Article abstract: Machiavelli’s posthumous reputation rests primarily on his having initiated a pragmatic mode of political discourse that is entirely independent of ethical considerations derived from traditional sources of moral authority, such as classical philosophy and Christian theology.
The year 1469 has a dual significance in the historical annals of Florence, since it marks both the date of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s ascension to power and that of Niccolò Machiavelli’s birth. The boy was reared in a household consisting of his parents, Bernardo and Bartolomea, along with two older sisters and a younger brother. Bernardo, a tax lawyer and petty landowner of modest means, was a man of pronounced scholarly proclivities with a genuine passion for Roman literature. Machiavelli’s own schooling in the principles of Latin grammar and rhetoric began at the age of seven. The study of arithmetic, however, was deferred until several years later. Although the family was too poor to own many books, it did possess a copy of the first three decades of Livy’s survey of ancient Roman history. This work must have been a favorite of both father and son, since it was eventually sent to the bindery when Niccolò was seventeen years of age. Little is known for certain about the next decade in Machiavelli’s life. There is some evidence which indicates that he may have spent most of the years between 1487 and 1495 in Rome working for a prominent Florence banker.
The political climate in Florence had altered drastically in the years immediately preceding Machiavelli’s return from Rome. Lorenzo de’ Medici died in 1492 and had been succeeded by his eldest son, Piero, an inept youth barely twenty years of age. Piero was soon confronted with a major crisis when King Charles VIII of France invaded Italy in 1494 to lay claim to Naples, and Piero’s feckless conduct vis-à-vis the French monarch met with such revulsion on the part of his fellow citizens that they resolved to banish the entire Medici clan from the city forever. Soon thereafter, control of the Florentine republic fell into the hands of an austere Dominican friar from Ferrara, Girolamo Savonarola.
While Savonarola made considerable headway in mitigating the dissolute moral conditions that pervaded Florence, he had considerably less success with his self-imposed mission to restore Christian virtue to the Roman Catholic church. His adversary in this struggle was the Spaniard Rodrigo Borgia, whose reign as Alexander VI is generally conceded to represent the moral nadir in the history of the Papacy during the Renaissance. Savonarola’s persistent challenges to papal authority led to his being formally excommunicated by the Roman pontiff; this event emboldened the friar’s political adversaries into taking direct action to destroy him. The climax of this struggle occurred on May 23, 1498, when Savonarola and his two closest confederates in the Dominican Order were escorted to the main square in Florence and hanged atop a pile of brush and logs that was thereupon promptly set ablaze by the hangman. Several hours later, the charred remains of the three men were tossed into the Arno River. Machiavelli witnessed Savonarola’s rise and fall at first hand and viewed the episode as an object lesson as to the danger of being “an unarmed prophet.”
Savonarola’s demise turned out to be highly beneficial with respect to Machiavelli’s own personal fortune, for a few months thereafter he was called upon to serve in the newly reconstituted municipal government in several important posts. Its chief executive, Piero Soderini, appointed him both head of the Second Chancery and secretary to the Council of Ten for War. It remains unclear why an inexperienced young man of twenty-nine from an impoverished family should have been elevated to these key offices. Most likely, it was his keen intelligence which recommended him to Soderini, for each of the artists for whom Machiavelli chose to pose has fully captured this character trait. In addition to the bemused cynicism manifested in his facial expression, Machiavelli is depicted as a slender man with thin lips and penetrating eyes. He was, in short, a man whose crafty countenance must have caused others to be on their guard while conducting official business with him.
Despite his initial lack of diplomatic experience, Machiavelli was routinely commissioned to undertake sensitive missions to other Italian states as well as to the courts of Louis XII in France and Maximilian I in Germany. Diplomatic activities such as these played a vital role in Machiavelli’s development as an uncompromising exponent of political pragmatism. Most instructive of all in this context were his extensive contacts with Cesare Borgia in Romagna during 1502-1503. It was this illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI who best exemplified the quality of manliness (virtù) that Machiavelli most admired in a political and military leader. Cesare Borgia’s meteoric career was, however, terminated abruptly as a result of the death of his father in 1503. The new pope, Julius II, was an inveterate enemy of the entire Borgia clan and soon sent Borgia into exile, where he later died.
Julius was also responsible for terminating Machiavelli’s career as a civil servant. When Louis XII of France invaded Italy and succeeded in establishing control over the Duchy of Milan, Julius proceeded to form a political coalition known as the Holy League, whose aim was to drive the invader from Italian soil. Soderini, despite Machiavelli’s advice, refused to permit Florence to join the coalition and insisted on its maintaining strict neutrality throughout...
(The entire section is 2350 words.)