In order to appreciate Machiavelli, it is necessary to have at least a superficial understanding of his life and environment. Although his ideas are timeless, he was very much a product of his time and place – the Italian Renaissance. Five hundred years later, his ideas generally hold up well in today’s current corporate and political cultures. In fact, you could argue Machiavelli presaged them. He might have made a good municipal CAO or CEO in today’s world.
Niccolò di Bernardo Machiavelli was born in the Italian city of Florence at the height of its power, in 1469. It was one of the five most powerful states in Italy; five states that were in constant tension and sometimes war with one another. Italy was not a unified state then; it was a collection of kingdoms and semi-autonomous city-states; some republics, some dynasties. Florence had a population of around 50,000 then.
Florence had been a republic in the early 15th century, but in 1433, the Medici family rose to power and made it their principality, albeit it was still nominally a republic. When Machiavelli was born, the city-state of Florence was still the Medici’s hereditary oligarchy, and the city ruled over a large territory that included several smaller cities as subservient clients – Pisa was one.
As a young man, he watched his city’s influence under Lorenzo de Medici grow to its apex, then falter and wane after Lorenzo’s death, in 1492. Machiavelli then watched while the French invaded and conquered large parts of Italy. He witnessed the bloodless surrender of Florence to the French, relinquishing much of its territory including the client city of Pisa, in 1494. The city’s weak family leader, Piero de Medici, was overthrown by the populace. A new republic was founded under the charismatic Dominican friar, Girolamo Savonarola, that same year.
During this republican period, Machiavelli was a bureaucrat and diplomat for the state. He was elected – at age 29 – as secretary of the Second Chancery in 1498; an executive position in the department that kept the ruling council informed on military and political affairs. That was the same year Savonarola himself was overthrown, and executed in the main square.
Surviving letters and reports show Machiavelli a witty, intelligent and canny observer, who recognized early on the importance of a ruler’s honour and reputation in maintaining a state. This would become a theme that runs through all of his political books.
The republic lasted until late 1512, when the Medici were returned to power in Florence, with help from the pope, who was also a Medici.
The republican state of Florence was not what we think of today as a democracy, but it was certainly more democratic than the hereditary states that preceded and surrounded it. It didn’t have universal suffrage; only the more well-to-do male citizens could vote.
Although the republic has echoes in today’s states, it should not be mistaken as entirely analogous to today’s democratic states.
Machiavelli travelled on diplomatic missions throughout Italy and as far away as Spain, France and Germany. On these missions he developed his understanding of diplomacy, power, government, the military, and trade.
He spent several months on a diplomatic mission to Cesare Borgia, a powerful Italian ruler and military leader who at one point threatened to attack Florence and restore the Medici. Machiavelli respected Cesare’s skills as both politician and commander, and that comes through in The Prince. He also recognized the flaws that made a ruler like Cesare fail.
In 1503, Machiavelli was given control of the Florentine militia, and over the next few years developed a citizen army, along with his theories about why citizen-based militia were better than the mercenaries hired by most of contemporary city states. He put his knowledge into a book, The Art of War, his only political work published during his lifetime.
Florence was at the centre of a political whirlwind in the early 16th century, as competing states in Italy jostled and fought for dominance. France, the Holy Roman Empire and Spain invaded, siding first with some of the contending states, then others, tipping the battle to and fro. German and Swiss mercenaries were also involved.
In August, 1512, Pope Julius II and his Spanish mercenaries helped the Medici dynasty return to power. The Florentine republic was abolished. Machiavelli lost both favour and his job. In 1513, he was arrested and charged with conspiracy. He was tortured, but he did not confess, and after a few weeks, he was released.
He retired to his family farm outside Florence, writing and studying, but could not stay out of politics for very long. Bad for him, but good for us: freed from his demanding government work, Machiavelli wrote his greatest works while in exile. He completed The Prince in 1513, and The Discourses about five years later.
On top of those works, the prolific Machiavelli wrote letters, plays, poems, stories and novels. Although popular in his day, outside of a few scholars, most of these are forgotten today. Were he alive now, Machiavelli would no doubt be recognized as one of our best political and literary bloggers.
He corresponded with politically-connected friends, attempting to convince them of his value in the state’s political life, and trying to get back into favour with its new rulers. Those letters survive to tell us a lot more about Machiavelli as a father, a friend, a jester, and a husband, than his political writings do.
In 1520, he had recovered enough of his reputation to be commissioned to compose a history of Florence, which he completed in 1525. He was also requested by Pope Leo X to report on how to reform the state of Florence. Between 1521 and 1525, he was again employed in minor diplomatic services for the city, although nothing as important as in his previous position.
In May, 1527, the Florentines again overthrew their Medici rulers and proclaimed a new republic. Machiavelli, however, was allowed no part in it. Already in declining health, the ‘father of political realism’ died a month later, at age 58.
This republic lasted until 1532, when another Medici was restored to hereditary power.
That was also the year Machiavelli’s masterpiece, The Prince, was first published. By then, however, Machiavelli had been dead for five years.
Previous Chapter – Next Chapter