Machiavelli? He Wasn't That Bad

Article excerpt

Byline: Simon Griffith

In the 1949 film The Third Man, racketeer Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles, says: 'In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace - and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.' While the Swiss didn't actually invent the cuckoo clock, warfare and bloodshed is an accurate summary of life in Renaissance Italy, especially when the ruthless Cesare Borgia was on the scene.

Borgia has come to be synonymous with villainy, but not everyone hated him. One admirer was Niccolo Machiavelli, the Florentine writer and statesman whose own name has become shorthand for deceit, cunning and all dubious forms of political expedience. But is his devilish reputation deserved? Historian Niccolo Capponi thinks not, but he is a direct descendant of Machiavelli, so perhaps that's not surprising.

In An Unlikely Prince (Da Capo Press [pounds sterling]15.99 [pounds sterling]13.99 inc p&p) Capponi argues that Machiavelli has been misunderstood because people have distorted his message to suit their own purposes. To understand Machiavelli, says Capponi, you must place him in context, and that means appreciating just how deeply terror and murder were woven into the fabric of his age. …