Writing in the late 1530s, the great Florentine historian Francesco Guicciardini claimed that “Italy had never enjoyed such prosperity, or known so favourable a situation as that in which it found itself so securely at rest in the year of our Christian salvation 1490, and the years immediately before and after”.
It was a different story by 1529, if we are to trust a report filed to London by Sir Nicholas Carew and Richard Sampson, two English envoys who travelled to Bologna for Charles V’s coronation as Holy Roman Emperor. In towns and villages, they saw “children crying about the streets for bread, and yea dying for hunger”. Pope Clement VII told them that “war, famine and pestilence” had raged so ferociously across Italy that it would be many years before the peninsula “shall be anything well restored, for want of people”.
What had happened over the intervening four decades? Modern historians treat with caution Guicciardini’s assertion that everything was fine until King Charles VIII of France invaded the peninsula in 1494 to press his claim to the realm of Naples. Still, the French invasion of Italy — not to become a united country until the 1860s — turned it into an almost permanent battleground among the armies of France, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, the peninsula’s small, squabbling states and assorted mercenaries.
The symbolic culmination of the wars was the imperial sack of Rome in 1527, an orgy of destruction that contemporaries recalled as “God’s vengeance on a corrupt city and failing papacy”, as Catherine Fletcher writes in The Beauty and the Terror. For all the devastation, however, this was also an era of extraordinary artistic achievements, the age when Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa and Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, complaining later that the effort left him “bending like a Syrian bow”. Ludovico Ariosto wrote Orlando Furioso, Niccolò Machiavelli The Prince and Baldassare Castiglione The Book of the Courtier.
It is not only these enduring cultural splendours that explain why the Italian Renaissance continues to exert such a powerful hold on our imagination. Coinciding as it did with the “discovery” of the Americas, it is often portrayed as the time when modern Europe and western civilisation began to take shape. If we want to know who we are and where we came from, some knowledge of the Renaissance seems essential.
The three books under review are magnificent introductions to the history of the era and to the life and political thought of Machiavelli (1469-1527), an author and diplomat whose sinister reputation for centuries distorted the astonishing range and quality of his work. Fletcher’s book covers not just the wars and Renaissance art but also Italy’s political systems, courtly ceremonies, the Protestant Reformation and Catholic renewal, anti-Semitism, European colonialism, slavery, military technologies, early efforts at gun control, women’s poetry and even pornography.
Alexander Lee’s Machiavelli: His Life and Times sets a wholly new standard for English-language biographies of the Florentine thinker, synthesising recent academic research and placing his subject in a vividly described context of Renaissance society and everyday life. Meanwhile, the French scholar Patrick Boucheron’s Machiavelli: The Art of Teaching People What to Fear, a relatively short book, is packed with insights into how Machiavelli has been construed and misconstrued down the ages and why his ideas still resonate so powerfully today.
Fletcher, a professor at Manchester Metropolitan University, subtitles her book “an alternative history of the Italian Renaissance”, arguing that popular awareness of this era “tends to focus on the genius and glory at the expense of the atrocities”. From television series such as The Borgias (2011) we know about the “glamorous, sexy violence” of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, but we are less familiar with “the violence of war, exile and colonisation, nor yet domestic abuse”.
She is not the only historian to have made this point. Two excellent studies of the seamy, brutal side of the era are Lee’s The Ugly Renaissance (2013) and Stephen Bowd’s Renaissance Mass Murder (2018). Yet Fletcher shows how digging below the artistic and commercial riches of Renaissance Italy can reveal strong connections between culture, business, religion and violence.
Three books on Machiavelli and the Italian Renaissance
Catherine Fletcher’s book covers not just the wars and Renaissance art but also Italy’s political systems, courtly ceremonies, European colonialism and much more
Alexander Lee synthesises recent academic research and places his subject in a vividly described context of Renaissance society and everyday life
Patrick Boucheron’s book, smoothly translated by Willard Wood, reminds us that Machiavelli is no advocate of unbridled state violence
Lisa Gherardini, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, was the wife of a “ruthless and upwardly mobile silk merchant”, Francesco del Giocondo, who had operations in mainland Portugal and Madeira. He brought enslaved women, most likely from Africa, to be baptised in Florence in the 1480s and 1490s. Italians financed and led some of the early transatlantic voyages to the New World. After the Genoa-born Christopher Columbus, “out of Italy came finance, individuals, a history of enslavement and ideas about running colonies, a framework for understanding the conquered lands, and — from the papacy — religious legitimation for colonial projects via papal bulls and interpretation of canon law”.
Cesare Borgia, mercenary commander and illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI, and the rest of his family receive plenty of attention in Fletcher’s book. But she rightly observes that because winners write history and the Borgias in the end lost out, their murderous and nepotistic behaviour has been exposed to more scrutiny than the crimes of other prominent figures.
Take the Farnese family. Alessandro Farnese, better known as Pope Paul III, had a son, Pier Luigi, who was accused in 1537 of raping the 24-year-old bishop of Fano. He had been “going about through the lands of the Church raping any lads he liked the look of”, wrote one Florentine historian. His father nevertheless made Pier Luigi duke of Parma and Piacenza. Eventually, he was stabbed to death in a conspiracy backed by Charles V, and his body was hung from the window of his Piacenza palace.
Fletcher’s book ends with the Christian powers’ naval victory over the Ottoman Turks in 1571 at the Battle of Lepanto — a triumph that came too late to stop the torture and flaying alive of the Venetian governor of Famagusta on Cyprus. But who were the true winners of the conflicts that ravaged Italy, the Mediterranean and the rest of Europe from 1494 to 1571? Spain controlled most of Italy and possessed a worldwide empire, but it was in the process of losing its Dutch territories, and endless war was ruinously damaging to the royal finances. France was engulfed in its Wars of Religion, and England was a peripheral power. By contrast, the Ottoman Empire expanded in the 16th century to establish control over much of central and south-eastern Europe.
Among the startling details in Lee’s life of Machiavelli is that the future political theorist was, as a teenager, sexually abused by the scholar who taught him classical literature and Latin composition. Pederasty was the chief form of male homosexuality in Florence in this era, notes Lee, a University of Warwick historian. It would be hard to construct a case that the episode had much bearing on his intellectual development, but it is interesting that Machiavelli — married to the long-suffering Marietta Corsini, who bore him six children — had numerous sexual partners, female and male, throughout his life.
One reason why Machiavelli’s thought is so original — and so grounded in unflinchingly realistic appraisals of human nature and political struggle — is that he served the republic of Florence as an envoy and government adviser from 1498 to 1512 and then later in the 1520s. He had first-hand contacts with most of the leading rulers and military commanders of his time, from Louis XII of France and Emperor Maximilian I to Pope Julius II and Cesare Borgia.
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Occasionally, when on mission away from Florence, he passed his spare time writing dirty jokes to his friends in diplomatic code. But he was a prolific and thoughtful analyst of contemporary events, and the publication in Italy between 2001 and 2012 of a seven-volume edition of his diplomatic writings and chancellery correspondence has greatly improved our understanding of how the political and military turmoil of his day shaped his ideas. Above all, he drew on his experiences to arrive at the conclusion that a ruler — the “prince” of his book’s title — needed to learn “how not to be virtuous”.
Following the reading of Quentin Skinner, the doyen of British scholars of Machiavelli, Lee explains that the Florentine thinker believed the prince needs not “virtue” in the traditional Christian sense, but virtù — the quality of being a vir, Latin for man. This entails audacity, alertness and resolution, but not amorality for its own sake. The prince should aim to calm the social tensions that breed factionalism, and his polity needs strong institutions and vigilant citizens. Still, the prince “cannot, and must not, honour his word when doing so puts him at a disadvantage”.
Although he is best known for The Prince and The Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli was also an accomplished poet and playwright whose satirical comedies enjoyed much success in his lifetime. But the conservative atmosphere of the Counter-Reformation meant that no sooner had the Vatican set up its Index of Prohibited Books in 1559 than all Machiavelli’s works were banned.
As Boucheron, a medievalist at the Collège de France in Paris, points out, Machiavelli was condemned in the 16th century as a “wily and unscrupulous strategist”, or worse. Cardinal Reginald Pole, an English prelate, fulminated that Machiavelli’s works had been written by “the finger of Satan”. Generation after generation kept up the attacks. In his brilliant Dictionary of Received Ideas, the 19th-century novelist Gustave Flaubert ridiculed these prejudices: “Machiavelli: one hasn’t read him but thinks him a scoundrel. Machiavellianism: a word never pronounced without a shudder.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, in Beyond Good and Evil, paid tribute to Machiavelli’s thought. He presents “the most serious business in a wild allegrissimo”, and his ideas are “long, heavy, harsh, dangerous”, Nietzsche enthused. But it was only in the second half of the 20th century that Machiavelli began at last to receive a fairer hearing.
Boucheron’s book, smoothly translated by Willard Wood, reminds us that Machiavelli is no advocate of unbridled state violence. Far from it, because this would lose a ruler the support of his subjects. “Machiavelli’s political philosophy is a philosophy of necessity. It has a single aim: self-preservation. His rules of action have no other end than their utility,” Boucheron writes.
Why are Machiavelli’s ideas on power, freedom, tyranny and the search for political stability so enduringly fresh and relevant? French thinker Raymond Aron put it well in 1945: “The quarrel of Machiavellianism is rekindled every time a Caesar subjects Europe anew to servitude and war.”
Today, Machiavelli’s thought can be read in a different light, as a warning against the misrule, demagoguery and social cleavages that undermine even the most well-established democracies. He was a towering figure of the Renaissance, but he is a man for our times, too.
The Beauty and the Terror: An Alternative History of the Italian Renaissance, by Catherine Fletcher, The Bodley Head, RRP£25, 432 pages
Machiavelli: His Life and Times, by Alexander Lee, Picador, RRP£30, 762 pages
Machiavelli: The Art of Teaching People What to Fear, by Patrick Boucheron (translated by Willard Wood), Other Press, RRP£14.99, 176 pages
Tony Barber is the FT’s Europe commentator
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