Niccolò Machiavelli – The Prince of Diplomacy
15th Century Italy was a conglomeration of tiny independent states ruled by princes and dukes who were constantly at the throat of one another or plotting to usurp the powers of their neighbors.
It was a tumultuous period where popes, city states of Italy and even foreign powers waged wars to gain control of other states.
It was in this atmosphere of ongoing political turmoil that a man was born in 1469 in Florence who was to leave an indelible imprint on the history of Italy.
That man was Niccolò Machiavelli.
At the time of his birth his native city Florence was ruled by the Medici, a powerful political dynasty, for decades.
By the time Machiavelli was 26, the rule of the Family of Medici over Florence was ended and Florence became a republic.
In 1498 Machiavelli was appointed the Secretary Chancellor of the city council governing the republic.
The Diplomat Par Excellence
Niccolò Machiavelli possessed an analytical mind which unperturbed by the apparent complexities could get at the root of the naughtiest problem and solve it.
This amazing mental ability, coupled with tact and political acumen, soon made Machiavelli famous and also the first choice of the elected councilors as the troubleshooter of the new republic.
Whenever the state faced any problem, Machiavelli was entrusted with the task of solving it. Thus during the tenure of the secretarial office, Machiavelli went on scores of diplomatic missions which included visits to the court of Louis XII in France; to the court of Ferdinand II of Aragón, in Spain; in Germany; and to the Papacy in Rome, in the Italian states as well as Monaco.
His power of observation was so keen that he didn’t miss the slightest detail of what he saw. This aptitude aided by his deductive power of reasoning helped him in formulating his successful political strategies.
Machiavelli’s judgment rarely failed him. Most of the time he not only correctly anticipated the moves his opponents would make but was ready with counter-moves to thwart their designs.
Had it not been for Machiavelli’s diplomatic acumen, it is open to doubt whether the young republic would have survived the political intrigues of the neighboring states. These states were often aided by alien powers who taking the advantage of the ongoing strife between the Italian states were constantly trying to bring various zones of the country under their hegemony.
Return of the Medici
Then an event occurred that changed everything. Cardinal Julius II was elected the Pope. He was a friend of the Medici.
This was a golden opportunity for the Medici to take revenge on Florentines who had ousted them from power. The new Pope and his Spanish allies threatened an attack on Florence unless the erstwhile rulers were restored to power.
After being a republic for 18 years, Florence once again became a princely state in 1512.
It was not long before most of the city councilors and Machiavelli were arrested and thrown into jail under the charges of treason and conspiracy against the Exalted House of Medici who considered themselves the rightful rulers of Florence.
Imprisonment and Torture
During imprisonment Machiavelli suffered the infamous torture “with the rope” – a mode of punishment in which a prisoner’s wrists are bound from the back. Then he is suspended by a rope from the wrists which results in dislocation of the shoulders. Even then Machiavelli was steadfast in denying his guilt. Eventually the Medici released him.
Now having no place in the corridors of power of Florence, Machiavelli retired to his estate at Sant'Andrea in Percussina (near San Casciano in Val di Pesa). Secluded from the hustle and bustle of his former days he turned to writing.
It was then that he wrote his most famous work The Prince (Il Prince).
The Prince enunciates how a ruler should practice the statecraft to consolidate his political power.
As soon as the Prince came out it was embroiled in controversy. It was regarded as advocating immoral and deceptive ways of governance. The Catholic Church banned it and Machiavelli earned a bad name which has stuck to him even now. The term "Machiavellian" has become synonymous with anything cunning, deceitful, unscrupulous.
Scholars believe that the ill repute that has come to be associated with Machiavelli is because he was blunt in saying what he said. In fact, the tactics he advocated in The Prince are practiced with variations and possibly in a more subtle and sophisticated way.
And this is probably why now The Prince has come to be regarded as the classic of political science and has been translated in almost all the world languages.
Art of War is another work of Machiavelli which is considered a companion to The Prince.
In still another work, Discourses, the history of a nation, he put forward the idea of a dynamic nation.
This concept is said to be generally accepted by all political scientists though they would, of course, hate to be called Machiavellian.
The Lighter Side of Machiavelli
Going by the heavy political treatises that he wrote, we may think that Machiavelli was a colorless and drab personality. But that was not so.
He wrote the play Mandragola that became popular in his time and played to packed houses. Literary critics believe that it is possibly the best Italian comedy ever produced.
His other fictional works included poems, novels and stories.
Irony of Fate
The only way Machiavelli could get back his former glory was that Florence should become a republic again. Though this seemed a remote possibility with the Medici firmly set in power in Florence, the republicans were scheming to do just that behind the scenes. When they succeeded in roping in the support of France and Germany, the republicans once again threw out the Medici in 1527.
Now the new republic needed a Secretary Chancellor and the most eligible candidate for the post was Machiavelli. But the governing council wouldn’t have him.
The reason was that Machiavelli had served under the Medici.
Considering Machiavelli a security risk because of his democratic views, the Medici had retained him for rather an unimportant task of writing the history of Florence. This was their ploy to keep Machiavelli under their thumb and also under observation so that he would not do anything against them.
On his part, Machiavelli might have seen this assignment as a source of much needed income in his indigent plight in retirement though he couldn’t have anticipated that doing this work would go against him in future.
From the view point of Machiavelli, by accepting this assignment from the Medici he was not compromising his democratic principles as he was just recording the facts of history and not siding with the Medici in any way. If he had got paid for it this was a compensation for his labors and not any patronage from the Medici.
But the republicans would have none of this. Their reasoning would be if Machiavelli worked for our enemy he was not with them, conveniently forgetting his priceless services to the republic and the consequent imprisonment and torture that he had suffered for his democratic views.
Machiavelli's Resting Place
Church of Santa Croce, Florence
The rejection by the republicans was a severe blow to Machiavelli.
Machiavelli died in 1527 just one month after Florence again became a republic. He was 58 at that time. He was buried in the Church of Santa Croce in Florence,
The Latin epitaph on his monument pays him a rich tribute.
In translation, it reads:
"So great a name (has) no adequate praise" or "No eulogy (would be appropriate to) such a great name"
Machiavelli didn’t regain his political glory in his lifetime. But he will always be remembered for his contribution to the political science. The Prince no doubt is his signature piece, but his comedy play also commands attention in the modern times. La Mandragola has been staged in the recent past. It was played in New York a number of times in 1976 at the time of the New York Shakespeare Festival as well as at other venues.
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