During a political debate — in the USA, Italy or anywhere — if a politician refers to his or her opponent as “Machiavellian”, it is usually not meant as a compliment. To emulate the Renaissance-era historian, diplomat, civil servant and political philosopher is to suggest that someone is ruthless, sneaky, rapacious, cruel and simply not the kind of leader anyone should want to follow. Niccolo Machiavelli lived at the height of the Italian Renaissance, a period of unparalleled creativity as well as ongoing conflict and corruption, which might lead later generations to believe that a certain degree of monkey business was necessary to allow greatness to emerge.
Machiavelli himself might be tarred as a bloodthirsty totalitarian but his book “The Prince” (which you can read here in English translation or in the original Italian here) is a reasoned discourse on practical politics based on Machiavelli’s observation of political life in 16th century Europe. In his personal life he is more sinned against than sinning, the corruption of his time in both church and state are a result of unjust political structures.
Machiavelli might even be good company, as we meet him in Joseph Markulin‘s epic novel “Machiavelli: A Renaissance Life”. Machiavelli’s life story, shaped to the exegencies of historical fiction, is marked by acts of courage and political activism but also torture and depression. His hometown of Florence is torn between followers of the charismatic monk Girolamo Savonarola, who predicts (almost calls for) the downfall of a sinful city-state, and Lorenzo de’Medici, whose reign has allowed Florence to become something of a party town. Young Niccolo is drawn to Savonarola — whom he first meets when he rescues the frail young monk from a rare Florentine snowball fight — and Savonarola’s prophesies would be a strong influence on Machiavelli’s ideals.
Niccolo Machiavelli, more perspicacious than the average Florentine and more inclined to doubt and cynicism when it came to modern-day prophets, began to recover his wits. The force of the friar’s onslaught had initially drawn him in, but now, with an effort of the will, he succeeded in resisting the magnetism — in detatching himself a little from the rising tide of prophetic fury. What, after all, is he saying? Niccolo found himself thinking. Nothing that you couldn’t read in Jeremiah, or Isaiah — Egypt and Babylon, wars and rumors of wars, cleansing fire and great destruction. Repent while there still is time! Niccolo was on the verge of dismissing the preacher as a fanatic, a genius, but still, at bottom, just another religious fanatic, when the friar’s sermon suddenly took a decidedly modern and and quite specific turn. While his rhetoric rremained firmly entrenched in the Old Testament prophets, his message became quite pointedly anchored in the history and politics of contemporary Florence.
“I predicted a time appointed fior the death of Lorenzo de’Medici. I stood before you and spoke of a flaming tower crashing to the ground. It has come to pass. The tower of vanity has been pulled down, and the soul of the tyrant consigned to hell.”
Machiavelli is later witness to Savonarola being burned at the stake. The monk’s torture and death amidst fanatical celebration in Florence starts off the 720-page novel, which is filled with detail of everyday life and political intrugue. Markulin does not look away from the cruelty and debauchery of the time. It was a period when Italy was divided into kingdoms and the idea of unification was slowly taking hold (actual unification would not come for another 350 years). Machiavelli was in favor of maintaining Florence as a republic — as it was prior to 1512. But the Medici family remained powerful in Florence and in Rome, where their influence extended to the highest levels of the Catholic Church. The era of the “Medici popes” and the church’s control of the Papal States is considered one of the low points in church history, and Machiavelli was there in the midst of it. It has taken many centuries but Niccolo Machiavelli’s ideas expressed in “The Prince”, such as:
It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.
When you disarm the people, you commence to offend them and show that you distrust them either through cowardice or lack of confidence, and both of these opinions generate hatred.
It is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.
Politics have no relation to morals.
are now seen as not reflecting a republican and humane philosophy that is revealed in his letters and other writings. Markulin sees “The Prince” as a less-than-sincere attempt for the once-influential Machiavelli to get back in the good graces of the Medici.
Dr. Joseph Markulin is a former professor of Italian and comparative literature with a special interest in the medieval and Renaissance periods. He has written papers on Italian culture “from Dante to Fellini”. He also worked in the public relations business. Joe now lives in Roxbury, NY where he operates an organic farm and also hosts “In Heaven There Is No Beer” on WIOX Community Radio which he calls “late night accordian music for consenting adults.”