Francesco Guicciardini Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Francesco Guicciardini 1483-1540

Italian historian, diplomat, statesman, and political writer.

Guicciardini is known today chiefly for his friendship with Niccolò Machiavelli and for his masterwork, Storia d'Italia, (1561-65; History of Italy). Guicciardini's literary reputation has undergone numerous reexaminations over the centuries. Many early commentators, for example, found his attitude toward history and politics cold and cynical. Today, however, his writings are admired largely for their close attention to detail and their vivid evocation of Renaissance Italy.


Much of what is known about Guicciardini can be found in his two-volume diary or Ricordanze (1515, 1528). He was born in the city-state of Florence to an aristocratic family. He pursued a law degree at 15 and graduated with a doctorate in civil law in 1505. In 1508 he married Maria Salviati, possibly in order to connect himself with her politically influential powerful family. At about this time, he began work on the Storie Fiorentine (1509; History of Florence). Although left unfinished, this History reveals Guicciardini's devotion to Florence as well as to his own aristocratic class. Written after the ouster of the Medici and during the initial tenure of the Florentine Republic, it is also critical of the tyranny of the Medici family. Guicciardini attained increasingly important posts in the Republic. From 1512 to 1513, he served as ambassador to Spain. During this time he started writing a book of political aphorisms known as the Ricordi (1580; Maxims and Reflections of a Renaissance Stateman). He also wrote a political treatise, Discorso di Logrogno (1512; Discourse of Logrogno) and worked on his Relazione di Spagna (1512-13; Report from Spain). The Report from Spain—an examination of that country's ancient history and of its Renaissance status—stands as an example of the attention to detail that appears in much of Guicciardini's writing. While Guicciardini was still in Spain, the Florentine Republic fell and was replaced once again by the rule of the Medici. On returning to Florence, Guicciardini was appointed by the Medici Pope Leo X to several influential posts: the governorship of Modena (1516) as well as of Reggio and Parma (1517). Impressed with his work as governor, Leo X made him commissioner of the papal armies in 1521. It was during this time that Guicciardini met Machiavelli. The two men became friends, and their work has frequently been compared by critics who see in both writers a loyalty to Florence linked with a reliance on realpolitik. Guicciardini's ambitions carried him successfully through another ouster of the Medici and a reinstatement of the Florentine republic in 1527. When the Medici returned to power in 1530, he expected to continue to rise under the leadership of Cosimo Medici. This time, however, the hoped-for advancement did not occur. Disappointed, Guicciardini withdrew from politics and spent the rest of his life working on his History of Italy.

Principal Works

None of Guicciardini's works was published during his lifetime, but critics believe that none except for the History of Italy was in fact intended for publication. This History and the Maxims and Reflections of a Renaissance Statesmen (which Guicciardini worked on from 1512 to 1530), are regarded as his two most significant contributions to Renaissance literature. Critic Mark Phillips describes the Maxims as "clear and direct" but skeptical lessons on the dos and don'ts of social and political life. The History of Italy, on the other hand, is written in a "grave," more complex style. It is the work of a man in retirement facing the closing years of his life, and it looks on the domestic affairs of Italy as well as its European encounters from 1492 to 1534 in a pessimistic light.

Critical Reception

The critical reception of Guicciardini's works has been various. Some of his own Italian contemporaries hated him for his support of the tyrannical Medici family. In fact, Guicciardini himself disapproved of the Medici's brutality, but believed that their power guaranteed the survival of his own aristocratic class. For this attitude he has been condemned as cynical and opportunistic, sharing the same cold adherence to realpolitik as his friend Machiavelli. By contrast, Renaissance Englishmen who read Geoffrey Fenton's translation of Guicciardini's History of Italy were impressed with the Italian historian's work. Indeed, portions of the History appear in English historian Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles. The French essayist Michel de Montaigne, however, deplored what he saw as the History's overly complicated and convoluted style and worried that Guicciardini's failure to provide examples of virtuous and rational conduct was a sign that the historian himself was "corrupted." Interest in Guicciardini's writings was revived in the nineteenth century when Giusep-pe Canestrini published his collected works, or Opere inedite (1857-67). Once again Guicciardini came under criticism for his aristocratic prejudices, and was at that time compared unfavorably to the more plebian Machiavelli. One nineteenth-century student of Guicciardini's works—Francesco De Sanctis—revealed mixed views that were not uncommon in reaction to the Renaissance historian: De Sanctis admired Guicciardini for his formidable intelligence but criticized him for his coldness. Twentieth-century critics have tended to be less judgmental. Mario Domandi, for example, applauds the fact that Guicciardini was able to separate ethics from politics in his Maxims. And Sidney Alexander considers Guicciardini distinctly mo-dem for his focus on the individual rather than the group in his histories. Finally, several critics have praised the anecdotal quality of Guicciardini's works, and others have pointed out that he could be both rational and passionate in his assessment of Florentine politics.