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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1983

Article abstract: Guicciardini helped revolutionize history writing by breaking with Humanist conventions. He was one of the first historians to present history as a series of interrelated causes and effects and to treat the history of Italy in the larger context of European affairs.

Early Life

The Guicciardini family was...

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Article abstract: Guicciardini helped revolutionize history writing by breaking with Humanist conventions. He was one of the first historians to present history as a series of interrelated causes and effects and to treat the history of Italy in the larger context of European affairs.

Early Life

The Guicciardini family was one of the aristocratic supports of the early (circa 1430) Medici regime in Florence. Francesco Guicciardini’s father had close ties to Lorenzo de’ Medici, evidenced by the many positions offered him by Lorenzo and by the fact that Marsilio Ficino, Lorenzo’s colleague in the Platonic Academy and a member of the Medici household, was godfather to young Francesco. At his father’s urging, Guicciardini pursued a career in law. He studied at the Universities of Pisa, Ferrara, and Padua. Upon his return to Florence, he established himself as a lawyer and professor of law and in 1508 married Maria Salviati, whose family was active in the affairs of republican Florence. His earliest writings belong to this period and include his family memoirs and the Storie fiorentine (1509; The History of Florence, 1970), which covered the years 1378 to 1509. The latter is an important source for historians interested in the Florentine Republic.

Life’s Work

In 1511, the year of Pope Julius II’s formation of a Holy League against France—consisting of the Papal States, Venice, Aragon, and the Holy Roman Empire—Guicciardini was elected to his first public post, as ambassador to the court of Ferdinand II of Aragon. When he returned to Florence three years later, he found the Medici family restored to power and Florence a member of the league. He returned to his legal profession, and, though no friend to the younger generation of Medici, he served the new rulers first as a member of the Balia, or body of eight, in charge of internal security and in 1515 in the Signoria, the governing council of the city.

Guicciardini’s career took a new course in 1516, when he was appointed by Pope Leo X to a series of posts. He would serve the Papacy almost continuously until 1534. Until 1521, he was Governor of Modena and Reggio and general of papal armies. Temporarily removed from these posts upon the death of Leo X, Guicciardini was reappointed by Pope Adrian VI. Under his harsh but efficient rule, these provinces were brought under control. The war in Italy between the Valois French and the Habsburg, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, turned Reggio into a military outpost of the Papal States. Guicciardini’s major military success was the defense of Parma against the French in December, 1521. He also successfully preserved Modena from the Duke of Ferrara, though Reggio capitulated.

Guicciardini’s literary output during this time consists of numerous letters and memorandums that manifest his tireless energy in the performance of his duties. From 1521 to 1526, he wrote Dialogo del reggimento di Firenze (dialogue on the government of Florence). From a historical case study illustrating the defects of one-man rule and of democracy, Guicciardini deduced his ideal Florentine government: a republic in which the aristocratic element has a leading role. In 1521, too, began Guicciardini’s correspondence with Niccolò Machiavelli. From 1501 until the restoration of the Medici in 1512, Machiavelli had been a leading actor in Florentine affairs under Piero Soderini, the ensign-bearer of the republic. The Guicciardini and Salviati families had been aristocratic opponents of that regime, and Guicciardini had called Machiavelli the “tool of Soderini.” The two found a common bond in their distaste for Medici rule after 1512. Though younger by fourteen years, Guicciardini played the aristocratic patron to Machiavelli the commoner. About 1530, he began Considerazioni sui “Discorsi” de Machiavelli (Considerations on the “Discourses” of Machiavelli, 1965), which he never finished. He criticized Machiavelli’s theories and his interpretation of Roman history as a guide to contemporary political thought.

Guicciardini’s star continued to ascend under Pope Clement VII, a Medici family member with whom he was friends. In 1524, he was made president of the Romagna region, and he became a trusted adviser to the pope. The victory of Charles V over Francis I of France at Pavia in 1525 proved a turning point in the life and the historical consciousness of Guicciardini. He was catapulted into the highest echelons of European politics. From then on, he was both enabled and required to comprehend events in Italy as intricately bound up in the larger schemes of the great powers. In 1526, Guicciardini was in Rome as a papal adviser. His advice was important in the formation of the League of Cognac, the alliance of the Papacy with France and Venice against the Habsburgs; Machiavelli also supported this alliance. Guicciardini became the lieutenant-general of the league’s forces. This action by the Medici pope placed Florence in danger of Habsburg reprisal and resulted in another overthrow of Medici rule in 1527, ten days after the sack of Rome by Habsburg troops under the Duke of Bourbon. Guicciardini thus found himself out of favor with the pope and unwelcome in Florence, because of his Medici associations. He later commented that he had suddenly been thrown from the height of honor and esteem to the other extreme. He began to comprehend the power of fortune in historical events, a notion which would attain increasing prominence in his thought.

Guicciardini retired to his villa at Finocchietto, where he worked on Cose fiorentine (Florentine affairs), Ricordi (partially translated as The Maxims of Francesco Guicciardini, 1845), and three personal pieces—Consolatoria, Accusatoria, and the unfinished Defensoria. These three personal pieces are written as speeches against himself; they contain indictments of actions which had long bothered him, including his formation of the league, the sack of Rome, and the pope’s imprisonment. A major charge by his imaginary accuser was that he had used high position for personal gain. The Ricordi is a collection of political maxims culled from his various papers and treatises. Their tone is uniformly cynical, more so, even, than Machiavelli’s writings; for example, Guicciardini suggests that one should gain a reputation for sincerity in order to be able to lie successfully on an important matter. In Cose fiorentine, a second history of Florence covering 1375 to 1494, Guicciardini returned to the classical Humanist style of history, but he surpassed the typical Humanist histories by using many sources, including documents. In this and in his conviction that to understand the history of Florence one must also understand events throughout all Italy, Guicciardini was taking the first steps in modern historiography. He never finished his Florentine history; in 1529, the Treaty of Cambria dictated the return of the Medici to power in Florence, and Guicciardini returned to eminence under Alessandro de’ Medici’s rule.

Personally opposed to Medici rule, Guicciardini still aspired to a leadership role in Florence, but his political career lacked luster during his later years. Pope Clement appointed him Governor of Bologna in 1531; Pope Paul III removed him in 1534. In Florence, Guicciardini was legal adviser to Alessandro until his assassination in 1537. Duke Cosimo de’ Medici allowed Guicciardini to remain in office but with an ever-diminishing influence over affairs.

In 1536 Guicciardini began Storia d’Italia (1561-1564; The History of Italy, 1579), the only book he wrote not for himself but for public consumption. Retiring in 1537 to his villa, he took with him the entire foreign correspondence of the Florentine Republic. The History of Italy was written, revised, and polished many times during the last three years of Guicciardini’s life. Aside from its value as a source for the years 1494-1532, it is a great milestone in historiography. Guicciardini had come to believe that traditional Humanist history was artificial and prevented history from being useful. He thought that the Humanist view that the moral failures of individual Italian princes were responsible for conflict was inadequate; he believed that not man but uncontrollable fortune governed events. Most important, he realized that the wars of foreign powers in Italy had causes from beyond the Alps. Guicciardini viewed The History of Italy as a tragedy brought on Italians by themselves. Because of their rivalries, Italian rulers invited foreign powers onto Italian soil. Guicciardini frequently reiterates that all men act only from self-interest, and the interests of the foreign powers caused the Italian rulers to be initiators of events no longer, so that even their best efforts could not relieve the situation. It was Guicciardini’s gift to show how human illusions are an integral part of history and how events, or fortune, and human intentions constantly act and react upon one another. Is history still useful if it teaches nothing but the arbitrariness of fortune? Guicciardini believed that the value of history was as a reminder to men to consider the effect of their every action upon their names and dignity. He died while still polishing his book on May 22, 1540.

Summary

Francesco Guicciardini’s achievement was to set the writing of history on a new and intellectually sound path. Before his generation, Humanist historians had slavishly imitated the historians of classical antiquity. If the main subject was a war, then Sallust was to be imitated and attention devoted to the generals’ speeches before a battle and to the battle itself. If the focus was the history of a particular city, then Livy was the preferred model. History was regarded as a branch of rhetoric whose purpose was to provide moral instruction by examples. Thus, history did not require completeness but merely those episodes which demonstrated a certain virtue or vice.

Guicciardini accepted the didactic purpose of history (he quoted Cicero’s prescription for writing history), but he saw it as teaching the concrete effects of various types of government rather than the general rules of ethics. In the end, he concluded that men always act from personal interest and that fortune plays its fickle part more frequently than one might think. Throughout a lifetime as an actor at the edge of events, he came to perceive the complex networks of causation between events, so that episodic history was no longer plausible to him. Another contribution was his heightened standard of factual accuracy, possible only by comparing literary sources and documents.

Guicciardini’s the Ricordi and The History of Italy were published soon after his death. His other writings, ten volumes of Opere lnedite (unedited works), did not see print until 1857-1867.

Bibliography

De Sanctis, Francesco. History of Italian Literature. Translated by Joan Redfern. 2 vols. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1968. Chapter 15 compares Machiavelli and Guicciardini. Gives an unfavorable view of the career and mind of Guicciardini as advocating self-interest as the motive force of history.

Gilbert, Felix. Machiavelli and Guicciardini: Politics and History in Sixteenth Century Florence. New York: W. W. Norton, 1984. A survey of Guicciardini’s career and literary output seen against the tradition of Renaissance historiography prevalent in his day. Contains an excellent annotated bibliography.

Guicciardini, Francesco. The History of Florence. Translated by Mario Domandi. New York: Harper & Row, 1970. The complete text in English with an excellent and detailed introductory biography.

Guicciardini, Francesco. The History of Italy. Translated by Sidney Alexander. New York: Macmillan, 1969. Contains extensive and well-chosen excerpts in English from his twenty-volume history.

Guicciardini, Francesco. Maxims and Reflections of a Renaissance Statesman. Translated by Mario Domandi. New York: Harper & Row, 1965. An English translation of the Ricordi.

Guicciardini, Francesco. Selected Writings. Edited by Cecil Grayson. Translated by Margaret Grayson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965. A good sampling of Guicciardini’s various writings in English translation.

Luciani, Vincent. Francesco Guicciardini and His European Reputation. New York: Karl Otto, 1936. Contains copious scholarly material on Guicciardini; lists editions and translations of his works up to 1936. Discusses The History of Italy as a historical source and summarizes the views of it held by Italian, French, Spanish, Catholic, Protestant, and nineteenth century historians.

Ridolfi, Roberto. The Life of Francesco Guicciardini. Translated by Cecil Grayson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968. An intimate, thoroughly footnoted, highly favorable biography by a major Guicciardini scholar.

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