Niccolò Machiavelli Biography


(History of the World: The Renaissance)
0111207654-Machiavelli.jpg Niccolò Machiavelli (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.

Early Life

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.”

Life’s Work

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.)

Niccolò Machiavelli Biography

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Machiavelli became a political figure in Florence at a young age. He became secretary to the second chancellory at twenty-nine, then spent his political career managing the day-to-day operations of the Florentine government. After losing his position in 1513, he turned to writing, often advancing arguments of a controversial nature. Although Machiavelli is most noted for his books The Prince (1532) and The Discourses (1517), he also wrote several other works and plays with the encouragement of several popes. He wrote his History of Florence (1525) with the benefit of a financial stipend from the Roman Catholic church, and his play Mandragola (1518), a story about romance and sexuality, won praise and support from Pope Leo X.

In 1559 Pope Paul IV created the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, a list of “unholy and dangerous books.” While the pope’s edict did not explicitly prohibit the reading of Machiavelli’s works, it did describe The Prince as “unwholesome.” The church reiterated its negative appraisal of The Prince when the Council of Trent issued its own index in 1664. However, the publication of the indexes did not prevent the spread of Machiavelli’s writings. The Prince was republished in French and Latin. Interestingly, Cardinal Richelieu of France encouraged Louis Machon to prepare a volume analyzing Machiavelli in positive terms. Machon’s thesis was that Machiavelli’s writings had been misunderstood, and that The Prince was based on Christian concepts. However, the controversial nature of Machon’s claim prevented the book from being published, despite Richelieu’s backing. English translations of The Prince did not appear until the seventeenth century.

With the lack of an English translation of The Prince, Machiavelli’s political theory was introduced to England through secondary writings. Failing to portray Machiavelli’s thought accurately, these writings tended to dismiss Machiavelli’s arguments as atheistic. Innocent Gentillet’s Against Nicolas Machiavelli, Florentine, published in 1576, was a major influence on the English understanding of Machiavelli. Gentillet’s work was an attack on the policies of Catherine de Medicis, with Gentillet arguing that Catherine relied on Machiavelli’s advice in carrying out violent internal policies. Reginald Pole also played a role in shaping the English view of Machiavelli’s thought by claiming that Machiavelli’s ideas represented the embodiment of the Antichrist.

Niccolò Machiavelli Biography

(Comprehensive Guide to Military History)

Article abstract: Military significance: Machiavelli was dismissed from government service after the fall of Florence to a papal-Spanish army; after dismissal, he wrote several works on war and politics.

Niccolò Machiavelli began working for the republican government of Florence in 1498. His duties included acting as civil servant responsible for the supervision of military operations. In 1507, he was charged with administering the citizen militia of Florence in the Pisan War. He commanded the militia against Pisa, leading to that city’s surrender in 1509. He also played a part in the preparations for the War of the Holy League (1510-1511). On August 29, 1512, the rout of the Florentine militia at the hands of a papal-Spanish army at Prato humiliated Machiavelli, as almost half of his fleeing troops were hand picked by him for valor. The subsequent collapse of the Florentine Republic led to his dismissal from government service.

After his years of service, Machiavelli wrote the works that made him famous, including Dell’ arte della guerra (1521; The Art of War, 1560). Most of this work is a detailed discussion of military management, training, order of battle, and leadership. However, the central thrust of the work contains themes found in his more well-known books, Il principe (1532; The Prince, 1640) and the Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio (1531; Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, 1636). According to Machiavelli, military and political affairs are interdependent, and the art of war is contingent on the art of politics. Good laws must accompany strong armies. A ruler should rely only on his own arms, and that means a virtuous citizen army rather than mercenaries. The best military strength is found in a stable city with solid republican institutions that its patriotic citizens are ever ready to defend.

Further Reading:

Bayley, C. C. War and Society in Renaissance Florence. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1961.

Hale, J. R. War and Society in Renaissance Europe, 1450-1620. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985.

Mansfield, Harvey C. Machiavelli’s Virtue. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Viroli, Maurizio. Machiavelli. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Wood, Neal. Introduction to Machiavelli’s “The Art of War.” Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs Merrill, 1965.

Niccolò Machiavelli Biography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

On May 3, 1469, Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli was born in Florence, one of four children, to Ser Bernardo Machiavelli and Bartolomea de’ Nelli. As the son of a rather poor branch of a noble family, Machiavelli later said that he learned to do without before he learned to enjoy what life had to offer. Little is known of Machiavelli’s early years other than that he obtained a typical but substantial bourgeois education, also taking advantage of the extensive library that his father Bernardo had taken pains to create. It is known that as a young man he began to study Latin grammar under the guidance of a tutor named Matteo, and by the time he was twelve years old he was composing in Latin under the supervision of Paolo di...

(The entire section is 1032 words.)

Niccolò Machiavelli Biography

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

Machiavelli grew up in the Florence of Lorenzo de Medici. He was disheartened by his city’s decline following the French invasion of 1494. During the period of the Republic (1494-1512), Machiavelli, as second chancellor, was intimately involved with diplomatic relations involving France, Germany, the papacy, and other Italian states. When the Medici returned, he unsuccessfully sought employment in the government. He spent his time reflecting and writing about history and politics. His works reveal him to be a Florence patriot who held republican values. Machiavelli’s most influential book, The Prince, dedicated to the new Medici, stresses the need for rulers to develop clear objectives and pursue them vigorously and...

(The entire section is 171 words.)

Niccolò Machiavelli Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Niccolò Machiavelli (mah-kee-uh-VEH-lee) was born into a venerable Florentine family whose members had held political office in the past, but his parents were not wealthy. His father, Bernardo di Niccolò di Buoninsegna, was a lawyer and a lover of books. He died in May,1500. Some surviving letters and other documents indicate a close relationship between Machiavelli and his father. His mother was Bartolomea de’ Nelli, who had an interest in poetry and likely introduced it to her son. She died in October 11, 1496. Machiavelli had two sisters and one brother.

The Florence of Machiavelli’s lifetime was economically successful, and the leading family in that city was the Medici family, who had gained wealth and...

(The entire section is 798 words.)

Niccolò Machiavelli Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Niccolò Machiavelli was a major figure in the development of political theory. His treatise, The Prince, broke from the ideas of Plato and Aristotle, who believed that the purpose of politics was to encourage virtue, and instead advocated that in politics, the ends justified the means. In his other works, he made important contributions to historical accounts of Italy and to Italian Renaissance drama.

(The entire section is 64 words.)

Niccolò Machiavelli Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Niccolò Machiavelli (mahk-ee-uh-VEHL-ee), whose The Prince set forth in realistic and cynical terms the principles of action a ruler must use to gain and hold power, was born in 1469 into a family with a long tradition in Florentine politics. His father, Bernardo Machiavelli, was a lawyer who was forced into an ignoble position as a treasury official in Florence because his dwindling inheritance was no longer adequate to support him and his family. Niccolò Macchiavelli, growing up during the period of Girolamo Savonarola’s greatest activity, was twenty-eight years old when the reformer-monk, after having been the most powerful spiritual leader in Florence, was arrested, tortured, and hanged as a heretic in March,...

(The entire section is 541 words.)

Niccolò Machiavelli Biography

(Novels for Students)
Niccolo Machiavelli Published by Gale Cengage

Niccolo Machiavelli was born in Florence on May 3, 1469. He is notable for his essays on politics, particularly his infamous treatise on...

(The entire section is 339 words.)