Political Strategist Niccolo Machiavelli Joins Renaissance Historical Figures

Niccolo Machiavelli  (1469- 1527) by George Stuart
In the five hundred years since his death, the reputation of Niccolo Machiavelli has risen to where he is now considered the major political thinker and strategist of the Renaissance.  His most famous writing, The Prince has been  read and studied by generations worldwide. The pamphlet is a distillation insights Machiavelli gained during his years as a diplomat in the turbulent times around 1500.

Renaissance Italy is credited by many for bringing the Europe out of the Dark Ages. The period around the beginning of the 16th century was particularly interesting to George Stuart. While art and science flourished in the northern City States, the collision of politics, power and religion was leaving Italy, and most of Europe in a constant state of war and turmoil.

Nothing in politics was simple and little was as it seemed or represented. Alliances were made and broken, princes rose and fell, armies marched pillaged nearly everywhere.

Carte foyers renaissance italie
In this chaos in 1492 and again in 1527, the city state of Florence (Fiorenze ) ousted the famous and infamous De Medici dynasty and established a republic. With no standing army, Florence appeased the French armies with bribes and depended on extraordinary political intelligence to assess the powers of Europe and to stay in their favor, or at least out of their way.

Their eyes and ears at the Vatican and the courts of France, Spain and Naples was an obscure second level diplomatic envoy called Niccolo Machiavelli. With no military power and only modest funds, Florence depended on the communications from Machiavelli to report on court politics and to assess how the fledgeling republic might remain out of the clutches of the much bigger players. 

In his recent biography of Machiavelli, Miles J.Unger describes how the young Florentine came to this position and how his political observations and weak negotiating strength led him to write The Prince. The political treatise was essentially a job application he presented to the returning De Medici. Machiavelli was rebuffed, but his treatise has become a must-read for princes, politicians and businessmen alike.

"The Prince," the most famous job application'?
 "Although [the Prince] is relatively short, the treatise is the most remembered of his works and the one most responsible for bringing the word "Machiavellian" into wide usage as a pejorative term. It also helped make "Old Nick" an English term for the devil, and even contributed to the modern negative connotations of the words "politics" and "politician" in western countries." -  Wikipedia.

Unger paints a less sinister view of Machiavelli as a typical, middle class male looking for work in the bureaucracy of Florence. His writing ability was demonstrated in popular plays and commentaries. His talent, and some help, landed him a government job in the foreign affairs department.

Machiavelli avoided politics, and could speak to all sides of contemporary issues. In his writings however, Machiavelli favored a Florence as republic over a principality.

Florence had a history of paying large ransoms to keep invading armies, so the city was rarely sacked and much of the 16th century buildings, art treasures and Renaissance flavor remains today.  But when it came to the defense of Florence, Machiavelli was a hawk by today's standard. He advocated a standing citizens army augmented by mercenaries. Machiavelli had no military training or battle experience, so his plans were plausible in theory, but fell short on details of execution, and were not adopted by the republic.

His position for many years as emissary to the Vatican and the thrones of European power afforded the opportunity to observe, assess and write about power politics. Ultimately he had little choice. As the representative of a weak but moderately wealthy city state, Machiavelli soon recognized that wits had to trump war or Florence would cease to exist as a republic, or even an independent city state. He had good reason for concern. After all, the neighboring Papal States were once independent.

One gets the feeling from Unger's book that Machiavelli was fascinated by the art of diplomacy - or the lack there of -  in the foreign affairs of Florence. Yet his thinking on the topic seems clearly objective and rational. Indeed, one gets the feeling he was as exacting and cautious as if a medieval philosopher dissecting a rare insect.

In service of the republic, Machiavelli was a tireless traveler and worker, spending many consecutive months away from his family, friends and associates. His superiors came to depend on his dispatches of fact and assessment from the capitols of Europe. Although his reports were insightful and his advice often followed, he was not promoted or financially rewarded.

When Florence returned to De Medici control, Machiavelli lost his position. He then wrote The Prince to prove his worth to the reinstated De Medici family and gain their favor.  In spite of some connections within the De Medici family, he was not accepted. Perhaps in the end he was too republican. Only after his death did friends publish The Prince - and the rest is history!
See Machiavelli in Ventura!
On March 6th, Stuart's Machiavelli will join the other Historical Figures of the Renaissance and Reformation in an exhibit running until May 20, 2012 at the Museum of Ventura County. Mr. Stuart will give three entertaining monologs on the period over the next few months. We are all looking forward to his take on Machiavelli and his times.  

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