An Unlikely Prince: The Life and Times of Machiavelli, by Niccolo Capponi, Da Capo, 334 pp, £15.99, ISBN: 978-0306817564
Machiavelli: A Life Beyond Ideology, by Paul Oppenheimer, Continuum, 337 pp, £25.00, ISBN: 978-1847252210
Machiavelli: A Biography, by Miles J Unger, Simon & Schuster, 416 pp., £20.00, ISBN: 978-1416556282
A well-known story about Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) has him on his deathbed, discussing with friends a dream in which he had seen two groups of men. One, dressed in rags and emaciated, consisted of the saintly on their way to heaven. The second, noble and grave, were the damned on their way to hell; among them he recognised the great men of his beloved classical world, Plato, Plutarch and Tacitus. Machiavelli concludes that hell would suit him much more than heaven for there he would be able to participate in congenial political conversations with the great men he so respects.
The story may be apocryphal. Nevertheless, it does articulate sentiments similar to those expressed by Callimaco in Machiavelli’s greatest play, The Mandrake (Mandragola). The worst that can happen in life, Callimaco says, is to die and go to hell. But think how many of the great and good are already there! No wonder that Thomas Babington Macaulay believed that “Old Nick”, the pseudonym for the devil, derived from Niccolò, Machiavelli’s first name.
Even better known than the deathbed story is Machiavelli’s famous letter, dated December 10th, 1513, to Francesco Vettori, in which he describes in despairing, albeit humorous, words his life in exile in the countryside, and continues as follows
When evening comes, I return home and enter my study; on the threshold I take off my workday clothes, covered with mud and dirt, and put on the garments of court and palace. Fitted out appropriately, I step inside the venerable courts of the ancients, where, solicitously received by them, I nourish myself on that food that alone is mine and for which I was born; where I am unashamed to converse with them and to question them about the motives for their actions, and they, out of their human kindness, answer me. And for four hours at a time I feel no boredom, I forget all my troubles, I do not dread poverty, and I am not terrified by death. I absorb myself into them completely. And because Dante says that no one understands anything unless he retains what he has understood, I have jotted down what I have profited from in their conversation and composed a short study, De principatibus [The Prince], in which I delve as deeply as I can into the ideas concerning this topic, discussing the definition of a princedom, the categories of princedoms, how they are acquired, how they are retained, and why they are lost.
During the years from 1498 to 1512, as an envoy of the Florentine republic, Machiavelli had put on formal robes in meeting and negotiating with a large range of rulers. And according to this letter, in talking to the ancients he again dons his robes of state. If, following Sebastian de Grazia, we combine the deathbed story and the letter, we could argue that The Prince is the product of a series of congenial political conversations with the ancients – with the great and the good of hell.
The author of The Prince has long been the subject of biographical interest. Over the years, a number of superb biographies have been published, of which Roberto Ridolfi’s The Life of Niccolò Machiavelli (1963) and Sebastian de Grazia’s Machiavelli in Hell (1989) are particularly noteworthy. The latest biographies (in order of publication) are An Unlikely Prince: The Life and Times of Machiavelli by Niccolo Capponi, Machiavelli: A Biography by Miles J Unger, and Machiavelli: A Life Beyond Ideology by Paul Oppenheimer.
To say that Machiavelli has an unsavoury reputation is an understatement. “The murd’rous Machiavel”, in Shakespeare’s words, the character “Machiavelli” who, in Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, says “I count religion but a childish toy / and hold there is no sin but ignorance”, is today seen as the advocate of a ruthless political doctrine in which political ends justify even the most brutal means. As can be seen in derogatory terms such as Machiavellianism, both Machiavelli and The Prince are notoriously infamous. Echoing Macaulay, Unger acknowledges that “his name has been turned into an adjective to describe any cynical act or the pursuit of power without conscience”. Oppenheimer agrees that Machiavelli is often seen to be “revolting, nauseating, unprincipled and evil”. Needless to say, Machiavelli himself would not subscribe to this evaluation, and both Capponi and Unger insist that he himself was not at all Machiavellian.
Machiavelli lived during a fascinating period of Italian history. He was, as Unger emphasises, “one of the truly remarkable figures of a remarkable age”, the “product of a remarkable city”, Florence, “at the most remarkable period in its history”. He was the close friend of the great Renaissance historian and statesman Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540). He knew both Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and Michelangelo (1475-1564). He was the author of The Mandrake, the greatest theatrical work of the Italian Renaissance, and was arguably the greatest Italian prose writer of his day. The Discourses on Livy is a classic piece of political philosophy, and while his Florentine Histories is, as Capponi says, “a totally unreliable and fraudulent piece of work”, it is also “brilliantly constructed and written”. The titles central to Machiavelli’s own self-image were those of Florentine citizen and secretary, but he was also a political and military theorist, a comic playwright, and a historian.
The inside flap of Capponi’s biography claims that he has liberated Machiavelli “from centuries of misinterpretation” and revealed “the man behind the legend”. All three biographies attempt to do just that. All emphasise the brutal and violent nature of the world in which he lived. And all attempt to shed light on the central Machiavellian problem, his beliefs. Many have puzzled over the seeming contradiction between the robust republicanism of The Discourses on Livy and the brutal advice to tyrants given in The Prince, between the idealism of the former and the ruthlessness of the latter. Machiavelli is a notoriously difficult thinker to come to grips with, and a wide divergence of opinion exists today about even his most fundamental beliefs. In Capponi’s words, “Niccolò was a complex figure, and trying to pin him down can have the same effect as eating a hot dog: You bite it on one end, and everything inside shoots out from the other.” Was he the murd’rous Machiavel or the Florentine citizen and secretary?
The three biographical accounts of Machiavelli cover very similar ground. His life can best be understood as falling into three distinct periods. First, his early years until 1498. Second, his public career from 1498, when aged twenty-nine he was appointed secretary of the second chancery, a position also known as the second chancellor of the Florentine republic, and during which he represented the republic and met many of the important political figures of his day. And third, the period from 1512, after he was expelled from office and during which he wrote the works for which he is remembered.
Machiavelli was born in 1469 in the republican city state of Florence during its golden age. His life, career, and thought were shaped by Florence’s tumultuous relations with the outside world. Together with Milan, Naples, Rome, and Venice, his Florence was one of the five major Italian city states, some more major than others. Although it was militarily weak, Florentine merchants and bankers were generous patrons of artists and literati. It was one of the major centres of Renaissance humanism. Oligarchs or merchant princes such as the de’ Medici dominated its politics. For the first two decades of Macchiavelli’s life, the de facto ruler of the Florentine republic was Lorenzo de’ Medici or Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449–1492) (of whom Unger has also published a biography). Since Lorenzo maintained a precarious peace between the various Italian city states, Machiavelli’s early years were a stable period during which the Italian Renaissance flourished. His professional career was to rise and fall with the fortunes of France in Italy and the misfortunes of the House of de’ Medici in Florence.
We know very little of Machiavelli’s early life. He himself emphasised his humble origins. In his dedicatory letter to Lorenzo de’ Medici – the grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent – included in The Prince, Machiavelli describes himself as “a man of very low and humble condition”. Elsewhere he claims “I was born in poverty and at an early age learned how to scrimp rather than to thrive”. The reality, however, is that he was born into a rather distinguished Florentine family, middle class and bourgeois, albeit impoverished. Capponi emphasises that this poverty was relative: while not “swimming in gold”, Machiavelli’s father, Bernardo, “enjoyed a more affluent lifestyle than what his son would like us to believe”.
Bernardo was a bookish lawyer who presided over a household in which learning was valued. He was, in Unger’s words, “the prototypical scholarly dilettante”, a lettered man who lived “as a cultured gentleman of modest means”. The family’s respectability was a shabby and even insecure one. However, while Bernardo and his son certainly lacked the wealth of the elite families of Florence, they did share their culture, and even rubbed shoulders with them. Machiavelli received a solid education in the liberal arts or studia humanitatis which at that time was a prerequisite for public office and a path to upward mobility. Much later in life, writing to his own son Guido, Machiavelli stressed that “you must study and … take pains to learn letters and music, for you are aware how much distinction is given me for what little ability I possess”.
As a boy and young man, Machiavelli was provided with two educations. The first was gained through his conversation with the great books. The second was imbibed through the turbulent times and zeitgeist of Florence. One example of the turbulent nature of domestic Florentine politics is the Pazzi Conspiracy – the 1478 attempt by the Pazzi family to overthrow the Medici. He may have seen Francesco de’ Pazzi going to the scaffold in April 1478; according to Capponi, he almost certainly was on the scene when the corpse of Francesco’s father, Jacopo de’ Pazzi, was dragged through the streets and thrown into the river.
The death of Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1492 and especially the 1494 invasion of Italy by Charles VIII of France marked the end of the era of domestic peace. For the rest of Machiavelli’s life, Italy was engulfed by war. Its domestic powers struggled to maintain their independence and increase their prestige, while the armies of France, Germany, and Spain marched, pillaged and butchered their way across Italy. What Oppenheimer says about the Spanish in Italy – “Italy seemed on its way to becoming a feeding trough for imperial Iberian appetites” – could as easily have been said about the French or Germans. Rome itself was sacked the year Machiavelli died. It was an age of crisis.
When Lorenzo died, Machiavelli was still in his mid-twenties. The same year Rodrigo Borgia, one of the most controversial of the many controversial Renaissance popes, became Pope Alexander VI. As Unger notes, he “was on intimate terms with … Greed, Wrath, Lust, Gluttony, and Pride”. He was widely reported to have turned the Vatican into a brothel. Alexander’s son, Cesare Borgia, of whom, Capponi writes that “deceit, corruption, fraud, and murder were merely part of a very pragmatic approach to politics”, was to cast a long shadow over Machiavelli’s thought.
Meanwhile, Lorenzo was succeeded by his son, Piero de’ Medici (1472-1503), who ruled from 1492 until his exile in 1494. When Charles VIII reached the borders of Florence, Piero was forced to agree to humiliating terms, and the subsequent uproar then forced him to flee. This ended, for the time being, Medici rule; the family were not to return to power until 1512. Note that Machiavelli’s professional career flourished from 1498 to 1512, and ended only when the de’ Medici returned. Pisa meanwhile had seized the opportunity to gain independence: Florence was to spend well over a decade fighting to regain its port city.
The post-Medicean settlement was characterised by an alliance with France and a broader franchise led initially by the fundamentalist Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498), who dominated the politics of Florence from 1494 until his execution in 1498. Savonarola, the “unarmed prophet” of The Prince, was in Unger’s words “a preacher of fire and brimstone”. His death at the stake, Ridolfi writes, “was the last lesson Machiavelli received from men before passing from private to public life”. In less than a week, Machiavelli, not yet thirty, was designated the republic’s second chancellor, one of the most important unelected public offices in the city state. This was, in Ridolfi’s words, an office that was both “so humble in comparison with his talents, and so exalted in comparison with his status”. He also became “secretary of the ten of war”, a government committee entrusted with overseeing the defence of the republic. In Mandrake, Nicia says that those not working for the government count for nothing in Florence – even the dogs refuse to bark at them. Machiavelli was now someone.
Although not of one of the elite families, and so not made formal ambassador, Machiavelli was sent on a number of diplomatic missions, several to the court of the king of France, Florence’s major ally, but also to the papal court, and to negotiate with the head of the house of Habsburg, Maximilian, the Holy Roman Emperor. And of course he negotiated with various petty rulers of central Italy. Distance and the slowness of communication meant that he was out of Florence for long periods – sometimes months – in various courts. Oppenheimer uses the quite appropriate term “diplomat-sojourner” to describe his activities.
On these travels, the education in political brutality and political theatre that he had received as a boy in Florence was reinforced. Of the Pazzi Conspiracy Oppenheimer writes that “Niccolò was surely accumulating a cogent instruction in the basest aspects of government power [and] in the uses of symbolic brutality”. Unger makes the same point about Machiavelli’s first visit to the French court in 1500: “Here, brazen self-interest and naked aggression were ingeniously concealed, sweetened with lies and sauced with piety, until even the most unpalatable cruelties seemed refined enough for a king’s table”.
In 1502, Machiavelli was sent on two missions to negotiate with Cesare Borgia. Of the various rulers he met, Cesare impressed him (and others) the most. In de Grazia’s words, over a number of years Borgia “filled the thoughts and slimmed the purses of Florentines”. Cesare was busily conquering various strongholds across the Romagna, which was, on paper, part of the papal domains, but in reality largely independent. Machiavelli’s missions entailed him following in the footsteps of Cesare, visiting one newly subjected area after the other. Cesare embodied much of what Machiavelli came to believe a prince needed – the wise cunning of the fox and the powerful brutality of the lion.
In Florence, Piero Soderini was appointed gonfaloniere (standard bearer) for life in 1502. Machiavelli enjoyed a close relationship with the new ruler of Florence and was branded his mannerino or “minion”. The republic had attached itself to France’s fortunes in Italy. While France remained strong, republican Florence also remained secure. Once its power started to wane, the republic, Soderini’s regime, and his right-hand man, Machiavelli, were all threatened. In the meantime, Soderini’s enemies could attack him by undermining Machiavelli. As Ridolfi says, “It is not surprising that in this battle the squire received a few blows as well as his master.”
Machiavelli was a firm supporter of republicanism. He also advocated Florentine military reform and in particular argued for the creation of a militia of citizen-soldiers. For him, the employment of mercenaries was anathema. His arguments in favour of arming citizens in a city in which the rich monopolised the weapons of war had obvious political implications. The lack of progress in the war with Pisa provided him with the opportunity to overcome opposition, and he was instrumental in establishing a new citizens’ militia which was given official sanction in December 1506, when “the nine” – another magistrature established to administer Florence’s military affairs – was approved. He became secretary of the nine as well as second chancellor and secretary of the ten.
Progress in the war with Pisa came in 1509 as a result of a decision to switch from attacking the city to starving it. Machiavelli had directed a series of attacks by Florence’s new citizen militia, which received much of the credit when Pisa finally gave in. His name appears just below that of Florence’s first chancellor, Marcello Virgilio Adriani, on the articles of surrender. This was the high point of his career.
One of Machiavelli’s diplomatic missions had been to Rome in 1503, where he arrived just in time to see the election of Pope Julius II – the warrior pope. Julius was determined to drive the French out of Italy, and in 1511 joined hands with Spain and the Holy Roman Empire and proclaimed an anti-French Holy League. Florence backed France and when the French were defeated in 1512, the militia was again mobilised to face battle-hardened Spanish troops whom Julius II had invited into Italy to fight the French. This time, however, the militia broke and the republic surrendered. Soderini’s regime ended, and the republic was overthrown. Since the Florentine republic had been created by the intrusion of French power into Italy, it is not surprising that it was not able to survive its eclipse. The Medici returned to power in the train of the Spanish. Machiavelli retained his position as chancellor until November 7th, 1512 when he was “dismissed, deprived, and totally removed”. Working for the state was his vocation, his calling. Losing his position was, Capponi says, “a veritable psychological watershed”. Later, he would refer to the post-1512 period as post res perditas – after everything was lost. His dismissal meant both the end of both the free republic and of his vocation.
This was not the end of his troubles. An anti-Medici conspiracy was uncovered, and he was named as someone the conspirators thought might be sympathetic. In early 1513, he was arrested, tortured, and then released in an amnesty declared when Giovanni de’ Medici, another son of Lorenzo, was named the new pope, Leo X. Machiavelli went, reluctantly, into rural retirement to his farm at Sant’Andrea, living in a simple country manner more suited, Ridolfi says, for “the evening, not the high noon of life”. In Unger’s words, “The architect of the victory over Pisa, the familiar of popes, kings, and even an emperor, was now a nobody.” No dog would now bark at him. Friends, relatives, and family either would not or could not aid him. Even a close and well-connected friend like Vettori, who was ambassador in Rome, could do little for him. As Ridolfi says, Vettori “had wit enough to be fond of Machiavelli and appreciate him, but not heart enough to help him if it were going to be inconvenient or require effort”.
Since the door to an active life of participation in civic government was shut, Machiavelli sought solace in the contemplative life (one of Unger’s chapters is entitled “Vita Contemplativa”). Instead of taking part in politics, he now put to paper his ideas about politics and political realities. He wrote The Prince in the second half of 1513 in countryside austerity in order to show off his talents and abilities and ingratiate himself to the rulers of what had once more become Medicean Florence. In Unger’s words, “he hoped to use his considerable literary gifts to save himself from the literary life”.
As we have already seen, The Prince, as de Grazia argues, emerges from a conversation in hell. In writing it, Machiavelli drew on his intimate knowledge of and work in statecraft. His own experience of Florence’s affairs was blended with his reading of the ancient authors to produce new insights, a point he himself was anxious to make. Capponi writes of his “archaeological mindset”, an appropriate description for a man so immersed in the idea of Rome.
In the famous letter to Francesco Vettori cited above, Machiavelli describes his life as a life of books and inquiry, as a life in conversation with the great men of the past. The Prince in effect rejected the conclusions of the advice books written by humanists who drew on the classical authorities such as Seneca and particularly Cicero and urged princes to act in a virtuous manner. It is thus a critique of the moral precepts of classical humanism. Writers such as Cicero had argued that a grasp of moral philosophy was a prerequisite for a political ruler, and that the virtuous man needs to accomplish his goals by virtuous means – by debate and persuasion – rather that by force, treachery, or fraud. He called these bestial tactics that suit animals (the lion and the fox) but not mankind and insisted that a moral policy was also an expedient one. Machiavelli, however, argued that the prince must at times resort to the tactics of the powerful lion or the wily fox. In other words, politics has its own rules and laws, and cannot be constrained by the edicts of morality. Necessity, not morality, must guide the behaviour of the prince.
Machiavelli argues that theoretical ideals must be distinguished from actual realities. Thus, for instance, while generosity is normally seen as a virtue, in real life, the ruler cannot afford to be too open-handed. Such a ruler will consume all his own resources in being generous, and will eventually have to raise taxes, which will make him the target of hatred. A ruler who is miserly, on the other hand, “will not have to rob his subjects … [but] will be able to defend himself [will have revenues sufficient to support an army] … will avoid being poor and despised and will not be forced to become rapacious”. A reluctance to spend money is a vice that makes it possible for the prince to rule. Note that Machiavelli here comes very close to saying that a private vice (parsimony or cruelty) is a public virtue. As he says “doing some things that seem virtuous may result in one’s ruin, whereas doing other things that seem vicious may strengthen one’s position and cause one to flourish”. Vice becomes virtue. This is why “a ruler … must know how to act like a beast”. A ruler “must be a great feigner and dissembler”; the prince must endeavour to make sure that “to those who see and hear him, he should seem to be exceptionally merciful, trustworthy, upright, humane and devout”. But in reality he can afford to be none of these since “in order to maintain his power, he is often forced to act treacherously, ruthlessly or inhumanely, and disregard the precepts of religion”. Elsewhere, Machiavelli says, “a ruler who wants to maintain his power is often forced to act immorally”.
What about the Christian belief that if we are unjust in this world, we will be punished on the day of judgement? In Quentin Skinner’s words: “About this Machiavelli says nothing at all. His silence is eloquent, indeed epoch making; it echoed around Christian Europe, at first eliciting a stunned silence in return, and then a howl of execration that has never finally died away”.
The Prince failed to persuade the Medici to rehabilitate Machiavelli. This period of his life was one that he took several years to adjust to. However, by the middle of the decade, disillusioned, facing malice and indifference, he had reinvented himself as a man of letters and literary wit. From perhaps 1516 he became a habitué of gatherings of pro-Medici humanist intellectuals – a salon – in the Rucellai family garden, the Orti Oricellari. He had rejoined the ranks of an elite, albeit now a cultural rather than a political one, was accepted in pro-Medici circles and was moving back towards the centre of power. Between 1516 and 1520, he produced several works characterised by irreverence and ribaldry, adding light comedy to serious political writing. Of these, one, The Mandrake, is a masterpiece. By 1520, he had reestablished himself to the extent that the Medici were willing to entrust minor missions to him. He was also commissioned to write a history of Florence.
Pope Leo X died in 1521 and Giulio de’ Medici became Pope Clement VII. He too struggled to rid Italy of foreign armies. The 1526 League of Cognac, an alliance that included Florence, Milan, Rome, Venice, and France, was created to confront the emperor and expel the Habsburgs from Italy. After being summoned to Rome to see the new Florentine pope, Machiavelli was appointed in 1526 to help rebuild Florence’s walls and oversee the city’s fortifications. He had finally won for himself an official position – but from the anti-republican Medici family. The League of Cognac failed, and Rome was sacked in May 1527; in Florence, the republic was restored. Machiavelli lobbied for his old job, but it went elsewhere. Ironically, while the Medici had long shunned him because of his republican sympathies, the republicans now viewed him as being too close to that family. It was the final bitter blow and he died soon after.
This is the Machiavelli of our biographers. Ridolfi exaggerates only slightly when he says that he was “poor in everything but intelligence and confidence”. He leaps into history in 1498. Little is known of his life before this date. From 1498, he served the republic faithfully until the return of the Medici family in 1512, after which he was banished from office and reinvented himself as a man of letters, writing The Prince in 1513 and beginning work on The Discourses on Livy. In addition to a large body of correspondence, he wrote The Mandrake and The History of Florence. Late in life he started to sign his letters “istorico, comico e tragico” (historian, comic and tragic author). To be a historian was to reflect on the tragic mistakes that had led to the state Italy was in, and Machiavelli was noted for his ability to laugh so as not to cry. He was earthy and vulgar, a philandering womaniser and a writer of witty letters heavily peppered with ribald remarks and obscenities. He was a talented playwright and political philosopher. He revelled in the male camaraderie provided by friendships with intelligent and cultured men.
The disagreements between the three biographers are relatively minor. The most significant concerns the dating of some poems. Unger and Oppenheimer agree that the poems were written when Machiavelli was in his early twenties, and indicate that he and Giuliano, son of Lorenzo, were friends circa 1492-1494. Capponi however argues that they might have been written much later, and thinks that they may represent a post-1512 attempt “to create for Machiavelli a history of intimacy with Florence’s present rulers”. If he is correct, then perhaps his own evaluation of the un-Machiavellian nature of Machiavelli’s character might have to be revisited.
All three biographers agree that “ideology”, however defined, played no significant role in Machiavelli’s thought. Capponi says: “Despite his theoretically strong Republican leanings, like most of his fellow citizens Machiavelli placed honore et utile above ideology”. Unger claims that he was “willing to serve whichever side had the upper hand regardless of ideology … His ideological slipperiness was a result of his ardent patriotism”. Oppenheimer writes that he studied “politics in the raw, so to speak, or politics without ideology”.
While the biographies are largely in agreement on the details of the life, there are differences in style and viewpoint. Capponi writes an earthy, unadorned prose. His book is written, rather self-consciously, from the viewpoint of Florence – “the city itself is one of the protagonists of this book” – but with an infectious enthusiasm that makes it the pick of the bunch. He is himself is a Florentine (and a direct descendent of Machiavelli). Roberto Ridolfi, also from Florence, and another descendant, says that Machiavelli was a “quintessential Florentine”; for Capponi he is “Florentine to the core” ‑ “Nastiness can be described as pervasive in Florence … Florentines revel in other people’s misfortunes”. His Machiavelli has many faults – arrogant in power, servile once out, an aficionado of low pleasures, a womanising spendthrift, incapable of choosing the winning side in any political conflict. Unger’s Machiavelli is also abrasive and tactless in power, a cynical patriot and gregarious connoisseur of urban fleshpots. Above all, he was a “consummate bureaucrat” and patriot. Both Capponi and Unger emphasise his rather grim sense of humour, his delight in carnal pleasures, his tactlessness and presumptuousness. They also agree that, in Capponi’s words, “time and time again, Machiavelli displayed a knack for provoking the wrong people”.
Unger argues that the description of him “as a soulless hedonist, pursuing low pleasures while offering his sardonic take on the world around him” is a caricature. Yet he depicts him and his friends “whoring, drinking, and gambling to their hearts’ content” and constantly communicating with one another about their latest indiscretions. Machiavelli’s Weltanschauung, Unger says, was “cynical, secular and anticlerical”. Oppenheimer is more restrained in his use of earthy language, but even he writes of his “whorehouse-oriented cast of mind”.
Capponi’s Machiavelli is religious though firmly anticlerical – Capponi talks of “his ingrained Florentine anticlericalism”. Ironically, in the last years of his life, the Medici popes were to support various of his endeavours, such as providing a stipend to write his history of Florence. Unger agrees that Machiavelli was a cynic, anticlerical, irreverent, and sceptical, but “probably not an atheist”. All three are modern biographers, and so dwell on sex as well as violence. Ridolfi writes that sodomy was the “Florentine vice”. This off-the-cuff remark is too tempting for our biographers to resist. Both Capponi and Oppenheimer repeat the words “Florentine vice”. Capponi writes that “It remains unclear to what extent Machiavelli himself had a liking for his own gender”, but also claims that some remarks in his letters “could imply that he may have practiced” sodomy. The hesitant qualifications are important. Unger also uses the word unclear: “It is unclear whether Machiavelli himself indulged in an occasional illicit tryst with boys”.
Oppenheimer writes that “any new biography of him, beyond its attempt to paint his life in vital colours, and so to allow readers to see, feel, smell, taste and listen to his world as well as hear his voice with, it may be hoped, relatively fine tuning, ought to supply a comprehensive view of his intellectual adventures while relying on the superb work of earlier scholars”. He does indeed emphasise the sights, smells, and sounds of the world he recreates. One example will perhaps suffice. As a boy, he says, “Niccolò would have been sent off to school during the just-after-dawn hours as the sun bisected the claret-clear Florentine sky with its memorable, acute light. The rays shooting across the streets seemed brush strokes profiling the day.”
All three biographies provide context for the “intellectual adventures” of Machiavelli, yet none of them quite solves the essential enigma of the man – and it is perhaps an enigma that cannot be solved. Macaulay once wrote, “Two characters altogether dissimilar are united in him”. Leo Strauss claims in his Thoughts on Machiavelli that he was “a teacher of evil”, and he himself “was an evil man”. “Indeed,” Strauss continues, “what other description would fit a man who teaches lessons like these: princes ought to exterminate the families of rulers whose territory they wish to possess securely; princes ought to murder their opponents rather than to conﬁscate their property since those who have been robbed, but not those who are dead, can think of revenge; men forget the murder of their fathers sooner than the loss of their patrimony.” At the same time, however, he also declares that we must do “justice to what is truly admirable in Machiavelli: the intrepidity of his thought, the grandeur of his vision, and the graceful subtlety of his speech”.
Even a close friend such as Guicciardini admitted that Machiavelli “always finds great delight in extraordinary and violent remedies”. As both Macaulay and Strauss stress, however, there is more to Machiavelli than his brutal realism. In one letter to his son Guido, he discusses the problem posed by a mad mule. “Since the young mule has gone mad,” he writes, “it must be treated just the reverse of the way crazy people are, for they are tied up, and I want you to let it loose … take off its bridle and halter and let it go wherever it likes … The village is big and the beast is small; it can do no one any harm.” This is one case at least where the brutal realism and violent remedies of Machiavelli give way to his humanist upbringing.