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Machiavelli, Leonardo & Borgia: A Fateful Collusion: What Happened When a Philosopher, an Artist and a Ruthless Warrior-All Giants of the Renaissance-Met on Campaign in Northern Italy?

By Strathern, Paul | History Today, March 2009 | Go to article overview

Machiavelli, Leonardo & Borgia: A Fateful Collusion: What Happened When a Philosopher, an Artist and a Ruthless Warrior-All Giants of the Renaissance-Met on Campaign in Northern Italy?


Strathern, Paul, History Today


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During the latter half of 1502, when the Italian Renaissance was at its height, three of its most distinguished yet disparate figures travelled together through the remote hilly region of the Romagna in northeastern Italy. Cesare Borgia (1475-1507), backed by his father Pope Alexander VI (1431-1503), was leading a military campaign whose aim was to carve out his own personal princedom. He had hired Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) as his chief military engineer whose brief was to reinforce the castles and defences in the region as well as to construct a number of revolutionary new military machines, which he had designed in his notebooks. Accompanying this unlikely duo was the enigmatic figure of Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), who had been despatched by the Florentine authorities as an emissary to the travelling 'court' with instructions to ingratiate himself with Borgia and, as far as possible, discover his intentions towards Florence whose position to the west, just across the Apennine mountains, left it particularly vulnerable to Borgia's territorial ambitions.

In a characteristically Machiavellian situation Borgia knew perfectly well what Machiavelli was up to and Machiavelli knew that he knew this. Machiavelli had been instructed to send regular diplomatic despatches back to Florence, reporting on all he had discovered. Machiavelli well understood that Borgia was intercepting these despatches and reading them himself, discarding those he felt should not be sent. As a result, Machiavelli would often resort to alluding in the most oblique form to what was actually taking place. Borgia, a man whose considerable intellect matched his reputation for treachery and violence, was not fooled by this. He knew that the Florentine authorities would certainly have established a simple code with Machiavelli before he had set out. Remarks about the mountains, the local people, the weather and even the state of Machiavelli's accommodation might all refer to vital intelligence.

Machiavelli's information came from a number of unlikely sources. Sometimes it even came directly from Borgia himself, but could he believe what Borgia told him? Machiavelli had to be guarded about any other sources of information, which usually came from careless remarks let drop by secretaries or high-ranking officers among Borgia's entourage whom Machiavelli had befriended. Though everyone knew Machiavelli was a spy, there was something wittily subversive in his character which seemed to appeal to them. This also appealed to Borgia himself: here was a man of some learning, whose intellect matched his own, who genuinely appeared more interested in discussing philosophical ideas than in performing the task of a mere envoy. Such a man was rare company among the rough and ready mercenary commanders with whom Borgia was surrounded. And, unlike his commanders, in a curious way he knew that he could trust Machiavelli, man to man: up to a point, that is. Many of Borgia's most daring and sensational plans relied upon the notion of secrecy and betrayal, elements which he was not even willing to pass on to his military commanders until the last moment, when there was no chance of such secrecy being compromised.

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For obvious reasons, Machiavelli frequently made misleading remarks about the sources of his information in order to protect their identity. However, one particular source--referred to only as a 'friend'--was a combination of various informants, who observed intelligence and bits of gossip picked up here and there. Or so Machiavelli would have had us believe. It has now become clear that most of the information from this 'friend' did in fact come directly from one source and that this vital informant was none other than Machiavelli's friend and fellow Florentine Leonardo da Vinci.

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