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The Mask and the Face
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According to legend, just before his death on 21 June 1527, Niccolò Machiavelli told the faithful friends who had stayed with him to the very end about a dream he had had, a dream that over the centuries became renowned as "Machiavelli's dream."
In his dream, he had seen a band of poorly dressed men, ragged and miserable in appearance. He asked them who they were. They replied, "We are the saintly and the blessed; we are on our way to Heaven." Then he saw a crowd of solemnly attired men, noble and grave in appearance, speaking seriously of important political matters. In their midst he recognized the great philosophers and historians of antiquity who had written fundamental works on politics and the state, such as Plato, Plutarch, and Tacitus. Again, he asked them who they were and where they were going. "We are the damned of Hell" was their answer. After telling his friends of his dream, Machiavelli remarked that he would be far happier in Hell, where he could discuss politics with the great men of the ancient world, than in Heaven, where he would languish in boredom among the blessed and the saintly.
This dream of Machiavelli's is reminiscent of another, Scipio's famous dream that Cicero describes in his treatise on the republic. Scipio the Elder, according to Cicero, appeared to his nephew Scipio Aemilianus in a dream and told him, "All those who have preserved, aided, or enlarged their fatherland have a special place prepared for them in the heavens where they may enjoy aneternal life of happiness. For nothing of all that is done on earth is more pleasing to that supreme God who rules the whole universe than the assemblies and gatherings of men associated in justice, which are called states. Their rulers and preservers come from that place [the Milky Way], and to that place they return."
Machiavelli, who was surely familiar with Scipio's dream, offered on his deathbed his own version of the story, but with a different moral. In his dream, the great men who founded, wisely governed, and reformed republicsby deed or thoughtreceived no reward of eternal happiness in the brightest place in the universe, as in the ancient dream, but were banished to Hell, because to have done the great achievements that made them immortal they had contravened the standards of Christian morality. In Machiavelli's burlesque, with Hell more desirable and more interesting than Heaven, he meant to reiterate the message of the ancient dreamthat true statesmen are like gods and deserve everlasting gloryand at the same time to ridicule the Christian Heaven and Hell.
We cannot know for certain whether this tale of Machiavelli's dream is pure invention or not, but I mention it because it strikes me as the best way of introducing the man whose life and ideas are set forth here. In this story of the dream, we find every facet of Niccolò Machiavelli's personality: mischievous; irreverent; gifted with an exceedingly subtle intelligence; unconcerned about questions of soul, afterlife, or sin; fascinated by practical affairs and great men. To his way of thinking, the greatest men were princes and the rulers of republics: men who gave good laws to their people, who led their people out of slavery and into a state of libertymen like Moses. Greatness lay in the affairs and achievements of states and governments, in decisions that affected the lives and destinies of the masses. Greatness lay, in short, Machiavelli thought, in politics. It is hardly surprising that on his deathbed he said he would prefer to spend eternity in Hell with great politicians than in Heaven with saints.
If there is anything strange in this story, it is that he should have found the strength to jest in his last days. By the time he died. Niccolò had become a saddened, disappointed, resigned man. He was almost sixty years old. His face was tired; his lips were twisted with bitterness; his eyes had lost the intelligent, mocking, ironic expression that appears in surviving portraits from the prime of his life. His gaze was lost in the middle distance; his thoughts turned to the past. He no longer stood tall and confident as he had when meeting princes, popes, kings, and emperors; he was stooped with fatiguetoo much travel, riding day and night, too many reckless races against time, too many tattered hopes, too many unattained dreams. Above all, too much stupidity, malice, and cruelty from his many enemies.
All his life, Machiavelli spared no effort to persuade the powerful men of Italy to free the country from foreign domination, from the outrages of invading and occupying armies. Then, just a few weeks before his death, Italy's tragedy was consummated in a final, appalling act. On 6 May 1527, an army composed of Spanish infantry and a company of fearsome foot soldiers commanded by Duke Charles of Bourbon stormed the walls of Rome. The Eternal City was defended by nothing more than a pathetic rabble of poorly armed paupers recruited from the household stables of cardinals and high prelates, from workshops and taverns. The pope, who had disbanded his army just a few months before, quickly took refuge in the papal fortress, the Castel Sant'Angelo. After a few hours of fighting, Rome fell to the Spanish infantry and the lansquenets. The Spaniards were bloody-minded and greedy for loot, the Germans were fervent Protestants and thirsted for blood, plunder, and revenge on the detested Roman Catholics, and together they perpetrated the Sack of Rome.
Machiavelli had foretold how the powerful of Italy could avoid such a tragedy. No one had listened to him. What was left, then, but to laugh and tell the story of his dream? Still, his smile did nothing to warm his heart or lighten its burden of care; if he laughed, it was to keep from weeping. His laughter concealed, but did nothing to lessen, his indignation at the injustice and absurdity of a world in which rulers were helpless to protect their subjects from violence, humiliation, and hunger; a world in which those who might govern wisely, who could rein in humanity's ambition and savagery with stable institutions, fair laws, and well-trained armies, were inevitably overlooked when they were poor or of low birth or lacked influential friends.
Such had been the lot of Niccolò Machiavelli: "I was born in poverty and at an early age learned how to endure hardship rather than flourish." That did not mean he had ever gone hungry, though at times he had had to settle for rough fare. When he said he was born in poverty, he meant he had not been born to a prominent, well-to-do family and therefore could not have hoped to be elected to public office or to make a fortune in business. Family ties and friendships with influential people determined everything. Those who had neither could only watch from the sidelines, however talented or knowledgeable they might be. For those without power in Florence, "there isn't even a dog who will bark in your face," as Machiavelli wrote in The Mandrake (La mandragola), his finest theatrical piece, composed in 1518.
True, the Machiavelli were a venerable old Florentine family whose members had held high offices in the city government, but Niccolò's father, Bernardo di Niccolò di Buoninsegna, belonged to an impoverished and humble branch of the family. With the meager revenues of his landholdings, he could barely eke out a living for his wife, Bartolomea de' Nelli; his daughters, Primavera and Margherita; and his two sons, Niccolò, born on 3 May 1469, and Totto, born in 1475.
Bernardo held a law degree but, unlike most of the lawyers and notaries in Florence, earned very little from his profession. Yet he must have been respected for his intelligence, for Bartolomeo Scala, a secretary of the Republic and a great humanist, included him among the participants in a dialogue on justice and the law that he wrote in 1483. Bernardo genuinely loved books; at considerable sacrifice, he assembled a small personal library that included books by Greek and Roman philosophersespecially Aristotle and Ciceroworks of the great masters of rhetoric, and volumes of Italian history. Sometimes he could only borrow them, or rent them for barter, paying with produce from his lands. On one occasion, in order to obtain a copy of an upcoming edition of Livy's History of Rome, an important but expensive book, Bernardo agreed to compile an index of place-names in it for the Florentine publisher Niccolò della Magna. The task was exacting and dull and took nine months, but in exchange he was allowed to keep the book. Thanks to his father's patient labor, the young Niccolò was able to read and reread at his leisure the Roman historian's account of the political and military achievements that transformed a small city into a free, powerful republic. As a grown man, Niccolò used Livy's book as the basis for Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio (referred to henceforth as the Discourses), his most important work, which contains the whole of his political thought and, in particular, his ideas about how a great and free republic is built.
Niccolò was very close to his father. To judge from surviving documents, Bernardo and Niccolò were more like two friends than like father and son; like friends, they traded pranks and jokes. Once, when Niccolò was barely scraping by in Florence, Bernardo sent him from the countryside a fat goose. In thanks, Niccolò sent him a sonnet that ended with these grateful words: "O dear Bernardo, ducks and geese/You will have boughtyet eaten none of these."
Bernardo and Niccolò shared a cheerful nature and a love of company, a fondness for lively conversation and biting repartee. A few years after Bernardo's death in May 1500, a monk from the church of Santa Croce told Niccolò that several dead bodies had been secretly buried in the Machiavelli family chapel there. To the monk's amazement, Niccolò replied, "Well, let them be, for my father was a great lover of conversation, and the more there are to keep him company, the more pleased he will be" (R, 56). Bernardo had been unable to give him wealth or power, but Niccolò loved him all the same, indeed, perhaps for that very reason felt a special fondness for him, free from the deference and fear often inspired in sons by a rich and powerful father.
A few years before his father's death, on 11 October 1496 Niccolò lost his mother. Sadly, we know almost nothing about Madonna Bartolomea. We have neither letters nor other written accounts to tell us what she was like or how she felt about her husband and children. As it has with so many others, especially women, the destructive power of time has deprived us of documents and memories about hera loss we must accept. And what time did not destroy, prejudice did: the prejudice of those who considered the life of Bartolomea de' Nelli not worth even a page in a diary or a line in a letter. We know only that she was a well-read woman who wrote poems and religious lauds. Perhaps it was from her that Niccolò acquired his poetic gifthis gift, that is, of looking at life and the world with the eyes of a poet and of writing "divine prose," as a great and demanding critic of Italian literature once put it.
Bernardo and Bartolomea could not afford illustrious tutors who might make learned humanists of their children. They gave Niccolò and Totto a good education, however, including a good understanding of Latin, grammar, and the use of the abacus, as well asto judge from the books that circulated in the housea familiarity with rhetoric, the art of writing and speaking eloquently so as to convince, persuade, and move a reader or listener. When he was about forty-five, Niccolò described his education in a letter to a friend; he wrote that fortune had so shaped him that he knew nothing about making silk or wool and nothing about profit and loss. He was unfamiliar, therefore, with the manual skills involved in processing wool and silk, for which Florentines were famous, and equally unfamiliar with banking and trade, the other arts in which Florentines excelled.
Later in life, Machiavelli enriched the body of knowledge he had acquired as a child with other important studies. He read the Latin poets, Virgil foremost and then those he called the "lesser" poets who wrote about loveTibullus and Ovid. Special mention should be made of Lucretius and De rerum natura, the great poem describing the origins of naturethe seas, plants, and animals-and the condition of man, which Niccolò not only read but diligently copied, perhaps to improve his Latin but, more likely, to have a copy to read and reread when he liked. He was especially attracted to Lucretius, whose majestic and disconsolate verses declare that man is far from being master of the universe, as he pridefully and vainly believes, but is, rather, the victim of nature and of fortune. Man is born naked and bawling; his voice fills the air. Alone among the animals of creation, he is capable of astonishing cruelty toward those of his kind, and yet no other creature has such an enormous desire to live or such a thirst forand need ofthe eternal and the infinite.
Machiavelli went on to read the ancient philosophers and, especially, historians: Thucydides, who told of the war between Sparta and Athens that tore Greece apart; Plutarch, who told of the lives of the great statesmen, generals, and lawmakers of ancient Greece and Rome; Tacitus, who recounted the corruption and perfidy of Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero; and above all, the work by Livy that his father had earned with so much hard labor and had proudly taken to the bookbinder (leaving as a deposit against payment "three flasks of vermilion wine and a flask of vinegar"). These readings engendered in Niccolò two great passions: love of antiquity and love of history. In the ancient Greek and Roman heroes, he saw examples of immense virtue, courage, and wisdom, overshadowing the corruption, baseness, and idiocy of modern times; history allowed him to understand humanity's passions, hopes, and errors, and by reading about what had happened in the past, he grasped the meaning of what was happening in the present, becausehe saidthe same passions and desires are to be found in every city and every people.
Among modern writers, he chiefly loved Dante, followed by Petrarch and Boccaccio. For Machiavelli, Dante was a master of style and wisdom; he strove to imitate Dante's style in poetry and would often quote him from memory both in his books and in letters to friends. Boccaccio inspired in him a cheerful, puckish, irreverent view of life, which made himto the everlasting delight of his friendsalways quick with a witticism, a joke, a funny story. He was never offensive, never cutting; there was always an understanding of human weakness, his own first and foremost.
Most people, then and now, prefer to call attention to their own virtues; Niccolò enjoyed emphasizing his vices, at times going so far as to claim ones he did not possess. He was renowned in Florence as a political writer, playwright, and historian, of course, but also for his general lack of subservience, for his unsurpassed witticisms, for the stories he told and the pranks he played. His friends dubbed him "il Machia," a nickname that connoted his witty, irreverent nature.
Guided by teachers both classical and contemporary, Niccolò formed a distinctly personal conception of lifea rich blend of generosity, enthusiasm for great deeds, intense passions, comprehension of the fragility of life, and a love of beauty that sprang in part from a deep understanding of life's harshness and human malice. What he did not learn from books, he learned in the streets and squares, the public benches, churches, and taverns of Florence, a unique school of life, magnificent and harsh. Practically speaking, Florence forced him to live a life worth the telling.