An enduring legacy

July 19, 2020

Alexander Lee’s biography is a great foray into the magnificent life and times of Machiavelli — the father of modern political philosophy

Niccolò Machiavelli, the father of modern political philosophy and author of the notorious The Prince remains a divisive figure. His ingenuity has never been doubted, though his works still stir controversy and debate. A new biography on Machiavelli written by Alexander Lee aims to provide details about the man himself, what he stood for and how his career took shape, the trials and tribulations he endured to prove his dedication to Florence.

Deconstructing the notoriety and infamy that has plagued Machiavelli for over five centuries, the author goes into the origins of his family, its illustrious part in serving the state of Florence in notable positions in the 14th and 15th centuries and how with the rise of Medici their star began to wane. The initial chapters provide a detailed background into the family life of a young Machiavelli, how his father, a lawyer by profession, was not as rich, illustrious, and influential as his counterparts despite being a part of the nobility.

Despite his father’s financial constraints, Machiavelli received the best humanist education of the ancients and was instructed in the vagaries of art and literature that flourished in Florence during the height of the Renaissance. His family life was content, but his father’s constraints and his failure to practice his profession instilled a determination in Machiavelli since his teenage years to make something of his life.

His initial years remain shrouded in mystery, he did not make a mark or left a permanent imprint during that time. However, with the death of Lorenzo de Medici in 1492 began the rise of Savonarola, the Dominican Friar who electrified the citizens of Florence to give up a life of luxury and sin and return to the founding teachings of the Christ. As Lorenzo’s son Piero the ‘Unfortunate’ failed to consolidate the Medici rule, the dynasty fell apart after the citizens of Florence rebelled against them leading to their immediate downfall.

With Savonarola tightening his grip on power, Florence a bastion of Renaissance in Italy fell into decadence as all art and the education of the ancients were shunned on the orders of the Dominican friar. This created tensions between the nobility, which broke into rival factions; one supporting Savonarola and the others against him which included those who called for the return of the Medici family which was mostly persecuted or exiled.

As Savonarola’s reign became oppressive and stifling, the opposition to it kept rising and the tensions rose to a fever pitch before the Dominican friar was burnt at the stake for confessing, under duress, that his prophecies were a sham. After Savonarola’s spectacular fall from grace, Florence rose out of its ashes as a republic loosely founded on the Venetian model.

At this juncture, Machiavelli made his entry into the Florentine government and got appointed in the chancellery courtesy his connections and friendships with the right people in the bureaucracy at that time. Adamant to prove his worth, Machiavelli was eager to learn, grow and adapt to the changing circumstances.

Initially, Machiavelli struggled to settle into his job, which involved a lot of bureaucratic work but with time he began to settle in and cement his place despite facing stiff opposition from those who considered him a novice. Determined to prove his detractors and critics wrong, Machiavelli’s career in the Florentine government was one of trials and tribulations, in which he was called in countless times to serve as an ambassador to kings across Europe. At that time, Italy was a melting pot with Florence’s loyalty tested to the limit. A punitive campaign it was leading against Pisa became a costly war of attrition.

Lee goes into the origins of Machiavelli’s family, its illustrious part in serving the state of Florence in notable positions in the 14th and 15th Centuries and how with the rise of Medici their star began to wane.

As warfare waged across Italy in different capacities, Machiavelli was called upon to serve Florentine interests and to ink agreements with kings, dukes and mercenaries to their advantage. Many of these missions undertaken by Machiavelli were tiring and thankless, with no major financial benefits. He mostly remained short of money while he served Florence both at home and overseas.

During all those years in the chancellery, Machiavelli’s dedication to the republic never wavered. However, due to the financial hardships, his relationship with his wife, who loved him dearly, suffered a lot. In many of these ambassadorial ventures, he met and came across many eminent personalities including popes, but no one impressed him more than Cesare Borgia, on which his famous work The Prince was based.

His passion to serve Florence never swerved, he undertook a complex task of forming a citizen militia in which he played a key role in enrolling recruits and hired renowned mercenaries to train them. Machiavelli was actively involved in the founding of this citizen militia which played a key role in the fall of Pisa in 1508 after having exacted a heavy toll on the Florentine exchequer for fourteen years.

With the death of Pope Julius II, the Catholic church elected Giovanni de Medici as Pope Leo X in 1513. This eventually changed the fortunes of the Florentine republic founded after the fall of Savonarola. Internecine conflicts and warring factions, some in favour of the return of the Medici family and others dedicated to the republican rule, undermined Florence. With tensions rising and Leo X threatening to unleash his army on Florence to overthrow the republican rule, the gonfalonier, Tomasso Soderini, who had been elected for life in 1502, was forced to abdicate and was exiled.

With the overthrow of Soderini, Machiavelli lost one of his staunchest, closest allies and supporters. On the return of Medici to Florence, he was accused of being involved in a plot against them, imprisoned and tortured before being set free due to a lack of evidence. With the formation of a new government in Florence, Machiavelli found himself out of favour. Moreover, he was banished from Florence to his estate nearby. Machiavelli, now jobless, succumbed to depression.

To curry favour with Medici, he wrote The Prince which was dedicated to Pope Leo X, a stratagem to restore his fortunes. The last years of Machiavelli’s life were spent in solitude. He diverted all his energies to writing books, plays inspired by the works of writers from ancient Rome. Driven away from the chancellery and the diplomatic life that had formed the heart of Machiavelli’s career, he wrote treatises and offered advice to Medici on how to rule. He even wrote a history of Florence till the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent commissioned on the directives of Giuliano de’ Medici, later Pope Clement VII.

Much like to his father Bernardo, Machiavelli, sick and worn out, died a failure in worldly terms but unlike him, his works left a legacy that continues to reverberate till today. Machiavelli’s legacy continues to endure in modern-day political life and Alexander Lee’s biography provides a great foray into the magnificent life and times of the father of modern political philosophy.

Machiavelli: His Life and Times

Author: Alexander Lee

Publisher: Picador UK

Pages: 768

Price: Rs 3,325

The writer is a freelance journalist. He tweets @MohammadFarooq_

Alexander Lee’s biography is a great foray into the magnificent life and times of Machiavelli