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Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power (Eminent Lives Series)
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Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power (Eminent Lives Series)

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by Ross King

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The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli's handbook on power—how to get it and how to keep it—has been enormously influential in the centuries since it was written, garnering a heady mixture of admiration, fear, and contempt. Its author, born to an established middle-class family, was no prince himself. Machiavelli (1469–1527) worked as a


The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli's handbook on power—how to get it and how to keep it—has been enormously influential in the centuries since it was written, garnering a heady mixture of admiration, fear, and contempt. Its author, born to an established middle-class family, was no prince himself. Machiavelli (1469–1527) worked as a courtier and diplomat for the Republic of Florence and enjoyed some small fame in his time as the author of bawdy plays and poems. Upon the Medici's return to power, however, he found himself summarily dismissed from the government he had served for decades and exiled from the city where he was born.

In this discerning new biography, Ross King rescues Machiavelli's legacy from caricature, detailing the vibrant political and social context that influenced his thought and underscoring the humanity of one of history's finest political thinkers. Ross King's Machiavelli visits fortune-tellers, produces wine on his Tuscan estate, travels Europe tirelessly on horseback as a diplomatic envoy, and is a passionate scholar of antiquity—but above all, a keen observer of human nature.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
It was easy to find oneself on the wrong side of the ruler-du-jour in 16th-century Italy, which was controlled by corrupt families and defended by contract soldiers whose loyalties were readily purchased. Machiavelli ventured into this world with his diplomatic acumen, then, when he fell out of favor, turned his ambitious mind to brutal political writings, satirical plays and the occasional courtesan. A theoretician of conspiracy and duplicity, he was also a brilliant observer of his times. Sympathizing with Machiavelli, King provides a convincing portrait of one of the most misunderstood thinkers of all time. Machiavelli's writings shed a dark light on the man, but less so when set against the tapestry of Florence's Palazzo della Signoria. King's book is everything a short biography should be and more, due to King's sharp wit and zesty anecdotes: "As the document was being signed, a dove came through the window and flew over the heads of the Ten. The dove then crashed into a wall and fell dead at the feet of the Ten, but its appearance was still considered a good omen." It provides a strong sense of the history of both the man and his times and a nice introduction to Machiavelli's writings. Moreover, like one of Machiavelli's bawdy plays, it is a riveting and exhilarating read, full of salacious details and brisk prose. (June)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal
The author of Brunelleschi's Dome should have a lovely time with Machiavelli. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Eminent Lives Series
Product dimensions:
5.00(w) x 7.12(h) x 0.96(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

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Philosopher of Power

Chapter One

A strange new type of insect appeared in the meadows beside the river Arno in Florence in the summer of 1498. These swarms of gold-bodied caterpillars had a human face—eyes and a nose could be distinguished—while on the head was a golden halo and a small cross. They quickly became known as "Brother Girolamo's caterpillars."

"Brother Girolamo" was Girolamo Savonarola, a charismatic, green-eyed Dominican friar from Ferrara who for the previous six years had dominated Florence's spiritual and political life with his fire-and-brimstone sermons. By 1498, however, his mesmeric hold over the city had finally been broken. He was excommunicated by Pope Alexander VI in the summer of 1497, and less than a year later, on the morning of May 23, 1498, he was hanged in the city's main piazza as punishment for, in the words of one chronicler, "stirring up discord in Florence and of disseminating doctrine that was not entirely Catholic."1 Cut down from the scaffold, his body was consumed on a bonfire; afterward his ashes were thrown into the Arno from the Ponte Vecchio, washing downstream to the spot where, a few weeks later, the caterpillars mysteriously appeared.

Savonarola was not the only casualty in Florence in May of 1498. Two Dominican priests were hanged beside him, while other supporters of Savonarola—known by their opponents as Piagnoni (Snivelers)—suffered equally unpleasant fates. The friar's most powerful political ally, Francesco Valori, was murdered with a billhook; a bolt from a crossbow killed Valori's wife. Dozens of otherPiagnoni were fined or deprived of their political rights, and several friars from the convent of San Marco, where Savonarola had served as prior, were sent into exile. Even the bell of San Marco, nicknamed La Piagnona, did not escape punishment: it was removed from its tower and given a public flogging before it, too, was exiled from Florence.

Retribution reached the highest levels of government as the Signoria—Florence's ruling council—began an immediate purge of Savonarola's sympathizers from their official posts. All ten members of the Dieci di Libertà e Pace ("Ten of Liberty and Peace"), who handled foreign policy, were dismissed, as were the eight men comprising the Otto di Guardia ("Eight of the Watch"), the committee in charge of criminal justice. Also losing his post was an official in the Chancellery named Alessandro Braccesi. His replacement was a twenty-nine-year-old political novice named Niccolò Machiavelli. Twenty-nine—the age of eligibility for voting—was a remarkably young age for a man to hold such an important post. Most young men in Florence remained under the authority of their fathers until the age of twenty-four, and some did not achieve their legal majority until twenty-eight. But Machiavelli would make up for his youth and inexperience with a formidable intellect and an impeccable education, and with tremendous amounts of energy and ambition.

Machiavelli had been born in Florence on May 3, 1469, the eldest son of Bernardo Machiavelli and his wife, Bartolomea. "I was born in poverty," Niccolò would later write, "and at an early age learned how to scrimp rather than to thrive."2 Like many things he wrote, this claim is something of an overstatement. His mother seems to have descended from an ancient and distinguished family, while his father came from a prosperous clan that for many generations had owned large tracts of land in the rolling, vine-clad hills south of Florence. It is true that Bernardo Machiavelli was by no means a rich man. He once described himself on a tax document, all too truthfully, as being "without gainful employment."3 But he lived in a large house in the Santo Spirito quarter of Florence, near the Ponte Vecchio, and he also owned a farm outside Florence in the village of Sant' Andrea in Percussina, complete with vineyards, apple orchards, olive trees, and livestock. His rural possessions furthermore included a tavern and a butcher shop.

Bernardo Machiavelli had trained for a legal career and then pursued, not very diligently or successfully, a career as a notary. However, he evidently enjoyed a reputation in Florence as a first-class legal brain. He became friends with the chancellor of Florence, an eminent scholar named Bartolomeo Scala, who featured him as a legal expert in a 1483 treatise entitled Dialogue on Laws and Legal Judgments. But Bernardo's most notable trait was his passion for books. His formal education would have seen him studying Latin grammar, perfecting his handwriting, and learning how to compose wills and certify business and marriage contracts. His mind roved more broadly and searchingly over human affairs than such paperwork would suggest, and by the 1470s he was dabbling in classical literature. Scala's Dialogue may well have done him justice by having him knowledgeably quote authors such as Plato, Justinian, Cicero, and Lactantius. Bernardo certainly acquired for his personal library, sometimes at no mean expense, editions of works by writers such as Livy and Macrobius; and he borrowed books, when he could not afford to buy them, from institutions such as the library of the convent of Santa Croce. One of his most prized possessions was an edition of Livy's History of Rome that he acquired for free by compiling an index of place names for its Florentine printer. Eleven years later, in 1486, he had the volume bound in leather, a task for which he compensated the binder with three bottles of red wine from his estate in the country.

Bernardo was far from alone in his reverence for classical literature and history. An intense preoccupation with the culture of the ancient world had placed Florence at the forefront of new intellectual and artistic activities—what later came to be known as "humanism"—that shifted the intellectual emphasis from theology to the more secular studies that had once been the bedrock of classical literature. The head of the Florentine Chancellery between 1375 and 1406, a scholar named Coluccio Salutati, had argued that classical texts could teach important lessons about contemporary moral and political life not found in the Bible. He and his followers . . .

Philosopher of Power
. Copyright � by Ross King. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Ross King is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling and Brunelleschi's Dome as well as several novels. Born and raised in Canada, he lives outside Oxford, England.

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