In more than four hundred years of evaluation and reinterpretation, few names in European history have caused more disagreement and controversy than Machiavelli's. Nearly everyone who has written on modern European history, and particularly on the Renaissance, agrees that Machiavelli was one of the most important figures of the century, but rarely will they concur on the reason for his prominence. Why has this polemic continued so long without sign of abating or losing its vigor? Undoubtedly there can be many answers, and among them certainly is the fact that Machiavelli's written words deal with subjects of lasting and vital interest to all ages. People of every generation must ask themselves the questions which Machiavelli aroused. What is the relationship between politics and morals? Does the end really justify the means? What is the nature and role of the state? How are liberty and order to be balanced and maintained? To the historian an infinite number of additional problems are suggested by the life and writings of this Renaissance Florentine, from the question of his relationship to the humanist writers of his time to the methods and motives of his public and private life. For Machiavelli was not restricted to one career, and each of them -- diplomat, secretary, statesman, military strategist, political philosopher, historian, man of letters -- offers a rich and rewarding field for scholarly investigation.
Much of the enigma connected with Machiavelli results from the political confusion in Italy in his day and the role he played in Italian public affairs. Born in Florence in 1469, the son of a lawyer- bureaucrat who provided him with a fairly adequate education in religion, the classics, and politics, Niccolò Machiavelli soon manifested both a desire and talent for governmental work. In 1494 he witnessed the close of an epoch for Italy as French troops under Charles VIII invaded from the north and launched a half century of turmoil and war throughout the peninsula. Florence hesitated, then denounced the shaky government of Piero de' Medici and hailed the French king as the deliverer prophesied by Savonarola. A new republican government was organized, and for the next four years Florence was dominated by the austere figure of the Dominican friar, until he met his death in 1498. Then Machiavelli, at the age of twenty-nine, was recognized by the Signory for his administrative talents and was elected to the responsible post of Chancellor of the Second Chancery, where he also functioned in the Council of the Ten of Liberty and Peace (formerly Ten of War), the Florentine foreign office. During the next fourteen years Machiavelli served the republic faithfully, not only carrying out his secretarial and administrative duties, but also serving as an able diplomat and as personal advisor to Pietro Soderini, Gonfalonier of Florence from 1502 to 1512. As a functionary of the republic Machiavelli saw and participated in many of the critical events at the turn of the century. His diplomatic missions to the king of France, to the countess of Imola and Forlì, to the Emperor Maximilian, and to Cesare Borgia, nefarious son of Pope Alexander VI, taught him much about entangled Italian politics and about the people who manipulated affairs. Many of his official letters and reports still exist and provide a . . .