*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The Renaissance is, undoubtedly, one of the most important eras for art and literature in European history. Masters of sculpture and painting have come to define Florence’s reputation as the Italian cultural center of the period, but a well-known author and political theorist also called the city home: Niccolo Machiavelli, born on May 3, 1469. Over the course of his time both in and out of power, he composed some of the most famous letters in Italian history and developed a philosophy on government still recognized for its truth and thirst for control.
Throughout the late 1400s, central Europe was a cauldron of religious and political conflict. What we know today as Italy was then a bunch of independent city-states built on lucrative trade and fierce territorialism. When combined with extensive royal rivalries between the continent’s various dynastic families, not to mention the vast wealth and allegiance commanded by the Roman Catholic Church, the hunger for power drove a number of kings, popes and merchants into a near-endless cycle of conflict and questionable alliances.
Machiavelli was born into a family with extensive ties to the Florentine government, both through his father’s career as a lawyer and a history of public service appointments taken up by his ancestors. While he received a traditional education in Latin and grammar, the Medici family continued its stranglehold on the republic. Despite the explosion of magnificent art and emphasis on scholarship under their rule, some in the religious establishment — chiefly the firebrand priest Girolamo Savonarola — felt the cultural pursuits were yanking Florence away from its commitment to Catholicism.
In the middle of 1498, four years after the Medici were pushed out of the city by Savonarola’s zealous followers, Machiavelli was chosen as head of the Second Chancery. Now able to affect the direction of Florentine government both domestically and in foreign policy, he used his gift for diplomacy while touring Europe over the next 15 years — visits to France, Spain, Germany and the Vatican helped him to understand a variety of governing styles, from beneficent to brutal.
Machiavelli paid close attention to the Borgias, Cesare and his father, Pope Alexander VI, noticing the close relationship between claims of defending the Church as an impetus for wrangling for more territory in central Italy. As the head of the Florentine military, it affected his decisions for building an army and shaped his larger political philosophy. In short, Machiavelli trusted those who had a stake in the outcome of a battle (citizens, for example) far more than mercenaries hired to fight, a strategy which led to victory in a conflict with Pisa in 1509.
Even with his principled stances and able command on the battlefield, Machiavelli was unable to resist every enemy which came to challenge the Florentines. In August 1512, Alexander’s successor, Pope Julius II, aided the Medici in a fight to regain control of the city. Under fire from a superior Spanish army, the Republic of Florence fell, rendering the government which Machiavelli participated in nothing more than a target for accusations of treason. Forced out of office and tortured for a few months the following year, he retreated to his estate in the tiny hamlet of Sant’Andrea in Percussina.
Exiled yet filled with an abundance of thoughts on the nature of politics, Machiavelli composed The Prince, his famous collection of maxims dedicated to ruling in the face of corruption. According to his ideology, making decisions with large social consequences did not always allow authorities to behave within a strict morality. If the greatest public good required a man to lie — or worse — it was a necessity for the “new prince” to take the action despite his personal distaste for it. (These situational scruples caught the attention of the Catholic Church, garnering Machiavelli a place on the list of prohibited books in 1559.)
With nothing to do but read and write, Machiavelli engaged in correspondence with a wide number of friends in more influential positions from his home, Albergaccio. Building on his lengthy list of political tracts and poetry written during his time in Florentine government, he pulled together Discourses on Livy — often regarded as a foremost defense of the republican method of rule — and a series of plays in retirement. Finally, on June 21, 1527, he died at the age of 58 and was returned to Florence for burial at the Church of Santa Croce.
Almost five centuries after his death, Machiavelli remains a controversial figure amongst researchers and political theorists alike. In some respects, the acknowledgement within his writings that the ends would always justify the means had led to public cynicism toward politicians — some will argue elected officials are forever driven by personal motivation instead of virtuous intentions. The tendency toward machinations in order to achieve a desired result has even led to the creation of the word “Machiavellian,” an adjective used to describe manipulative or dishonest tactics.
The debate over his amorality will forever color the way generations of leaders look upon Machiavelli, but one might say his appeal will hardly resonate with any society’s better angels. While writing The Prince during evenings at Albergaccio, he dressed in his old official robes as a means to reconnect with his former glory, then scribbled down grim statements about humans as political animals. In one well-known case, he postulated that “love and fear can hardly exist together, [so] if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.”
Also On This Day:
1481 – An earthquake strikes the island of Rhodes, killing 30,000.
1802 – Washington, DC is incorporated as a city.
1947 – The post-war Constitution of Japan becomes law.
1978 – A representative of Digital Equipment Corporation sends the first spam email to ARPANET addresses on the west coast of United States.
1979 – Margaret Thatcher becomes the first woman elected Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.