Portrait of Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli by Santi di Tito
Nicolo Machiavelli was born at Florence on 3rd May 1469. He was thesecond son of Bernardo di Nicolo Machiavelli, a lawyer of some repute,and of Bartolommea di Stefano Nelli, his wife. Both parents were membersof the old Florentine nobility.
His life falls naturally into three periods, each of which singularlyenough constitutes a distinct and important era in the history ofFlorence. His youth was concurrent with the greatness of Florence as anItalian power under the guidance of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Il Magnifico.The downfall of the Medici in Florence occurred in 1494, in which yearMachiavelli entered the public service. During his official careerFlorence was free under the government of a Republic, which lasteduntil 1512, when the Medici returned to power, and Machiavelli lost hisoffice. The Medici again ruled Florence from 1512 until 1527, when theywere once more driven out. This was the period of Machiavelli’s literaryactivity and increasing influence; but he died, within a few weeks ofthe expulsion of the Medici, on 22nd June 1527, in his fifty-eighthyear, without having regained office.
Although there is little recorded of the youth of Machiavelli, theFlorence of those days is so well known that the early environment ofthis representative citizen may be easily imagined. Florence has beendescribed as a city with two opposite currents of life, one directed bythe fervent and austere Savonarola, the other by the splendour-lovingLorenzo. Savonarola’s influence upon the young Machiavelli must havebeen slight, for although at one time he wielded immense power over thefortunes of Florence, he only furnished Machiavelli with a subject ofa gibe in “The Prince,” where he is cited as an example of an unarmedprophet who came to a bad end. Whereas the magnificence of the Mediceanrule during the life of Lorenzo appeared to have impressed Machiavellistrongly, for he frequently recurs to it in his writings, and it is toLorenzo’s grandson that he dedicates “The Prince.”
Machiavelli, in his “History of Florence,” gives us a picture of theyoung men among whom his youth was passed. He writes: “They were freerthan their forefathers in dress and living, and spent more in otherkinds of excesses, consuming their time and money in idleness, gaming,and women; their chief aim was to appear well dressed and to speak withwit and acuteness, whilst he who could wound others the most cleverlywas thought the wisest.” In a letter to his son Guido, Machiavelli showswhy youth should avail itself of its opportunities for study, and leadsus to infer that his own youth had been so occupied. He writes: “Ihave received your letter, which has given me the greatest pleasure,especially because you tell me you are quite restored in health, thanwhich I could have no better news; for if God grant life to you, andto me, I hope to make a good man of you if you are willing to do yourshare.” Then, writing of a new patron, he continues: “This will turnout well for you, but it is necessary for you to study; since, then, youhave no longer the excuse of illness, take pains to study letters andmusic, for you see what honour is done to me for the little skill Ihave. Therefore, my son, if you wish to please me, and to bring successand honour to yourself, do right and study, because others will help youif you help yourself.”
The second period of Machiavelli’s life was spent in the service of thefree Republic of Florence, which flourished, as stated above, fromthe expulsion of the Medici in 1494 until their return in 1512. Afterserving four years in one of the public offices he was appointedChancellor and Secretary to the Second Chancery, the Ten of Libertyand Peace. Here we are on firm ground when dealing with the events ofMachiavelli’s life, for during this time he took a leading part inthe affairs of the Republic, and we have its decrees, records,and dispatches to guide us, as well as his own writings. A mererecapitulation of a few of his transactions with the statesmen andsoldiers of his time gives a fair indication of his activities, andsupplies the sources from which he drew the experiences and characterswhich illustrate “The Prince.”
His first mission was in 1499 to Catherina Sforza, “my lady of Forli” of“The Prince,” from whose conduct and fate he drew the moral that itis far better to earn the confidence of the people than to rely onfortresses. This is a very noticeable principle in Machiavelli, and isurged by him in many ways as a matter of vital importance to princes.
In 1500 he was sent to France to obtain terms from Louis XII forcontinuing the war against Pisa: this king it was who, in his conductof affairs in Italy, committed the five capital errors in statecraftsummarized in “The Prince,” and was consequently driven out. He, also,it was who made the dissolution of his marriage a condition of supportto Pope Alexander VI; which leads Machiavelli to refer those who urgethat such promises should be kept to what he has written concerning thefaith of princes.
Machiavelli’s public life was largely occupied with events arising outof the ambitions of Pope Alexander VI and his son, Cesare Borgia, theDuke Valentino, and these characters fill a large space of “The Prince.”Machiavelli never hesitates to cite the actions of the duke for thebenefit of usurpers who wish to keep the states they have seized; hecan, indeed, find no precepts to offer so good as the pattern of CesareBorgia’s conduct, insomuch that Cesare is acclaimed by some critics asthe “hero” of “The Prince.” Yet in “The Prince” the duke is in point offact cited as a type of the man who rises on the fortune of others, andfalls with them; who takes every course that might be expected from aprudent man but the course which will save him; who is prepared for alleventualities but the one which happens; and who, when all his abilitiesfail to carry him through, exclaims that it was not his fault, but anextraordinary and unforeseen fatality.
On the death of Pius III, in 1503, Machiavelli was sent to Rome to watchthe election of his successor, and there he saw Cesare Borgia cheatedinto allowing the choice of the College to fall on Giuliano delle Rovere(Julius II), who was one of the cardinals that had most reason to fearthe duke. Machiavelli, when commenting on this election, says thathe who thinks new favours will cause great personages to forget oldinjuries deceives himself. Julius did not rest until he had ruinedCesare.
It was to Julius II that Machiavelli was sent in 1506, when that pontiffwas commencing his enterprise against Bologna; which he brought to asuccessful issue, as he did many of his other adventures, owing chieflyto his impetuous character. It is in reference to Pope Julius thatMachiavelli moralizes on the resemblance between Fortune and women, andconcludes that it is the bold rather than the cautious man that will winand hold them both.
It is impossible to follow here the varying fortunes of the Italianstates, which in 1507 were controlled by France, Spain, and Germany,with results that have lasted to our day; we are concerned with thoseevents, and with the three great actors in them, so far only as theyimpinge on the personality of Machiavelli. He had several meetings withLouis XII of France, and his estimate of that monarch’s character hasalready been alluded to. Machiavelli has painted Ferdinand of Aragon asthe man who accomplished great things under the cloak of religion, butwho in reality had no mercy, faith, humanity, or integrity; and who,had he allowed himself to be influenced by such motives, would have beenruined. The Emperor Maximilian was one of the most interesting menof the age, and his character has been drawn by many hands; butMachiavelli, who was an envoy at his court in 1507-8, reveals the secretof his many failures when he describes him as a secretive man, withoutforce of character — ignoring the human agencies necessary to carryhis schemes into effect, and never insisting on the fulfilment of hiswishes.