Florentine History (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading) [NOOK Book]

Overview


In Florentine Histories Machiavelli wrote about his native city, which he loved with a passion -- more than his soul, he said -- and by which he was exasperated. He was not just the famously cold, ironic analyst of ruthless power politics, evident in much of his most famous work, The Prince; he had a fervent sense of the common good and how that might be achieved in a republic. For him, Florence had the potential to be one of the greatest of republics, a match for ancient Rome itself, but that potential had ...
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Florentine History (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview


In Florentine Histories Machiavelli wrote about his native city, which he loved with a passion -- more than his soul, he said -- and by which he was exasperated. He was not just the famously cold, ironic analyst of ruthless power politics, evident in much of his most famous work, The Prince; he had a fervent sense of the common good and how that might be achieved in a republic. For him, Florence had the potential to be one of the greatest of republics, a match for ancient Rome itself, but that potential had never been fulfilled. In the Florentine Histories Machiavelli explores why not and in the process reveals the dynamic and danger of republican politics -- his thinking here, as in all his works, resonating powerfully for us today. The Florentine Histories is a series of eight essays (known as 'books') on the city and its Italian context during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. They do not follow all the rules of what we see today as professional historical writing -- Machiavelli could be as cavalier with the facts as an unscrupulous modern journalist -- but they are the fruit of one of the most original minds ever to have been brought to bear on politics.
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Meet the Author


Niccolò Machiavelli was born in Florence in 1469. At the young age of twenty-nine, he entered government service in the city state of Florence as Second Chancellor, a senior post, with responsibilities for relations between Florence and its subject territories in Tuscany and more broadly for foreign affairs. Along with various treatises, plays, and poems, he wrote The Prince (1513), the Discourses (c.1514-1519), the Art of War (1521), and the Florentine Histories (1520-1525). He died in 1527.
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Introduction

In Florentine Histories Machiavelli wrote about his native city, which he loved with a passion -- more than his soul, he said -- and by which he was exasperated. He was not just the famously cold, ironic analyst of ruthless power politics, evident in much of his most famous work, The Prince; he had a fervent sense of the common good and how that might be achieved in a republic. For him, Florence had the potential to be one of the greatest of republics, a match for ancient Rome itself, but that potential had never been fulfilled. In the Florentine Histories Machiavelli explores why not and in the process reveals the dynamic and danger of republican politics -- his thinking here, as in all his works, resonating powerfully for us today. The Florentine Histories is a series of eight essays (known as 'books') on the city and its Italian context during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. They do not follow all the rules of what we see today as professional historical writing -- Machiavelli could be as cavalier with the facts as an unscrupulous modern journalist -- but they are the fruit of one of the most original minds ever to have been brought to bear on politics.

Niccolò Machiavelli was born in Florence in 1469. At the young age of twenty-nine in 1498, he entered government service in the city state of Florence as Second Chancellor, a senior post, with responsibilities for relations between Florence and its subject territories in Tuscany and more broadly for foreign affairs. His time as an active policy maker came to an end in 1512 when the Medici overthrew the republic and took control of the city. But the period of his greatest influencewas to come not as a functionary but as a writer. Along with various treatises, plays and poems, he wrote The Prince (1513), the Discourses (c.1514-1519), the Art of War (1521), and the Florentine Histories (1520-1525). He died in 1527.

Niccolò was the son of a lawyer, Bernardo Machiavelli, whose earnings were meager and whose family fortune had declined over the previous generations. Machiavelli referred in later years to the poverty in which he had grown up, and as a consequence he seems to have regarded himself as an outsider among the Florentine elite. Nonetheless, Bernardo ensured that his son had an excellent classical education. Machiavelli grew up under the benign, behind-the-scenes despotism of Lorenzo de Medici, 'The Magnificent.' He witnessed, at the age of nine, the disastrous conspiracy led by the Pazzi family, heads of a rival faction to the Medici. Sixteen years later, following the fateful incursion into Italy by the armies of the French King in 1494, he saw the overthrow of Lorenzo's successor, Piero, and his replacement as leader of Florence by Savonarola, the apocalyptic friar, who sought to purify the decadent city and piled Renaissance art onto bonfires of vanities. In 1498 Savonarola lost power and was himself burnt on the Piazza della Signoria; the republic was re-born. At that point Machiavelli, through well-placed family connections, secured his job in government service, and was determined to see the republic thrive anew.

During his time in office Machiavelli was sent on a number of diplomatic missions to France, to the Emperor in Germany, to the Papal court in Rome and, most significantly, to Cesare Borgia, the great model of strengths and weaknesses of political leadership portrayed in The Prince. In 1506 Machiavelli achieved one of his most abiding goals -- the establishment of a citizen militia to replace the unreliable mercenaries on which Florence had previously depended -- and in 1509 he reached the zenith of his career in government when his military planning led to the re-conquest of Pisa. But Italy was now the battleground of Europe's great powers, France and Spain, and the fate of Florence was not in the hands of its militia. At the behest of the Spanish, the Medici were restored to power in 1512 and the renewed republican experiment was brought to an end. Machiavelli lost his position and was wrongly implicated in a conspiracy against the new government in 1513, leading to his arrest and torture. Released as part of an amnesty on the election of the Medici pope, Leo X, Machiavelli retired to his farm outside Florence with his wife, Marietta, and six children. There he began to write. He told his friend, Francesco Vettori, how he would spend the first part of his day on business, haggling over wood-cutting, then would read classical love poetry and recall his own amorous exploits, before settling himself in a tavern to play games and gossip with the locals. Then, in the evening, he would return home, change out of his mud-spattered clothes into robes of state, and commune with the great historians and political thinkers of classical Rome. For Machiavelli this life of the mind was both a substitute for power and a preparation for his return to it.

The first major work Machiavelli wrote after his release from prison in 1513 was The Prince, a handbook on how to establish a new state and bring order out of chaos. He intended that this work should bring him to the attention of the Medici and back into government service. Although this did not work, his writing continued. Eventually, in 1519, Machiavelli's political luck changed, when Cardinal Giulio Medici became the dominant political influence in Florence. The Cardinal wished to appear favorable to some of the forms of republicanism, and he was also close to Lorenzo Strozzi, a friend of Machiavelli's. In November 1520, Machiavelli received a commission from the Cardinal to write the Florentine Histories, which he was to complete in 1525. Machiavelli's death, two years later, followed shortly after the Sack of Rome, when his patron, who had become Pope Clement VII, fell under the control of Emperor Charles V, and Machiavelli's last hopes for a resurgent Italy finally expired.

Machiavelli's theme in the Florentine Histories is discord. He criticized his great humanist predecessors, Leonardo Bruni and Poggio Bracciolini, as historians of Florence for focussing on external affairs and neglecting the disputes which animated political life in the city. They no doubt saw such politics as disreputable, inimical to the glory of Florence. In contrast, Machiavelli, who was a unique combination of pessimist and idealist, thought that glory and domestic discord were intimately and beneficially associated, so long as the energies unleashed in political strife were appropriately channelled. His main reference point was the golden, classical age of republican Rome, when there had been continual tensions between the aristocrats and the plebeians, but these tensions were contained within republican institutions and the laws. Consequently the Roman aristocracy were never able to impose servitude on the plebs, and the plebs lived in liberty rather than degenerating into their natural state of anarchy. Machiavelli had a dim view of human nature in reaction to the neo-Platonic thinkers of his time, who emphasized the creative, divine spark in Man. Machiavelli thought humankind to be naturally grasping and short-sightedly self-destructive, unable to see that the good life is one lived as citizens in, through, and for the community. Only creative tension, such as in Rome, would constrain baser impulses and allow the common good to flourish.

Instead of this balance of classes, Florence was dominated by sette, sects or factions. One group, often speaking for the aristocracy or the people but usually a mixture of the two, would overthrow another, leading to bloodshed and exile, and would in turn be overthrown. This discord resulted in recurrent civil violence rather than in law; it was politics which served private interests rather than the common good. For Machiavelli, the solution to such corruption was domination by an individual whose virtù enabled him to humble factions and act as a law-giver. This key concept of virtù was most definitely not Christian virtue, but a decisiveness in doing whatever it takes to seize control, to subdue Fortune, depicted, in the gender metaphor of the time, as an unruly woman who could be brought to obedience only by a commanding man. The fact that the exercise of virtù would sometimes override conventional morality, as depicted most notoriously in The Prince, disturbed Machiavelli not at all -- he argued it was simply a recognition of necessity and the way the world worked -- but it outraged contemporaries then and many commentators today. Others, starting with Francis Bacon in the seventeenth century, are "much beholden to Machiavel and others, that write what men do, and not what they ought to do." For Machiavelli, in writing the Florentine Histories, the immediate problem was that the commanding individuals in fifteenth century Florence, Cosimo de Medici and his grandson, Lorenzo the Magnificent, were the forebears of his patron, Cardinal Giulio de Medici, and they had failed to re-establish republican institutions and laws, and had continued to govern in their private, rather than the public, interest.

Machiavelli wrote to his friend, Vettori, that he wished he had been by Machiavelli's side to advise him as to whether he had exaggerated some things or underrated others in the Florentine Histories. In deference to his Medici patron, Machiavelli poured what praise he could on Cosimo and Lorenzo the Magnificent. He depicted Cosimo's intelligence, as well as his generosity and magnificent building projects, in contrast with his modest way of life -- characteristics which attracted friendship but not envy -- and his clever financial and diplomatic manipulation of other Florentine powers which maintained the city's security. But Machiavelli also hinted at his shortcomings. The reputation he ascribed to Cosimo was of the highest for someone unarmed; for Machiavelli the only durable power in an unstable world was armed power, and all else was papering over the cracks. Cosimo's virtù and control of Fortune were sufficient to exalt his friends and destroy his enemies, but there was no mention of the public interest and, near his end, Cosimo was shown to lament that the city was being ruined by its citizens and his own supporters. Machiavelli acknowledged in a letter that what he could not state directly he could put in the mouth of a defeated rival to Cosimo. (Machiavelli took full advantage of the practice of historians from the classical age through to the seventeenth century of inventing speeches to flesh out the bare chronicle of facts.) Rinaldo degli Albizzi, himself banished when Cosimo returned from exile in 1434, observed in the Florentine Histories that he preferred not to live in a city governed by men and shifting favor rather than by laws. Likewise, Machiavelli's praise for Lorenzo the Magnificent was subtly ambiguous. His achievement had been considerable in maintaining Florence's greatness until his death in 1492 -- most spectacularly accomplished by his diplomatic mission, at risk of great personal danger, to the court of King of Naples, through which he obtained that king's alliance at the hour of Florence's direst need. But Lorenzo had never adhered to the advice Machiavelli put in the mouth of his brother, Giuliano de Medici, who was assassinated in 1478, that he should beware taking all power to himself. So the Florentine Histories concluded that on Lorenzo's death the seeds which were to ruin Italy, which only he had known how to eliminate, began to grow.

Because of the constraints of his commission, Machiavelli moderated other elements of his views more boldly stated elsewhere. For instance, he regarded the influence of Christianity in Florence, which was not a factor in classical Rome, as catastrophic when expressed in the public sphere, as it made renunciation of the world, rather than virtù and engagement in it, the highest goal of life. In the Florentine Histories, he was careful to make conventional references to divine providence, if not many of them. However, he could not refrain from attacking popes in general, whose misuse of spiritual powers and the instability of whose rule, having neither the institutions of a republic nor the roots of a hereditary monarchy, had led again and again to the intervention of foreign powers in Italian affairs. Machiavelli's most barbed comments were reserved for individual popes, such as Sixtus IV, a great enemy of Florence who died five days after he had made peace, because, Machiavelli suggested, he was such an enemy to peace he could not outlive it.

The humanist form of history writing, which Machiavelli adopted, allowed him to offer a more explicit and developed analysis at certain points. The speeches he invented were often couched in that most sophisticated Renaissance form for exploring political ideas, the dialogue. So, as the mercenary soldier, the Duke of Athens, began his brief tyrannical reign over Florence in the mid-fourteenth century, a delegation of citizens warned him that no amount of force would crush a city used to liberty because its citizens would never give up their resistance and even his supporters would eventually become his rivals. The Duke responded that he offered unity and an end to sette, the factions which enfeebled the city. The two speeches taken together posed the key dilemma for Florence -- the Florentines could not live with liberty (because of the factions), nor could they live without it. The Duke's rule lasted a disastrous ten months before he was driven out. Machiavelli allowed himself the joke that because the Duke was small, dark, and had a terrible beard, he had deserved to be hated.

As well as the set speeches, each of the eight books comprising the Florentine Histories began with general reflections, for instance, on the comparison between Florence and classical Rome, the need to avoid both servitude and anarchy, the benevolent effects of political divisions which were not factions, the virtues of acquiring reputation through serving the public good rather than private interest, and the way in which conspiracies so often rebounded on their authors. Machiavelli also discussed Florence's relations with neighboring territories in these general reflections. He did not doubt the need for a successful state to dominate its neighbors, but he argued that rather than conquest, which would store up troubles and resistance, domination should develop out of a system of mutually beneficial but dependent alliances. Machiavelli was of course no pacifist -- he considered it true commitment in battle when a thousand died, and he poured scorn on battles fought by mercenaries in which, in the complete absence of valour, the casualties might only be a few men accidentally falling off their horses. But he saw no value in what he called the disordered wars which had become the norm in late medieval Italy and brought neither wealth nor security even to the victors. These comments echoed the laments at Italian powers gradually losing their liberty, unable to hold their own in the real wars fought by France and Spain that had raged across Italy since 1494.

A thread running through all these observations was Machiavelli's hope that what he wrote could provide the inspiration and insight necessary for the defense of true liberty. The genre of the Florentine Histories, therefore, is rhetoric, rather than history as we would see it. While the broad sweep of the narrative was generally true, the point was not to present the past with scientific attention to accurate detail, but to instruct and persuade. Machiavelli, like his humanist predecessors, did no archival research, instead relying on a small number of sources, choosing them not on the grounds of their reliability but with regard to their fruitfulness for his theme. His subject was politics, through and through. The cultural achievement of Renaissance Florence was discussed not in itself, but with reference to the prestige of the Medici or criticized as a sign of that political decadence that, Machiavelli argued, accompanies the dominance of refined, leisurely pursuits. Social change or economic developments were of concern only insofar as they led to political upheaval. Florence was Machiavelli's subject not in itself but for a very particular purpose. In his view, the virtue of writing the history of one's own republic, rather than a theoretical overview of republics in general, was that, "if every example of a republic is moving, those which one reads concerning one's own are much more so and much more useful." Machiavelli wrote to move his readers to what he saw as right action; not to emulate great deeds, as was traditional in humanist history writing, but to avoid the error and self-defeat which had, he argued, for so long prevented his beloved native city and Italy in general from securing liberty and achieving greatness.

Machiavelli wrote in the 1520s for a Medici cardinal, for his fellow citizens of Florence and for Italians in general. But the power of the Florentine Histories to provoke reflection is not confined to that time or those readers. Machiavelli argued that, although circumstances change, human passions remain the same, and so conversations about political ideas and experience can traverse time and space. Whatever the philosophical debates about that view, a conversation based on the Florentine Histories has continued. In his Social Contract Rousseau cited Machiavelli's portrait of faction in the Florentine Histories to show what could frustrate the expression of the general will. Marx drew on Machiavelli's account of the 1378 Revolt of the Ciompi (workers in the wool trade), which showed the rebels not as immoral thugs or the dupes of demagogues, but as a group responding to economic pressures and pursuing rational interests. Today we can reflect on the Florentine Histories when we talk about creative or destructive political competition among political parties or interest groups, and about the nature and precariousness of liberty in a world where it is still being fought over.

John Lotherington is the director of the 21st Century Trust in London. He is the editor and author of several books on European history.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 13, 2004

    An Indispensable Citizen's Handbook

    If you EVER wish to understand the fundamental mistakes being made by 21st century American and the world's democracies in both foreign and domestic relations, this book is an invaluable guide. You'll laugh at Machiavelli's stories, and then cry to see the same mistakes repeated in today's headlines. America, YOU are Florence!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 12, 2009

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