From common man to top diplomat to political prisoner, Machiavelli experienced government like few others.
Niccolò Machiavelli was born in Florence, Italy on May 3, 1469. At the time, Italy was not the unified country we know today. Instead, it was a collection of rivalrous city-states. Florence and its surrounding territory was a city-state controlled by the House of Medici. The Medici family ruled from 1434 to 1737, with two interruptions. The first interruption in Medici Rule, from 1494-1512, was when Machiavelli rose to prominence in Florence.
In 1492, Florence’s beloved ruler Lorenzo de’ Medici passed away. Known as Lorenzo the Magnificent, he was not only a respected politician but also a patron of the arts. Notably, Michelangelo, famous for such works of art as the Statue of David and the Sistine Chapel, received early support from Lorenzo the Magnificent. With Lorenzo the Magnificent’s death, Florence’s leadership passed down to Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici. Unlike his “magnificent” father, history graced Piero with a rather unflattering name: Piero the Unfortunate.
Piero’s biggest fear was King Charles VIII of France, who was making plans to invade Italy. In response, Piero made the fateful decision to abandon Florence’s alliance with France in favour of an alliance with Naples, the southern Italian city-state.
When France’s soldiers poured into Florentian territory in 1494, Piero panicked. He rode off to meet Charles VIII and negotiate peace. The peace deal gave in to almost every French demand: the French would prop up Medici rule if Florence turned over key fortresses. The deal all but guaranteed Florence would lose control of Pisa, the rival city it conquered in 1406. Florentians were enraged. Riots broke out, mobs sacked the Medici Palace, and Piero went into exile.
The power vacuum created by Piero’s exit allowed a fanatical priest named Girolamo Savonarola to become Florence’s most influential man. Savonarola endorsed the popolani (populists), paving the way for a Great Council government. The new government gave voting rights to almost half of Florence’s adult male population, a level of democracy unmatched in Italy of the time.
Having used his considerable sway at the pulpit to usher in a democratic government, Savonarola pivoted towards his next goal. Savonarola had plans to turn Florence into a City of God. God had different plans. In 1498, the city revolted against Savonarola’s puritan excesses, and he was burned at the stake.
Despite Savonarola’s execution, the Great Council government he was instrumental in creating remained intact. Mere weeks after his death, a 29-year-old Niccolò Machiavelli joined this government as head of Florence’s second chancery, a high diplomatic office.
At first blush, Machiavelli is a peculiar pick for a senior civil service job. While the Machiavellis were counted amongst Florence’s elite, Niccolò’s arm of the family were black sheep: his father’s piles of unpaid debt left him ineligible to work in his profession as a lawyer or hold public office. Nevertheless, both Niccolò and his father remained friendly with many Florentian elite. Such connections were helpful for attaining government work. Adding to Machievelli’s suitability for the job, he was an avid reader with a classic humanist education. Such skills were useful for a job that required documentation and correspondence. Rounding out Machiavelli’s formal education was the street learning he picked up as a fixture in Florence’s brothels and taverns. Such experiences were valuable for understanding common people’s views. That Machiavelli had always been sceptical of Savonarola’s extremist politics didn’t hurt, either.
Machiavelli’s proudest achievement under Soderini was replacing Florence’s paid mercenaries with a citizen army.
Machiavelli’s work took him on diplomatic missions, where he observed and negotiated with rulers and governments of all kinds. His analysis and statesmanship impressed Piero Soderini, the man elected in 1502 as Florence’s gonfalonier—a sort of high justice—for life. Machiavelli soon became Soderini’s right-hand man, placing him at the centre of Florence’s political and diplomatic life.
Machiavelli’s proudest achievement under Soderini was replacing Florence’s paid mercenaries with a citizen army. Machiavelli believed that mercenaries made ineffective soldiers: their allegiance was to their paycheques and their own glory, not to the state. This military reorganisation proved successful when Florence took back control of Pisa in 1509.
Machiavelli’s next great project did not turn out as well. France still had its eyes on large parts of Italy. Machiavelli set out to convince France’s Louis XII and Pope Julius II to make peace with each other, or at the very least keep Florence out of their battles. He was unsuccessful. In order to secure Italian territories, the Pope’s Holy League army—backed by Spain—marched into Florence in 1512. Machiavelli’s citizen militia crumbled, Soderini was ousted, and Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici—later Pope Leo X—assumed power. The Medicis were back.
Perhaps naively, Machiavelli believed he could carry on as a civil servant under the restored Medici regime: he considered himself a truth-teller, not a party man. However, the Medicis sent Machiavelli packing.
Things took a turn for the worse in 1513. Machiavelli was wrongly accused of taking part in an anti-Medicean conspiracy. He was locked away and tortured, destined for execution until fate intervened. When Giovanni was appointed Pope Leo X, the Medicis granted Florence’s prisoners a mass amnesty as part of the celebrations. Machiavelli walked out of prison and returned to his family’s small plot of land, ten miles south of Florence.
On his land, Machiavelli settled into a life of sustenance labour and writing, sometimes struggling to keep his family fed. It was here, outside the halls of power, where Machiavelli composed The Prince and The Discourses, the two works that made him the so-called “founder of modern political science.”
Most of us know Machiavelli as a political writer. However, his writing spanned the genres. He also wrote poetry, histories, and plays.
Even the Medicis recognised his brilliance as a writer. In 1521 Cardinal Giulio, the nephew of Lorenzo the Magnificent, commissioned Machiavelli to write Florentine Histories, an eight-volume retrospective of the city. It was published in 1532, five years after his death.
Machiavelli did not live to see The Prince published, either. Manuscripts of this 1513 book floated around Italy, but it never saw official release until 1532. In fact, his only major political work to be published in his lifetime was 1520’s The Art of War.
While alive, Machiavelli was better-known as a satirist. His 1518 play La Mandragola (The Mandrake) was widely praised. This farce about a miraculous fertility potion—often called the greatest comedy in the Italian language—is still being staged today.