Warming Up to Machiavelli

Article excerpt

My reading year is ending as much of it has been spent, pursuing a fascinating prey through a raft of books. For better or for worse, my hero now looks somewhat different to me than the ultimate pragmatist - the first to challenge the existence of permanent truths, author of "The Prince," "Florentine Histories" and "Discourses Upon Livy" - with whom I began.

Listen to his friend, the papal governor and diplomat Francesco Guicciardini, reporting from Lombardy on attempts to ready papal troops for battle against the imperial forces of Charles V:

"Machiavelli is here. He came to reorganize the militia, but, seeing how rotten it is, he has no hope of having any respect from it. Since he is unable to remedy the faults of mankind, he will do nothing but laugh at them."

Worse yet, as editor David Atkinson relates in his headnote to correspondence of the same year, 1526: "Giovanni delle Bande Nere, out of admiration for Machiavelli's Art of War, allowed him to drill his three thousand troops in the Lombard sun one sweltering day. After two hours at Machiavelli's command, the men were in hopeless disarray. Giovanni took pity on them and deftly reordered them."

It is enough to make a regimental sergeant major smile, and the writer Matteo Bandello, witnessing the shambles, did comment on the difference between knowing about something and actually doing it. But steady on, as the same old sergeant major might add (and 3,000 men are a lot to have on parade); this is not an inferior or at all diminished Niccolo Machiavelli. He knew he was not a military man, his famous efforts to raise and train a citizen militia for Florence notwithstanding, and all in all, he was far more knowing and doubting of himself than most other men, then or now.

This is just a more human, altogether warmer Machiavelli: the hardheaded Florentine secretary doing crisp work, but also the joking, dirty-talking office colleague. Here, too, is the farmer, husband of Marietta and father of his boys and little girl; the poet and playwright, intellectual sparring partner among friends (some of whom were what we now call gay); the willing lover of seductive women, the last of whom he fell head-over-heels in love with at age 55; the "barstool gossip."

This is the Niccolo who opens his May 17, 1521, letter to Guicciardini from Carpi, where he is on a mission to the Minorite Friars (words in italics were written in Latin): "Magnificent One, my most respected superior. I was sitting on the toilet when your messenger arrived, and just at that moment I was mulling over the absurdities of this world."

It is sad, and the irony of it would not have been wasted on him, that Machiavelli becomes more human and his letters more personally revealing after the terrible crisis of 1512-13, when the Medicis returned to Florence and Machiavelli was stripped of his official appointments, falsely implicated in a conspiracy and arrested, tortured and imprisoned in great fear for his life. His so-called prison sonnets are among the man's most pathetic utterances.

Machiavelli's life after being released, at his villa a few miles south and west of Florence at Sant'Andrea in Percussina (the autostrada goes by there now), was one of comparative poverty, lack of intellectual company and disgrace. It is described wonderfully in his Dec. 10, 1513, letter to Francesco Vettori, Florentine ambassador to the papal court in Rome and almost his sole remaining correspondent:

"I have been catching thrushes with my own hands. I would get up before daybreak, prepare the birdlime, and go out with such a bundle of bird cages on my back that I looked like Geta when he came back from the harbor with Amphitryon's books. I would catch at least two, at most six, thrushes. And thus I passed the entire month of November. Eventually this diversion, albeit contemptible and foreign to me, petered out - to my regret. …