Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527)

Author and statesman, one of the outstanding figures of the Renaissance, born in Florence. Machiavelli entered the political service of the Florentine republic in 1498 and rose rapidly in importance. In 1506, as defense secretary, he substituted a citizens' militia for the mercenary system then prevailing in Italy. He was convinced that the use of mercenaries had largely contributed to the political weakness of Italy.

Machiavelli became acquainted with power politics through his important diplomatic missions. He met Cesare Borgia twice and was sent by Florence to Louis XII of France, (1504 and 1510), to Pope Julius II (1505), and to the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1507).

The return of the Medici to Florence in 1512 caused Machiavelli's dismissal, and the following year his imprisonment and torture for his alleged complicity in the plot against the Medici. After his release several months later through the intervention of the new Medici Pope, Leo X, Machiaveli retired to his country estate near Florence, where he wrote his major works.

In 1513 Machiavelli began The Prince, which was probably completed by the end of the year, and the Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy (1517). The Prince is Machiavelli's best known work. It describes the means by which a prince may gain and maintain his power. His "ideal" prince - modeled on Cesare Borgia - is an amoral and calculating tyrant who would be able to establish a unified Italian state. The last chapter of the work pleads for the eventual liberation of Italy from foreign domination. The Prince has been interpreted in various ways: it has been viewed as a sincere advise, as a plea for political office, as a detached analysis of Italian politics, as evidence of early Italian nationalism, and as a political satire on Medici rule. However, the adjective "Machiavellian" has come to be a synonym for cunning and for justification by power.
Less widely read but more indicative of Machiavelli's politics is his Discourses. In it Machiavelli expounds a general theory of politics and government that stresses the importance of an uncorrupted political culture and a rigorous political morality. Vaster in conception than The Prince, the Discourses show clearly Machiavelli's republican principles, which are also reflected in his History of Florence (1532), a historical and literary masterpiece, entirely modern in concept.

Machiavelli is not only a political-historical writer. He is also an accomplished and purely literary composer. Among his plays are Clizia, and the best known Mandragola (1524), one of the best plays of the XVI Century. He also wrote many poems: Carnival Songs, sonnets and a variety of rhymes. His Capitoli, poems in terza rima, elaborate themes which have a close relationship with his historical-political points of view—fortune, occasion, ambition. Finally The Golden Ass expresses his deep felt pessimism, also evident in many other works.