(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 24)

Maurizio Viroli was born in Forli, Italy, and received a degree in philosophy from the University of Bologna and a Ph.D. in social and political sciences at the European University Institute in Florence. He is the author of numerous works on political theory including Machiavelli (1998). He taught at the New School for Social Research, Georgetown University, and the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa before becoming a professor of politics at Princeton University.

In his famous essay “The Originality of Machiavelli,” the late Isaiah Berlin remarked that there is something surprising about the variety of interpretations of Niccolò Machiavelli’s political opinions; for example, his Il principe (1532; The Prince, 1640) has been called a satire, a cautionary tale, a period piece, anti-Christian, amoral, immoral, humanist, patriotic, realistic, a manual for statecraft, antiutopian, politically pragmatic, idealist, venal, even aesthetic. For hundreds of years, the writings of Machiavelli have disturbed generations of political commentators. For Berlin, his major achievement, and the one which has caused so much concern down through the ages, is that he uncovered, especially in his most famous (or infamous) work, The Prince, an insoluble dilemma—namely, that political ends equally ultimate, equally sacred, may contradict each other without any possibility of reconciliation, and thereby Machiavelli undermined one of the fundamental assumptions of Western thought. This insight has bedeviled political thinkers ever since and accounts for his continuing importance.

Machiavelli was born on May 3, 1469, in Florence into an old family from the Oltrarno, south of the river. His father, Bernardo, was from an undistinguished branch of the family, and Niccolò was for all of his life denied access to the upper reaches of Florentine society. He had two sisters, Margherita and Primavera, and a brother, Totto. Of his early years when he was growing up, studying at school and at home, little is known. What is known is that during those years he saw a number of extraordinary political and social changes in his native city. The death of Lorenzo “the Magnificent” de’ Medici in 1492 and the rise of the charismatic preacher Girolamo Savonarola hastened the downfall of the Medicis, resulting in the expulsion of the family from Florence in 1494 and a return to republican rule. In 1498, Machiavelli was appointed head of the second chancery of the Florentine Republic and was also made secretary to the Ten of War, and he would serve the republic in various capacities, both diplomatic and administrative, for the next fourteen years. Around August, 1501, Machiavelli married Marietta Corsini, who came from roughly the same social background as her husband. They had four children—a daughter, Bartolomea, and three sons, Bernardo, Guido, and Lodovico. Of his adult personal life little is known except for the brief glimpses of it that appear in his correspondence. The return of the Medicis in 1512 and the overthrow of the republic cost Machiavelli his sinecure, and for the rest of his life Machiavelli would only occasionally undertake official duties, most of the time living in the country as a private citizen and author, writing the books for which he is remembered. Machiavelli died on June 21, 1527, and was buried in the church of Santa Croce in Florence where his monument resides beside those of Michelangelo, Galileo, and Leonardo Bruni.

As Viroli points out, how and why the Council of Eighty and the Great Council of the Republic of Florence chose such a little-known, relatively young man from an impoverished, if not old, family to be a chancellor remains largely a mystery. Machiavelli had no political experience, nor was he a notary or doctor of laws, and as yet he had shown no literary distinction. One of the reasons for his appointment may have been his lack of support for Savonarola who was opposed by both the council and Signoria. Viroli also places some importance for his rapid rise to prominence on Machiavelli’s reputation as a wit and well-respected man-about-town and a member of the chancery inner circle. Throughout his biography, Viroli emphasizes the importance of Machiavelli’s personality in both his position in the government and his ability to negotiate for it, but surely there had to be other reasons for his rapid climb to fame, among which must have been his ability as a writer, evident first in the authorship of official dispatches and later as a political thinker with both firsthand experience and also wide humanist learning.

With the rapid turnover of the politicians in the Signoria and the ten, secretaries such as Machiavelli, with their long-term appointments, provided the continuity in the government. So his place in the second chancery was an extremely important one. His first diplomatic mission in 1499 to the lord of Piombino was quickly followed...

(The entire section is 2006 words.)