Francesco Guicciardini Essay - Critical Essays

Guicciardini, Francesco


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.

Principal Works*

Storie florentine [History of Florence] (unfinished history) 1509

Discorso di Logrogno [Discourse of Logrogno] (essay) 1512

Relazione di Spagna [Report from Spain] (diplomatic report) 1512-13

Ricordanze. 2 vols. (diary) 1515 and 1528

Dialogo del reggimento di Firenze [Dialogue on the Government of Florence] (essay) 1524

Considerazioni sui "Discorsi" del Machiavelli [Observations on Machiavelli's "Discourses"] (essay) 1530

Storia d'Italia [History of Italy] (history) 1561-65

Ricordi [Maxims and Reflections of a Renaissance Statesman] (aphorisms) 1580

Opere inedite. 10 vols. [published by Giuseppe Canestrini] (collected works) 1857-67

Le cose fiorentine [Florentine Affairs] (unfinished history edited by Roberto Ridolfi) 1945

*Because none of Guicciardini's works was published during his lifetime, all dates (except those for the Storia d'Italia, Ricordi, Opere inedite, and Le cose florentine) indicate the approximate time of completion of the work rather than a publication date.


Cecil Grayson (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: Introductory Notes to Francesco Guicciardini: Selected Writings, edited and introduced by Cecil Grayson, translated by Margaret Grayson, Oxford University Press, 1965, pps. xxv, 59-60, 127-28.

[In the following brief notes, Grayson describes the contents, physical appearance, and publication history of Guicciardini's Ricordi, Considerations on the "Discourses" of Machiavelli, and Ricordanze.]

Introductory Note: Ricordi

Guicciardini made three redactions of this work. Although he began to collect together certain maxims as early as 1512, the main body of the collection, in a manuscript now lost, was put together sometime...

(The entire section is 1001 words.)

Nicolai Rubinstein (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: Introduction to Maxims and Reflections of a Renaissance Statesman (Ricordi), by Francesco Guicciardini, translated by Mario Domandi, Harper Torchbooks, 1965, pp. 7-32.

[In the following essay, Rubinstein provides an overview of Guicciardini's eighteen-year endeavor known as the Ricordi, and points out the differences in Guicciardini's work from that of his contemporary and colleague, Machiavelli.]


In the history of Renaissance thought, Guicciardini's Ricordi occupy a place of singular importance. Few works of the sixteenth century allow us so penetrating an insight into the views and sentiments of its author as these...

(The entire section is 9408 words.)

Mario Domandi (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: Translator's Preface to Maxims and Reflections of a Renaissance Statesman (Ricordi), by Francesco Guicciardini, translated by Mario Domandi, Harper Torchbooks, 1965, pp. 33-38.

[In the following essay, Domandi asserts that Guicciardini's Maxims, like the writings of his colleague Machiavelli, should be commended for separating politics from ethics.]

If Guicciardini's Ricordi has been as well known as Machiavelli's Prince, they would surely have competed for the reputation of being the most immoral piece of political prose of the early Cinquecento. The great critic Francesco DeSanctis, whose liberal-nationalism generally predisposed him to...

(The entire section is 2118 words.)

Sidney Alexander (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Introduction to The History of Italy, by Francesco Guicciardini, translated and edited by Sidney Alexander, Princeton University Press, 1969, pps. xxv, 59-60, 127-28.

[In the following excerpt, Alexander compares Guicciardini's writing style to that of several twentieth-century writers, asserting that Guicciardini's style is modern because it focuses on the individual in history.]

"If we consider intellectual power [the Storia d'Italia] is the most important work that has issued from an Italian mind." The judgment is that of Francesco de Sanctis, surely himself one of the foremost Italian minds. But like a great many classics, Guicciardini's History...

(The entire section is 4123 words.)

Mario Domandi (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: Introduction to The History of Florence, by Francesco Guicciardini, translated and edited by Mario Domandi, Harper & Row, 1970, pp. xiii-xxxvii.

[In the following excerpt, Domandi examines the structure, style, and purpose of Guicciardini's History of Florence and notes that the work stresses the importance of rational thought. (Note: Only those footnotes are included which pertain to this particular excerpt.]

After lying in the Guicciardini family archive for 350 years, the History of Florence was edited and published for the first time by Giuseppe Canestrini, as the third volume of his Opere inedite di Francesco...

(The entire section is 3799 words.)

Mark Phillips (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "The Historian's Language," in Francesco Guicciardini: The Historian's Craft, University of Toronto Press, 1977, pp. 174-83.

[In the following essay, Phillips examines the writing style displayed in Guicciardini's Storia d'Italia (The History of Italy), concluding that the style is complicated, cool, and "mannered," but that it can also be passionate when called for by the subject matter; additionally, Phillips observes that Guicciardini's writing is a good example of the ambiguity found in humanism.]

In the present century, when extended prose narrative is by far the dominant literary form, historians have largely abandoned their commitment to...

(The entire section is 4690 words.)

Sheila ffolliott (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Francesco Guicciardini's Report from Spain: Introduction," Allegorica, Vol. VII, No. 1, Summer, 1982, pp. 60-2.

[In the following essay, ffolliott describes the Report from Spain as a genre of writing new to the Renaissance, and observes that this report reveals much about the Florentine Republic's relationship with Spain at a particular point in history.]

The Report from Spain was written by the Florentine lawyer and historian Francesco Guicciardini (1482-1540) while he was Ambassador at the Court of King Ferdinand in 1512-1513 on behalf of the Florentine Republic.1 It is a unique document never before wholly translated into...

(The entire section is 1122 words.)

Peter Bondanella (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Francesco Guicciardini in Modern Critical Literature," Annali d'Italianistica, Vol. 2, 1984, pp. 7-18.

[In the following essay, Bondanella traces the publication history of Guicciardini's writings, noting that while some of his editors have been interested in the moral content of his work, others have concentrated on his style and method.]

Guicciardini's place in Italian and European literary history owes as much to extraliterary factors as it does to a reasoned assessment of the merits of his works. Given the peculiar publication history of his works, a comprehensive view of Guicciardini's contributions to Italian Renaissance culture was perhaps not even...

(The entire section is 5353 words.)

Donald J. Wilcox (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Guicciardini and the Humanist Historians," Annali d'Italianistica, Vol. 2, 1984, pp. 19-33.

[In the following essay, Wilcox places Guicciardini within the tradition of Renaissance humanist historians but stipulates that Guicciardini's writings differ from the rest thanks to his understanding both of individual psychology and of the complex, changing connections between historical events.]

Guicciardini's relation to the tradition of humanist historiography remains problematic despite considerable study over the past thirty years. Early attempts to dissociate Guicciardini were flawed by misunderstanding of the fundamental traits of humanist historiography. In...

(The entire section is 7331 words.)

Nancy S. Struever (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Proverbial Signs: Formal Strategies in Guicciardini's Ricordi," Annali d'Italianistica, Vol. 2, 1984, pp. 94-109.

[In the following essay, Struever suggests that Guicciardini presented his Ricordi as a set of proverbs in order to express important ethical ideas in a traditional and therefore intimate, accessible form.]

As long ago as 1939, Felix Gilbert demonstrated the usefulness of a textual analysis of the moral-political discourse of the Renaissance. He argued that a fundamental political reorientation can be diagnosed in the alterations in the genre of advice or counsel, for example, in reading Machiavelli's Prince as a transformation of...

(The entire section is 7837 words.)

Salvatore DiMaria (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Divine Order, Fate, Fortune and Human Action in Guicciardini's Storia d'Italia," Forum Italicum, Vol. 28, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 22-40.

[In the following essay, DiMaria argues that Guicciardini's Storia d'Italia reflects the spirit of the times; that is, Guicciardini acknowledges the large part that fortune plays in an increasingly complex world even as he asserts that individuals have a measure of power over events.]

The decades of relative calm and political stability preceding the death of Lorenzo de' Medici (1492) undoubtedly contributed to the humanist belief in one's ability to influence the course of human affairs. The prevailing mood of...

(The entire section is 9005 words.)

Alison Brown (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Introduction to Dialogue on the Government of Florence, by Francesco Guicciardini, edited and translated by Alison Brown, Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. vii-xxviii.

[In the following excerpt, Brown provides a close assessment of Guicciardini's Dialogue, compares his work to that of his colleague Machiavelli, and concludes that while Guicciardini preferred freedom to tyranny, he was ultimately a practical man who believed in realpolitik.]

The year 1509 … marks Francesco's initiation into the life of politics, when he was summoned for the first time to a consultative meeting of citizens, or pratica (see Glossary). In 1511, aged only 28, he...

(The entire section is 8174 words.)

Further Reading


Bondanella, Peter E. Francesco Guicciardini. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1976, 160 p.

Contains a biographical chapter and a timeline of Guicciardini's life and works, as well as primary and secondary bibliographies.

Luciani, Vincent. Francesco Guicciardini and His European Reputation. New York: Karl Otto & Co., 1936, 437 p.

Provides a brief biography of Guicciardini, comparing him to Machiavelli, as well as a bibliography of other biographies and of his writings, plus descriptions of his critical reception in Europe over the years.

Ridolfi, Roberto. The Life of Francesco Guicciardini,...

(The entire section is 661 words.)