This site is designed to provide two things: my rewrite of and comments on Machiavelli’s 1513 book, The Prince, and to provide space for recent posts and essays about topics related to Machiavelli and his position in politics, society and on the internet today.
My book was written in mid-2012, intended for publication. I have, however, not found a publisher yet, so I wanted to make the work available to readers who have an interest in Machiavelli and interpretations of his works.
The book is linked through the menus above, grouped by chapters that parallel the chapters in The Prince itself. Each chapter has its own page. Another menu includes the main appendices and addenda, including my bibliography. The “Misc” menu includes essays I wrote about Machiavelli, mostly after I wrote the book.
The posts below are shorter pieces written as I continue my research online and find issues I believe are relevant to understanding Machiavelli, renaissance politics, modern issues and the problems of translating from other languages.
This summer I expect to produce an e-book version for sale on iTunes and other online sites. For my biography and to read my other posts on issues not related to Machiavelli, please see my blog.
Chanakya has been called the “Indian Machiavelli” because his writings have a political pragmatism similar to that seen in Machiavelli’s own work. He has also been called “Kingmaker” because, as one book description notes,
Striving to make Chandragupta`s position secure in an unstable and dangerous time, Chanakya championed a policy of realpolitik. He deployed a large network of spies, ensured testing for the king`s food and shelter; averted disasters through keen detection like that of ants carrying rice through cracks in flooring. He was not averse to spreading rumors to win over an opponent to the king`s side. Behind all this was the burning desire to stir the country`s ruler to sweep away the vestiges of Greek rule that remained behind Alexander`s invasion and return from India.
According to Wikipedia, Chanakya lived c. 370–283 BCE and was an Indian teacher, philosopher and royal advisor to the first Maurya emperor Chandragupta. He was also “a professor of economics and political science at the ancient Takshashila University.”
Chanakya played an important role in the rise of the Maurya Empire, which ruled most of the Indian subcontinent. Chanakya was chief advisor to both Chandragupta and his son Bindusara.
Chanakya is traditionally identified by two other names: Kautilya and Vishnu Gupta. In the 4th century BCE, he wrote the ancient Indian political treatise called Arthashastra. This has been variously translated as “science of politics… to help a king in “the acquisition and protection of the earth,” “treatise on polity,” “science of material gain,” “science of polity,” and “science of political economy.” You can read it in several places, including here (PDF version here).
Tim Parks, one of the most recent translators of Machiavelli’s The Prince(this is one of my personal favourites), has recently had an article published in the NY Times Review of Books. Parks’ piece is called “Reading it Wrong,” and it’s about the difficult nature of translating a foreign language in a way that both resonates with the reader and retains the sense of the original.
Parks is mostly discussing how Italian translations of English works have changed the way Italian readers see those works, in part because of small editorial decisions and the perceptions of the translators. But he also discusses what happens in the translations of Italian into English.
I quote his comment at length because it speaks to one of the chapters I wrote here about how translators have created an impression of Machiavelli based on how they handled certain key words and sentences.
Interestingly, exactly the opposite occurs with Machiavelli in English. Again expectation is everything and Machiavelli is celebrated of course for being Machiavellian. Received opinion must not shift. So when having considered the downfall of his hero and model, the ruthless Cesare Borgia, Machiavelli rather ruefully writes: “Raccolte io adunque tutte le azioni del duca, non saprei riprenderlo.” (Literally: “Having gathered then all the actions of the duke, I would not know how to reproach him.”) The translator George Bull gives, “So having summed up all that the duke did, I cannot possibly censure him.” Here the word “censure” has a strong moral connotation, made stronger still by the introduction of “cannot possibly,” which is not there in the Italian. In line with the author’s reputation for cynicism, Bull has Machiavelli insist that he has no moral objections to anything Cesare Borgia did. Actually, Machiavelli simply says Borgia didn’t make any big mistakes. The true scandal of Machiavelli is that he never considers moral criteria at all—he doesn’t feel they are applicable to a politician fighting for survival. But it is easier for us to think of an evil Machiavelli than a lucid thinker deciding that good and evil do not come into it.
In other words, the morality of the translators impresses itself on the translation and has coloured the way readers and audiences have perceived The Prince for generations. I suggest that more people are familiar with the moral “sense” of Machiavelli as portrayed by these translators than with his actual works.
I’ve set up a Facebook page for The Municipal Machiavelli at www.facebook.com/MunicipalMachiavelli. This is where I will post links to news stories, opinion columns and other online content related to Machiavelli.
It’s also a better site for comments and to start discussions about Machiavelli, The Prince and related topics. There are many references to Machiavelli in news that are not always appropriate or relevant to the story. Please feel free to add your observations on any of the links I provide on the Facebook page, or add your own.
Please add any related images or videos, or links to same, as well.
It’s not often that anyone finds something new in the archives that have been scanned, read and pawed over by academics, historians and interested lay researched for almost 500 years, but a story in the Telegraph, dated Feb. 15, 2013, tells of just that happening. The arrest warrant for Niccolo Machiavelli was found in the Florence archives recently by Prof Stephen Milner, from Manchester University. He had been researching town criers, “and the proclamations they read out.”
The article’s writer, Nick Squires, says,
The 1513 proclamation, which called for the arrest of Machiavelli, eventually led to his downfall and death.
Well, that’s not quite true. Machiavelli wasarrested, and tortured, but released – there was no evidence against him as a member of the anti-Medici conspiracy. He lived on for another 14 years, until 1527. It was more likely he died of disappointment when the republic was restored and he was not included in its bureaucracy.
He also found documents relating to the payment of four horsemen who scoured the streets of the Tuscan city for Machiavelli.
Great discoveries. However, Mr. Squires adds another comment that is a little less than accurate:
Florence is this year celebrating the 500th anniversary of Machiavelli’s writing of The Prince, a political treatise which argues that the pursuit of power can justify the use of immoral means.
Readers of The Prince might argue that Machiavelli considered politics an amoral, but necessary practice, and outside the traditional constraints of morality. But power was not an end itself, but rather a tool used in the service of the greater good.
It can also be argued that, with a corrupt Pope wielding secular power, princes and nobles acting with brutal intent, with torture being an allowable practice even by the church, with violence, cunning, conspiracy and murder all around him, that Machiavelli might have had a somewhat jaundiced concept of what “traditional morality” meant.
The celebrations include, on February 19, a reconstruction of the events surrounding his arrest and imprisonment.
As an aficionado of The Great Courses, it’s always a delight for me to receive a new set of lectures I can listen to in the car or when walking my dog. The wide range of topics and ideas in their catalogue provides a wealth of learning and intellectual exercise for any interest. It’s a huge pleasure to be able to listen to these courses and learn from them.
Among the six or eight courses I purchased last year, is Machiavelli in Context, a 24-part series that covers a wide range of topics related to Machiavelli, the Italian Renaissance and popular views of Machiavelli’s collected work – and what it means to be “Machiavellian.” The course description notes:
In the 24 lectures that make up Machiavelli in Context, Professor Cook offers the opportunity to meet an extraordinarily thoughtful and sincere student of history and its lessons, and to learn that there is far more to him than can be gleaned from any reading of The Prince, no matter how thorough. Although The Prince is the work by which most of us think we know Machiavelli, and although some have indeed called it the first and most important book of political science ever written, it was not, according to Professor Cook, either Machiavelli’s most important work or the one most representative of his beliefs. Those distinctions belong, instead, to his Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy, a longer work started at about the same time and which would, like The Prince, not be published until well after his death…Once we recover the context of the writing of The Prince, and analyze it along with the Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy, it will be clear how The Prince can be read as a book designed to guide leaders in the creation—for Machiavelli, restoration—of republican government in Italy.
I usually get these courses as digital downloads of the audio only and transfer them to my MP3 player – but some of the courses are on DVD because they are visual not audio, so the bandwidth demand is high. These I buy as DVDs so I can watch them while on the elliptical at home.
The 24 lectures in this series on Machiavelli are:
Who Is Machiavelli? Why Does He Matter?
Classical Thought in Renaissance Florence
The Life of Niccolò Machiavelli
Why Did Machiavelli Write The Prince?
The Prince, 1–5—Republics Old and New
The Prince, 6–7—Virtù and Fortuna
The Prince, 8–12—The Prince and Power
The Prince, 13–16—The Art of Being a Prince
The Prince, 17–21—The Lion and the Fox
The Prince, 21–26—Fortune and Foreigners
Livy, the Roman Republic, and Machiavelli
Discourses—Why Machiavelli Is a Republican
Discourses—The Workings of a Good Republic
Discourses—Lessons from Rome
Discourses—A Principality or a Republic?
Discourses—The Qualities of a Good Republic
Discourses—A Republic at War
Discourses—Can Republics Last?
Discourses—Conspiracies and Other Dangers
Florentine Histories—The Growth of Florence
Florentine Histories—The Age of the Medici
The Fate of Machiavelli’s Works
Was Machiavelli a Machiavellian?
The course is presented by Dr. William Cook, a professor of history at the State University of New York. He teaches courses in ancient and medieval history, the Renaissance and Reformation periods, and the Bible and Christian thought. I found him quite sympathetic towards Machiavelli, and very expressive in his lectures, going to great lengths to express Machiavelli’s republican sentiments as expressed in The Discourses. The final lecture is one of the highlights of the series:
The final lecture addresses the most important questions we need to ask about Machiavelli, including the fairness of the judgment brought on him by history, and why he remains such a vital model, even after five centuries.
The course description also says:
According to Professor William R. Cook, a reading of Machiavelli that considers only those qualities that we today call “Machiavellian” is incomplete, and Machiavelli himself “certainly would not recognize” such sinister interpretations or caricatures of his writings and beliefs. Indeed, The Prince—on the pages of which so much of this image was built—was not even published in his lifetime.
One review of the course says it provides “a much more nuanced view of Machiavelli.” I agree that’s true if your view has been constrained by The Prince alone, or (as I have too often found), based on popular misconception and not actually from reading anything Machiavelli wrote. If you are already a student of Machiavelli, it’s more of a confirmation and reassurance of the conclusions drawn from his whole body of work.
I recommend this series unreservedly. It’s probably the best overall introduction to Machiavelli I’ve found, and is easy to consume in small pieces (each lecture is about 30 minutes long). It also comes with a good course guide (book or PDF, depending on how you purchase the course). The (current) average rating from consumers is 4.7 stars out of five.
A final note: all of these courses go on sale frequently. The current sale price for this series is $29.95. I recommend you check their site frequently to see if a course you wants is on sale and get it then. They also offer combination sets with some savings when you buy the set.
One of the main players behind the conspiracy was the avaricious Pope Sixtus IV*. He felt great hostility towards the Medici.
The pope wanted to add Florence and its territories to his Papal States, thus considerably increasing the size of his holdings and his income, while upsetting the delicate balance of power in central Italy. He also needed money to finance several major construction projects in Rome, including the creation of the Vatican Library. From Florence he would have leverage to pressure cities in the nearby Romagna, and by taking them create a kingdom for his nephew, Girolamo Riario. All of this would add to the pope’s expanding power base. But Lorenzo resisted.
When the pope asked Lorenzo to lend him money to finance his military campaigns in the Romagna, Lorenzo refused to commit any support. Instead, to strengthen their bonds with Rome, the Pazzi,a rival Florentine banking family, loaned 30,000 ducats to the pope. This angered Lorenzo, who encouraged the other Florentine bankers to hold onto their money.
The pope then changed bankers: he shifted the administration of the papal finances from the Medici to the Pazzi. This created a deep rift between Rome and the Medici. Managing the papal finances paid large commissions, creating enormous wealth for the managers: the Medici lost a major source of income.
The pope also ordered an audit on the accounts of the alum mine trade, also managed by the Medici. Alum was central the the dyeing trade in Florence, so a major source of revenue. The Pope granted the Pazzi the monopoly on the alum.
Then, Lorenzo passed a law retroactively prohibiting family inheritance by female offspring. The death of the wealthy Pazzi elder, Giovanni Borromei, without male heirs, meant that the Pazzi assets passed to the cousins, not to his wife, Beatrice. This dealt a blow to the Pazzi fortunes and exacerbated tensions between the families.
The pope was well aware of the plot and supported it, although he did not commit any of his troops to it.
Francesco Salviati was a member of a less distinguished, but still powerful Florentine family, who acted as Papal bankers in the city. Francesco had taken holy orders and was a bishop in the 1470s. He wanted to become archbishop of Florence, his home city, and the pope agreed. But the Medici made sure the position went to Rinaldo Orsini, the brother of Lorenzo’s new wife (the Orsini were another powerful family in Italy).
Francesco turned to Pope Sixtus for help. The pope didn’t have control over the appointment, but instead named Salviati archbishop of Pisa, a client city-state of Florence. This was an insult to both the Medici and the city of Florence because in the past, popes had always consulted with the city when selection an archbishop for Pisa. This infuriated Lorenzo so much that he ordered the gates of Pisa closed, preventing Salviati from entering to take office. Francesco was forced to bide his time in Rome, fretting and plotting, until Lorenzo relented in 1475.
Federigo da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino (right), was a mercenary – a conditierre – who was playing for personal gain and an easy profit by renting out his troops to the pope. His daughter was married to Giovanni Della Rovere, the pope’s favourite nephew, and his title had been granted by the pope in 1474. He secretly committed to put 600 of his troops outside Florence to support the conspirators. **
King Ferrante of Naples was a silent partner in the conspiracy, but with long-range goals to gain from the events. He had ambitions to extend his kingdom north, outflanking the papal states and Florence was a serious obstacle. He needed to unseat the Medici and replace them with a family or ruler more supportive of his cause. He agreed to supply his army to aid the pope. Later, he made peace with Lorenzo, which angered the pope.
Girolamo Riario was a favourite nephew of Sixtus IV. The pope purchased the stronghold of Imola, from Milan, but the Medici had wanted it for Florence. The pope gave it to his nephew as a dowry when he married Caterina Sforza (daughter of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan) in 1473. Although Girolamo survived the aftermath for many years, he continued to plot against the Medici, but all his efforts failed. In 1488 he was assassinated – the last of the main Pazzi conspirators alive – by members of the Orsi.
Continued in Part 3
* Wikipedia notes:
One of his first acts was to declare a renewed crusade against the Ottoman Turks in Smyrna. Fund-raising for the crusade was more successful than the half-hearted attempts to storm Smyrna, with little to show in return.
This ill-considered crusade would later come back to haunt Sixtus during the aftermath of the Pazzi conspiracy. In the middle of their march on Florence, Naples had to shift its attention away from the conflict to southern Italy to deal with a Turkish invasion. In 1480, an army from the the Ottoman Empire landed at Otranto, under orders to march on Rome and capture the city. After a two-week battle they captured Otranto, then massacred the inhabitants. The pope panicked, and demanded King Ferdinand of Naples gather together a new crusade to defeat the Turks. The Turkish ruler, Mehmet the Conqueror, sailed to Italy to lead the army on to conquer the rest of the peninsula, but died en route. His successor ordered the army’s general to be hung, and the Turks retreated at the end of September, 1481. Ferdinand’s son Alphonso, duke of Calabria, retook the city after 13 months of Turkish rule.
One of the historical events that had an influence on the young Niccolo Machiavelli‘s political and social development was the attempted assassination of the heads of the ruling Medici family, in April 1478. That Easter Sunday evening, April 26, while Lorenzo Medici (“The Magnificent”) and his brother Giuliano, were attending a packed service in the cathedral, they were attacked by several would-be assassins.
Lorenzo would survive the attempt, wounded, and in response wreaked tremendous revenge on everyone involved in the conspiracy. His brother, Giuliano, was murdered.
The eight-year-old Machiavelli (a week shy of his ninth birthday) would have seen the men running through the streets, swords drawn; the bodies bleeding on the cobblestones; heard the screams, seen the dead hanging from the bridges. He would have learned about the story from family and neighbours. He would have seen for himself how the attempt changed the face of Florentine politics and brought down one its its great families – and how it soon pitted the city against the temporal and spiritual power of the pope and his allies.
What would a young child have made of it? Clearly the conspiracy had a great effect on contemporary Florentine politics. Biographers of Machiavelli seldom do more than mention the event, many merely in passing, and none explore in depth its potential effect on his later work. Yet it must have made a significant impression.
Machiavelli would, as he matured, ponder the events of that year, trying to make sense of them, both as a local event,and what they meant in general to his theory of conspiracies. He wrote about the conspiracy in depth in his Florentine Histories, Book VIII, and briefly in The Discourses, but it is not mentioned in The Prince, nor in The Art of War. He says, briefly:
Chief among the causes which led the Pazzi to conspire against the Medici, was the law passed by the latter depriving them of the inheritance of Giovanni Bonromei. The Discourses 3, VI
He would carefully watch the actions of the troops and mercenary armies in the wars that followed, weighing their performance and behaviour under fire. It would help him define his attitudes towards mercenaries, alliances, militia and warfare in general. Not only would he write about these in his books, but he would put some of his ideas into practice when he was allowed to create and manage a Florentine militia.
The Pazzi conspiracy is a complex, confusing event that sprung from ancient enmities between the Medici and Pazzi families, a power struggle between the Medici and the pope over the papal finances and the office of cardinal of Florence, plus the efforts of a handful of opportunistic characters such as Francesco Salviati Riario (archbishop of Pisa), a professional assassin (Giovan Battista Montesecco), a mercenary with his own troops (Girolamo Riario, the pope’s nephew), city-state allies of the conspirators (the Republic of Siena, the Kingdom of Naples), an ambitious condottiere and soldier of fortune (the Duke of Urbino: Federico da Montefeltro), members of the Della Rovere family, and a few others.
Although the conspiracy began in 1477, the rivalries are much older; some of them can be traced back to Dante’s time.
The assassination attempt was made in 1478, but the civil strife and political machinations that resulted were to continue long after the botched assassination. Florence would find itself embroiled in war with the pope and his allies, then with other Italian city states for more than a decade (the War of the Barons). Tensions both within Florence and in the city’s relations stormy with other states continued until Lorenzo’s death in 1492, then resumed when the French invaded in 1494, and another generation of war broke out.
The Medicis’ place as the city’s rulers was firmly cemented after the assassination attempt; the opposite of what the conspirators had been attempting to bring about. The Medici wielded that power openly and absolutely until Lorenzo’s death. Yet the ruthless Lorenzo was also widely recognized as patron of the arts and culture, as a poet, playwright and a statesman.
When his son, Piero, took the municipal leadership after his father’s death, the city population was chafing under what many by then considered Medici despotism; they overthrew the family shortly after (replacing it with the theocratic republic under the friar Savonarola). That same mob had, only 14 years ago, swept through the streets to support the Medici and punish the Pazzi.
It’s difficult to define the conspiracy in simple terms for modern readers. It’s like trying to define a spider’s web by describing each separate, sticky strand, and hoping the reader can assemble the various descriptions into a web. There are much better writers than I who have written about the conspiracy, including:
I recently updated several pages, including the bibliography, after receiving several relevant books from online booksellers. I’m still looking for alternate translations of Machiavelli, and would appreciate any recommendations not already noted in the biblio. PDFs of older (non-copyright) works would be appreciated.
I made Demonizing Machiavelli a separate page after I updated it with information about early English translations. Still more to add when I have time to flesh out the research, but I felt it deserved its own page. It used to be a subsection under Machiavellian Misquotes.
I have several books by Balthasar Gracian and works by Queen Elizabeth I with quotes to add, which will be a near-future project. Right now I’m working on a post about how the Pazzi conspiracy affected Machiavelli’s political thought and development.
There is no evidence that Niccolo Machiavelli ever met the charismatic Dominican friar and fiery preacher, Girolamo Savonarola, but we know he attended at least one of the friar’s sermons. In a letter to Ricciardo Bechi, dated March 9, 1498, Machiavelli described his experience. He was not impressed. He wrote that, in his judgement, Savonarola was a hypocrite who,
…acts in accordance with the times and colors his lies accordingly.*
Savonarola played a seminal role in the development of Machiavelli’s political and moral thought; not only through what Machiavelli perceived of him, but in the way Savonarola organized the government of Florence during his leadership.
Savonarola had been well schooled in both biblical and classical studies. He spent his early years as an itinerant priest making fiery and contentious sermons calling for reform and repentance, with an apocalyptic theme, throughout the northern Italian city states. After several years, in 1490, he was assigned to the convent of San Marco, where Lorenzo de Medici (Lorenzo the Magnificent) met him, and decided to make him spiritual counsel for his family.
In Florence, his sermons against what he saw as tyranny and corruption grew increasingly strident, and Savonarola peppered them with prophesies about apocalyptic disasters, and Florence rising to become the “new Jerusalem.” Wikipedia notes,
In 1492 Savonarola warned of “the Sword of the Lord over the earth quickly and soon” and envisioned terrible tribulations to Rome. Around 1493 (these sermons have not survived) he began to prophesy that a New Cyrus was coming over the mountains to begin the renewal of the Church.
When the French king, Charles VII rode his army into northern Italy, in 1494, many of Savonarola’s followers believed it was proof of this prophesy. As Charles’ army pushed through Italy, defeating one opponent after another, and sacking cities along the way in order to get to the Kingdom of Naples, more and more Florentines turned to Savonarola for help to prevent their city suffering a similar fate.
By this time, Lorenzo had died (1492). His son, Piero – called Piero the Unfortunate – took over as the city’s ruler and proved inadequate to the role. Piero dithered, attempted to get Charles to bypass Florence, and treat the city as neutral. Charles would have none of it, and threatened to capture and raze the city. Florentines, desperate to protect their city and their lives, defected to Charles’s side; many flocked to Savonarola to protect them.
Piero lost his nerve. He surrendered Florence to Charles, caving in to every demand and not even attempting to negotiate better terms. In response, the populace rose up and looted the Medici home. In December, 1494, Piero and his family fled (he would eventually ally with the French, and lose his life after a battle in which the French lost). The populace turned to the fanatical friar to help them negotiate with the French, and then establish a new government. He did so with gusto.
Savonarola played on the emotions and envy of the Florentines. He convinced them that they were being abused by the rich; their opulence was a clear sign of their tyranny.
Machiavelli was, at this time, 25. He would later write that people followed Savonarola indiscriminately, and believed his every word without any proof:
And though it be easier to impose new institutions or a new faith on rude and simple men, it is not therefore impossible to persuade their adoption by men who are civilized, and who do not think themselves rude. The people of Florence do not esteem themselves rude or ignorant, and yet were persuaded by the Friar Girolamo Savonarola that he spoke with God. Whether in this he said truth or no, I take not on me to pronounce, since of so great a man we must speak with reverence; but this I do say, that very many believed him without having witnessed anything extraordinary to warrant their belief; his life, his doctrines, the matter whereof he treated, being sufficient to enlist their faith. The Discourses, 1, XI.
As a cleric, Savonarola could not hold office. However, he formed a political party from his followers, the Frateschi, and together they set about to remake Florence in Savonarola’s pious, Christian, and somewhat egalitarian model. Not all of this was bad. They wrote a new constitution that gave the vote to the artisan class, not merely the nobles. They created an election process to appoint citizens to some civic offices not simply hand out offices like favours. They passed a “Law of Appeal” to limit rulers and their supporters from using exile and capital punishment as “factional weapons.”
But making laws that seemed to offer more liberty was not enough. They had to be kept, and not all were. This would cause Savonarola a loss of face and support. Machiavelli later wrote,
After the year 1494, the city of Florence reformed its government with the help of the Friar Girolamo Savonarola… Among other ordinances for the safety of the citizens, he caused a law to be passed, allowing an appeal to the people from the sentences pronounced by “the Eight” and by the “Signory” in trials for State offences; a law he had long contended for, and carried at last with great difficulty. It so happened that a very short time after it was passed, five citizens were condemned to death by the “Signory” for State offences, and that when they sought to appeal to the people they were not permitted to do so, and the law was violated. This, more than any other mischance, helped to lessen the credit of the Friar; since if his law of appeal was salutary, he should have caused it to be observed; if useless, he ought not to have promoted it. And his inconsistency was the more remarked, because in all the sermons which he preached after the law was broken, he never either blamed or excused the person who had broken it, as though unwilling to condemn, while unable to justify what suited his purposes. This, as betraying the ambitious and partial turn of his mind, took from his reputation and exposed him to much obloquy. The Discourses, Book 1, LVI
Savonarola continued preaching, and making more of his alleged ability of prophesy. With 20-20 hindsight, he publicly claimed he had predicted the deaths of Lorenzo de’ Medici and Pope Innocent VIII, and the invasion of King Charles of France, . He spoke about his visits to heaven where the Virgin Mary revealed the future to him. He told his audience that “God had chosen Florence,” and promised that, if the people of Florence followed his teachings, “it would have riches, glory and power.”
He also called on Florentines to live pure lives and rid their city of “vice”. His party passed new laws against ‘sodomy’ (which included male and female same sex relations), adultery, public drunkenness, and other “moral transgressions.” Gangs of fundamentalist-minded boys and young men – pious thugs – patrolled the streets, attacking anyone whose dress or behaviour they considered “immodest.” The people followed his “puritanical” lifestyle eagerly – at first. Savonarola’s constraints to show signs of wear fairly soon. By 1497, the bars were selling wine and spirits again.
The peak of Savonarola’s civic madness came in February, 1497, when he organized the Bonfire of the Vanities where he built a large bonfire in the main square and exhorted Florentines to cast into it any “objects that are deemed to be occasions of sin.” His roving gangs helped round up material from the residents, often forcibly. Thousands of cosmetics, pieces of priceless art, books, sculpture, painting and furniture were destroyed.
Pope Alexander VI initially tolerated fra Girolamo’s somewhat erratic actions, and even ignored the friar’s increasingly strident and accusatory attacks on the church and the papacy. Florence refused to join the pope’s Holy League alliance to drive out the French, because Savonarola and his party already had an alliance with the French to protect them from both the papal ambitions and the threatened return of the Medici. Although the French never provided the promised help, Savonarola clung stubbornly to their side.
The pope had had enough. He started an exchange of angry letters with Savonarola. The friar in turn sent the pope his “Compendium of Revelations,” a self-serving account of his “prophetic career.”
The exasperated pope demanded Savonarola appear in Rome. The friar pleaded ill health, so the pope banned him from preaching. Savonarola obeyed for a short while, but couldn’t keep his mouth shut for very long. He resumed his sermons, in an even more challenging and castigating manner. So the pope used his last weapon: excommunication, in May, 1497. he also threatened the Florentines with “interdiction” if they continued to offer him sanctuary in their city.
For the next ten months, Savonarola ignored the order, and continued to preach. He became increasingly convinced of his divine mission and spoke of performing miracles to prove himself. In March, 1498, Machiavelli heard one of his sermons at San Marco. In his letter, he wrote that the friar’s words had an effect on those in the crowd who didn’t examine them closely or apply critical thinking to them, but that they were meant mostly to bolster the faith of the followers while denigrating any perceived opponents:
Now that our friar was in his own house, if you had heard with what boldness he began preaching and with how much he continued, it would be an object of no little admiration. Because, fearing greatly for himself and believing that the new Signoria would not be reluctant to injure him – and having decided that quite a few citizens should be brought down with him – he started in with great scenes of horror; with explanations that were quite effective to those not examining them closely, he pointed out that his adherents were excellent people while his opponents were most villainous, and he drew on every expression that might weaken his opponents’ party and fortify his own.
“Savonarola… was ruined with his new order of things immediately the multitude believed in him no longer, and he had no means of keeping steadfast those who believed or of making the unbelievers to believe.” The Prince, VI
The government of Florence, under increasing political, economic, and religious pressure, tried to convince Savonarola to shut up. Many followers left his side, others faltered as pressures mounted and the city’s economic status wilted. In a final, desperate attempt to regain his lost authority, Savonarola accepted a challenge by a Franciscan preacher, who proposed he and Savonarola walk through fire to prove who had the most favour with God.
The date for the ordeal was April 7, 1498, in the central square. When the day arrived, a huge crowd attended. The two priests and their followers milled about nervously as the flames grew. They each, separately, found one excuse after another to delay the test. Hours later, a heavy spring rain drenched the fires, and in frustration, government officials cancelled the contest.
The crowd was not pleased. The people had put their faith in Savonarola, and believed his words. He lacked the faith he demanded they themselves show. When he failed to follow through, they blamed him for the fiasco, and for the low esteem in which Florence had fallen with other rulers and states, since his arrival. A mob assaulted the convent of San Marco where he was headquartered.
Savonarola and two of his fellow monks, Fra Domenico and Fra Silvestro Maruffi, were arrested and imprisoned. They were tortured; Savonarola confessed to “having invented his prophecies and visions.” He then retracted his confession, was tortured more, and confessed again. On May 23, 1498, the three were publicly condemned as heretics and schismatics. They were hung in the public square, and their bodies burned.
Savonarola’s fall from grace, and his death had several aftereffects. His words would not be forgotten, and would later influence many others who felt that the papacy had grown too corrupt and concerned with temporal power – Martin Luther, the architect of the Reformation a few years later, would read them and praise the friar. The Huguenots in France would take some of their reforming inspiration from him. Even as late as the mid-20th century, Savonarola would be held up as an early model for social justice and reform, so much so that – despite his intolerance and authoritarianism – he has been considered for sainthood.
For Florence, the major shift was the creation of the republic after the friar, that would soon hire young Niccolo Machiavelli as an official – a republic that was founded on many of the principles and bureaucratic systems Savonarola initiated.
For Machiavelli, Savonarola would be a complex lesson. He appears as the “unarmed prophet” who failed because he lacked the force necessary to secure his authority:
“If Moses, Cyrus, Theseus, and Romulus had been unarmed they could not have enforced their constitutions for long — as happened in our time to Fra Girolamo Savonarola, who was ruined with his new order of things immediately the multitude believed in him no longer, and he had no means of keeping steadfast those who believed or of making the unbelievers to believe.” The Prince, VI
Machiavelli would also contrast Savonarola’s rule with that of Piero Soderini’s, later, arguing that Savonarola was unable to deal with adversaries effectively, and did not have the followers to carry out the necessary tasks for him:
But when fortune is not thus propitious to him, he must contrive other means to rid himself of rivals, and must do so successfully before he can accomplish anything. Any one who reads with intelligence the lessons of Holy Writ, will remember how Moses, to give effect to his laws and ordinances, was constrained to put to death an endless number of those who out of mere envy withstood his designs. The necessity of this course was well understood by the Friar Girolamo Savonarola, and by the Gonfalonier Piero Soderini. But the former could not comply with it, because, as a friar, he himself lacked the needful authority; while those of his followers who might have exercised that authority, did not rightly comprehend his teaching. This, however, was no fault of his; for his sermons are full of invectives and attacks against “the wise of this world ,”that being the name he gave to envious rivals and to all who opposed his reforms. The Discourses, Book 3, XXX
On the other hand, Machiavelli argued for Florence to retain some of the institutions – such as the election for public office – that Savonarola and his Frateschi had initiated. A republican at heart, Machiavelli valued the change from the hereditary state under the Medicis to a more inclusive government that allowed him a chance to prove his worth.
Savonarola’s rise and fall was also a lesson in the potentially disastrous intersection of religion and politics, as well as the practical need to have more than faith to support your goals. Machiavelli’s own views on the role of the papacy and its involvement in temporal and political matters would be shaped in part of Savonarola’s ideals. As Wikisource.org notes, Machiavelli shared some of Savonarola’s sentiments:
When it comes to religion Machiavelli is not the cold time-server that some would have people believe. Echoing Savonarola, he complains how the Christian religion had decayed from “its principles,” coming close, “without any doubt, to ruin or punishment.” The common belief that Machiavelli considers Christianity to be inferior to the classical religions is not founded. With great care, he makes a distinction between original Christianity and the corrupted one of his times. He says: “If from the beginning of the Christian republics the Christian religion would have maintained itself according to its giver’s order, the Christian state and republic would have been more united and happy that they are presently.”
(Quotes from The Discourses, Book 1, XII)
A few months before Savonarola was overthrown and executed in the main square, in 1498, Machiavelli stood in the election for a position in public office. He lost, possibly because he was known to be critical of Savonarola. But in April, the Frateschi’s political leader, Francesco Valori, was murdered, and the government started to unravel. Many of Savonarola’s supporters, including chancery staff, were removed from office by the anti-Savonarola newcomers.
Machiavelli ran again for office after Savonarola had been executed. This time he won. At age 29 he became secretary of the Second Chancery; an executive position in the department that kept the ruling council informed on military and political affairs. Without the new rules Savonarola had put in place, he would not likely have been given such a position. Who knows if he would have ever penned his famous works, if not. ~~~~~ * A somewhat different translation can be found in The Letters of Machiavelli, translated by Allan Gilbert, University of Chicago Press, USA, 1961. Gilbert translates: “Thus, according to my judgment, he keeps on working with the times and making his lies plausible.”