscription: —

    • Tanto nomini nullum par eulogium
    • Nicolaus Machiavellus.

Numerous portraits and busts exist, claiming to represent Niccolo Machiavelli; the greater part of them, however, — if not all save one, — are not portraits of the great Secretary. They are either fictitious, or they represent some other personage; in several instances they are portraits of Lorenzo, or some other of the Medici family. The marble bust in the museum of the Bargello at Florence, which bears the inscription “Niccolo Machiavelli,” is certainly not the bust of our Machiavelli. In the Palazzo Boutourlin at Florence there is a portrait by Andrea del Sarto, which represents an old man with a very sad expression; it is claimed to be the portrait of Machiavelli, but is not generally recognized as such, and certainly has not a single feature that suggests the character of Machiavelli. Mr. A. F. Artaud, who was for some years Chargé d’Affaires of France at Florence, and published in 1833 two most valuable and interesting volumes with the title of “Machiavel, son Génie et ses Erreurs,” condemns all the engraved portraits, claims to have discovered the only true likeness of Machiavelli by Santi-Titi, and gives a small engraving of it by Rubière as the frontispiece to his first volume. The same picture has been admirably engraved on a much larger scale by P. Toschi and A. Isac; and certainly the face is most expressive of quick intelligence and penetration, and such as one might well imagine Machiavelli’s countenance to have been. But unfortunately the picture is not authentic, for Santi-Titi was not born until 1538, eleven years after the death of Machiavelli, in June, 1527. It may have been painted by Santi-Titi from a sketch by some one else, or from a cast taken from Machiavelli’s face; but an original portrait it cannot be called. It is this portrait that has been mainly consulted by the sculptor Bartolini in his admirable statue of Machiavelli, which, amongst the other great men of Florence, adorns the inner court of the Uffizii at Florence.

The portrait in profile prefixed to this volume of the present translation is presumed to be the only well authenticated portrait of Niccolo Machiavelli known to exist. The original was painted by Angelo Allori (Bronzino), and hangs in the Doria Gallery in Rome. It bears a striking resemblance to the colored plaster bust of Machiavelli belonging to the Marchioness Isabella Piccolellis, born Ricci, which was copied from a cast of Machiavelli’s face, taken from his body after death. This bust has always been in possession of the Ricci family, the lineal descendants of Machiavelli, through his daughter.

The recent history of Italy has shown how correctly, and with almost prophetic vision, Machiavelli foresaw that her deliverance from all her ills could only be effected through the fusion of all the different Italian states into one, under the government of one man of courage, loyalty, and prudence, and with a national army. How nobly and completely this task was performed by the late King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel, aided by his great minister, Cavour, is familiar to all the world. No longer does any foreign power possess one foot of Italian soil, and Italy made one has taken her place amongst the great powers of the earth

The great merits of Machiavelli have been recognized by the Italian government. His bust in marble has been placed prominently amongst Italy’s other great men in the Pincio Gardens at Rome; and the modest house in which he lived and died, in the Via Guicciardini at Florence, has two marble tablets above the door. The one records the fact of his having lived and died there; the other was placed there by order of the government, on the fourth centenary of his birth, and bears the following inscription:—

    • Dell’ Unità Nazionale precursore audace e indovino
    • E d’ armi proprie e non aventizie primo istitutore
    • E maestro, l’ Italia una e armata pose il 3 maggio 1869
    • Il quarto di lui Centennario.
    • The intrepid and prophetic precursor of National Unity,
    • The first institutor and master of her own
    • In place of adventitious armies,
    • United and armed Italy placed this Tablet,
    • On his fourth Centenary, 3d May, 1869.

[* ]This lady is presumed to have been Alphonsina Orsini, the widow of Piero, and mother of Lorenzo de’ Medici.


    • “La notte che mori Pier Soderini
    • L’ alma n’ ando dell’ Inferno alla bocca.
    • E Pluto la grido: Anima sciocca,
    • Che Inferno? Va nel Limbo de Bambini.”
    • The night when Peter Soderini died,
    • His soul for entrance into Hell applied.
    • But Pluto shouted: Hence, thou simple soul!
    • This is no place for you. Go to the infant’s Limbo, fool!


[* ]See Discourses on Livy, Book I. Chap. XII.

Last modified April 13, 2016