What does Machiavelli's work tell us about the political environment of late 15c and early 16c Italy?
Machiavelli's work indicates the basic instability of government and of rulers in Italy during the late 15th and early 16th centuries. At the time, Venice was the most powerful of the Italian city states, based on its maritime empire; Rome was controlled by the Pope who held both political and religious authority, and Florence primarily from the Medici who lost power and then were returned. It was difficult to determine who one should support, or how long an authority would last. Indicative of the problems was the work of Cesare Borgia, the son of Rodrigo Borgia who became Pope Alexander VI. Cesare had been made a Cardinal in the church by his father, but built an army and attempted to build his own empire in the vicinity of Rome using funds furnished by his father.
Machiavelli had been a political official in Florence while the Medici were in political exile; however they returned to power and he was imprisoned and tortured. His reasons for writing The Prince have been largely debated. There is some argument that he intended to flatter the ruling Medici; but the avowed purpose of the book is to advise a ruler how to stay in power by whatever means, thereby providing the stability that had long been absent in Italian/Florentine government. Interestingly, the last chapter exhorts the Prince to liberate Italy from the "barbarians:"
This opportunity, therefore, ought not to be allowed to pass for letting Italy at last see her liberator appear. Nor can one express the love with which he would be received in all those provinces which have suffered so much from these foreign scourings, with what thirst for revenge, with what stubborn faith, with what devotion, with what tears. What door would be closed to him? Who would refuse obedience to him? What envy would hinder him? What Italian would refuse him homage? To all of us this barbarous dominion stinks. Let, therefore, your illustrious house take up this charge with that courage and hope with which all just enterprises are undertaken, so that under its standard our native country may be ennobled, and under its auspices may be verified that saying of Petrarch:
Virtue against fury will advance the fight,
And it in the conflict soon shall put to flight
For the old Roman valor is not dead
Nor in the Italian's breast extinguished.