BECK index

Florence, the Medici and Machiavelli

by Sanderson Beck

Florence and the Medici 1400-69
Florence under Lorenzo de’ Medici 1470-92
Florence and Savonarola 1492-98
Florence and Machiavelli 1498-1517
Machiavelli’s Prince
Machiavelli’s Discourses
Machiavelli’s Mandragola

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Florence and the Medici 1400-69

Florence 1250-1336
Florence 1336-1400

Milan’s Gian Galeazzo Visconti began invading Umbria and Tuscany in 1390, and the war against Florence went on for twelve years during which he conquered Perugia, Siena, and Pisa. The Milanese had encircled Florence by June 1402, but Gian Galeazzo suddenly died of disease, saving Florence. In the summer of 1405 Florence bribed the deposed Gabriele Maria of Pisa, and then they besieged the city and starved them into submission by October 9, 1406. King Ladislas of Naples tried to bribe Florence in January 1411 by giving them the town of Cortona, but after a few months it was fighting against the aggressive Ladislas. Florence was drawn into the war until Ladislas died on August 6, 1414.

Pisa was having trouble because the mouth of the Arno River was clogged with silt. Genoa had taken over the nearby port of Livorno, but in 1421 the Florentine merchants purchased Livorno. By that year Giovanni de Bicci de’ Medici had risen to the highest office of gonfalonier of justice. In 1422 Florence was drawn into a war of defense against the expansion by Duke Filippo Maria of Milan which went on for several years. Florence was losing until it made an alliance with Venice in 1426. In a peace agreement in April 1428 Florence regained the territory it had lost while Venice expanded its boundary to the west. The treasury was exhausted, and in 1427 the catasto law had been passed requiring every citizen to register their valuable possessions. Then a ten-percent tax was imposed on their wealth. Drawing revenue from those who could afford it made it a more socially just tax.

Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici died on February 20, 1429, and Cosimo Medici became head of the family. People wanted war against Lucca, and he went with the tide. However, by attacking Lucca, Florence provoked Milan again, and Florence’s unreliable condottieri were defeated by the Milanese army. The Lucchese war was concluded by a treaty signed on May 10, 1433. That year Florence passed a sumptuary law that forbade knights’ wives from wearing ermine collars and authorized whipping for servants who wore a headdress or shoes above their class. The leader Niccolo da Uzzano had just died and was replaced by Rinaldo degli Albizzi. On September 7 he had Cosimo arrested in the palace of the priors, and two days later an assembly gave the balia power to two hundred men. On September 29 they banished Cosimo, his brother Lorenzo, and a few Medicean partisans.

Exactly one year later the balia decreed Cosimo’s recall, and a few days later they banished Rinaldo and eighty of his Albizzi followers. Cosimo left Venice escorted by three hundred Venetian soldiers and returned triumphantly to Florence on October 5, 1434. He was elected Gonfalonier for two months and was the primary leader in Florence for the next thirty years. Florence was at war with Milan again for two years but defeated Milan in February 1437 at Barga. When Florence attack Lucca again in 1438, Milan continued the war. In 1440 Rinaldo and other exiles persuaded Duke Filippo Maria of Milan to attack Florence, but the Florentine forces defeated them at Anghiari on June 29. Rinaldo died two years later. Cosimo became a friend of Milan’s Francesco Sforza in 1435 and eventually his ally against more powerful Venice.

The architect Brunelleschi completed the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore; it had been started in 1298, and it was consecrated on March 25, 1436. The next year Cosimo began rebuilding the San Marco monastery. An important Church council moved from Ferrara to Florence in January 1439. On July 5 the Council decided to unite the Catholic Church with the Greek Orthodox Church. As the Turks advanced against the Byzantine empire, Greek scholars fled to the West. George Gemistos Plethon came to Florence and lectured on the differences between Plato and Aristotle. Cosimo financed a Platonic academy that educated Marsilio Ficino in Greek. Fra Angelico painted in Florence 1436-45. The sculptor Donatello worked in Florence 1408-43, and he died there in 1466. The merchant Uzzano offered insurance rates in 1442 on goods going between Pisa and London and between Milan and Bruges.

Cosimo founded the first public library in Europe in 1444, and it was a model for the Vatican library that was organized thirty years later. Milan’s Filippo Visconti provoked another general war in Italy in 1446 by allying with Pope Eugenius IV and King Alfonso of Naples against Venice, Florence, Genoa, and Bologna. In the war in 1452 when Florence was opposed to Venice and Naples, Cosimo weakened his enemies by calling in their debts. He also made a treaty with Charles VII of France. By 1453 Cosimo had built up the net worth of the Medici family to about a half million sterling.

In 1453 Florence’s ambassador Agnolo Acciauoli asked France to allow René of Anjou to claim Naples, and René promised to bring 2,400 cavalry by June in support of Florence and Milan. They agreed to pay him 30,000 florins when he arrived at Alexandria and 10,000 per month during the war. On his way King René was stopped by the Duke of Savoy and the Marquis of Montferrat, who were allied with Venice. The Florentine ambassador advised him to return to Provence and come by sea. He did and was welcomed by Francesco Sforza. Together they attacked the Venetians and recovered places they had lost in the Cremonese, and they occupied Brescian territory. However, the news of the Turks taking Constantinople stimulated Pope Nicholas V to persuade the Italian states to make a general peace and prepare for a crusade while representatives from Florence made a trade treaty with the Sultan. Milan and Venice signed a treaty at Lodi on April 9, 1454. Florence, Siena, and other cities joined the peace within a month.

Cosimo de’ Medici was supported by the newly rich, and they preferred the old system that determined taxes by the register of 1431, but in the 1440s the income tax was made more progressive. In the second half of 1454 Cosimo let the rebels Luca Pitti, Agnolo Acciauoli, and Diotisalvi Neroni change the system of selecting the signory back to drawing them from the borse by chance. The unemployed condottiere Jacopo Piccinino gathered bands together and invaded the territory of Siena. Prince Alfonso of Naples mediated, and Siena gave the robbers 20,000 florins to return their land. The Pope proclaimed a jubilee and offered indulgences for those who would take up the cross against the Muslims. On October 19, 1455 thousands marched in Florence dressed in white with a red cross on their shoulders. Neri Capponi opposed the Medici party, but he died on November 22, 1457. As usual the lack of opposition led to divisions within the Medici party. John Argyropoulos taught Greek at the studium in Florence 1455-71 before moving on to Rome.

Florence was still in debt because of its war with Naples and Venice. When the signory tried to change the tax system in 1458, the three reformers appealed to Cosimo. On August 11 with troops in the piazza the parliament led by Luca Pitti approved using a commission of ten accoppiatori (election supervisors) to nominate the signory. Pitti, the richest man in Florence after Cosimo, began building a palace twice as large as the Medici’s; but he could not finish it, and eventually it became the residence of the Medici dukes. When Alfonso became king of Naples in 1458, the French prepared to challenge him; but Florence decided to remain neutral with Venice. In 1460 large deposits of alum were discovered at Tolfa in the Papal States. Alum was used in dyeing and was imported from Asia Minor. In 1466 the Medici bank made an agreement with Pope Paul II to work the mines and sell their products.

Cosimo wanted to go to war with Milan against Lucca, but he could not persuade Francesco Sforza. Cosimo used his wealth to assemble three libraries and to patronize such humanists as Leonardi Bruni, Carlo Marsuppini, and Poggio Bracciolini. Cosimo sponsored much building of churches and had a hospital erected in Jerusalem for ill pilgrims. He was known for saying that states can not be maintained by “pater nosters,” that two yards of red cloth can make an honorable citizen, that envy should not be nourished, and that an injured city is better than a ruined city. He died on August 1, 1464 at the age of 75, and at his funeral he was called the “father of his country.”

Piero de’ Medici began by taking the advice of his dying father Cosimo, trusting his finances to Diotisalvi Neroni, who informed Cosimo’s many creditors that they had to pay up, turning friends into enemies. On September 6, 1465 Florence decided to choose the signory by lot. Niccolo Soderini criticized the Medici for using the accoppiatori to control the signory, and in November he was elected to be in charge of justice; but his proposals were voted down by the followers of Cosimo’s son Piero and other merchants. Niccolo turned to the three oligarchs, and they decided to remove Piero by force. While the Sforza leaders in Milan were changing in March 1466, the oligarchs appealed to Florence’s enemies Ferrara and Venice for troops. Piero suffered from gout but came to Florence on August 27. The conspirators decided to negotiate, and on September 1 the election drawings established Medici control of the signory. The accoppiatori were re-instituted, and Niccolo Soderini, Agnolo Acciauoli and Diotisalvi Neroni were banished. Luca Pitti was allowed to stay because he had reconciled with Piero.

The exiles Soderini and Neroni at Venice urged that republic to attack Florence. They hired the Venetian condottiere Bartolomeo Colleone, and with a Venetian army he invaded Tuscany in May 1467. However, Milan’s Galeazzo Sforza and Naples’ Prince Alfonso led forces to join Florence, whose army was led by Count Federico da Montefeltro of Urbino. Galeazzo was persuaded to depart, and the battle was inconclusive. Venice ordered Colleone to withdraw his army into Lombardy, and the Marchese of Ferrara mediated a truce in August. Florence raised 1,200,000 florins, and they insisted on negotiating with Venice, not with Colleone. Pope Paul II proclaimed a peace on February 2, 1468, and the Colleonic war of the exiles ended with an agreement by all parties in April. In the fall fifteen robbers tried to take the fort of Castiglionchio; one was killed, and the rest were captured and taken to Florence, where they were executed.

Piero’s oldest son Lorenzo was born on January 1, 1449, and he was very close to his mother Lucrezia. He was tutored in Latin by the diplomat Gentile Becchi and by Cristoforo Landino, who translated Aristotle, and in Greek by the humanist Marsilio Ficino of the Platonic academy. Landino wrote the dialogs De Anima in 1453, De Vera Nobilitate in 1469, and Disputationes Camaldulenses in 1475 comparing the active and contemplative lives. Marsilio began translating Plato’s dialogs into Latin in 1464 and completed them by 1477, though they were not printed until 1491. He explained Plato’s philosophy in his Theologia Platonica, and he also wrote De Christina Religione. Some humanists adopted ancient paganism, but others synthesized Plato’s ideas with Christian theology. The Platonists looked to the idealistic philosophy of Plato as a remedy against the dogmatism that had developed around the comprehensive philosophy of Plato’s student Aristotle. Many were more influenced by the later Neo-Platonists than by Plato himself, and this philosophy was used to give Christian theology a more spiritual quality, emphasizing the soul rather than the body while exalting the ideals of love and beauty.

Lorenzo loved poetry and became the second leading singer in Tuscany. While Poliziano wrote his poetry in Latin, Lorenzo wrote his in Italian. He wrote sonnets about love and poems describing natural beauty. In Altercazione he explained Plato’s theory of happiness. In this poem Marsilio says, “Our soul, pure and fair, has two wings, intellect and love, on which she rises and flies above the stars to God on high.”1 Lorenzo excelled in sports such as football and handball, and he was a passionate hunter. On February 7, 1469 his ailing father allowed him to sponsor a tournament in the Piazza Santa Croce which cost 10,000 ducats to honor the beautiful Lucrezia Donati; these tournaments emphasized theater rather than combative jousting. Lorenzo’s parents arranged for his engagement into the Roman baronial house of Orsini, and on June 4 he married Clarice Orsini in the Medici palace. The dying Piero asked Tommaso Soderini to become the active leader of the Medici party while Lorenzo was being prepared. Florence had 33 banks, and 51 Florentine firms were doing business in the area of Constantinople.

Florence under Lorenzo de’ Medici 1470-92

After Piero de’ Medici died on December 2, 1469, the citizen committee led by Niccolo Soderini asked Lorenzo de’ Medici to succeed him as ruler. His grandfather Cosimo and father Piero had controlled the state through the election supervisors (accoppiatori), and young Lorenzo was called Il Magnifico. On April 6, 1470 Bernardo Nardi and his brother led thirty rebels into the town of Prato and took over the palace, promising independence and no taxes. The Florentines in Prato gathered, attacked them, and after five hours of fighting captured them all. They were taken to Florence, and seven were executed. By the end of the year Lorenzo was given the title “Sindaco.” The London branch of the Medici bank had loaned 120,000 gold florins to Edward IV and had to write it off as a loss when he fled from England in 1470.

In April 1471 the town of Volterra in conflict with private interests in Florence over the mining of alum rebelled for the fourth time, and several people were killed. A commission of Florentines was appointed to arbitrate, but the municipality of Volterra refused to follow their judgment. On June 17, 1472 the condottiere Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, led a band of mercenaries for Florence and besieged Volterra for a month. Then he did not control their murdering men from raping women and sacking the town. Lorenzo apologized and gave money to those who had suffered loss. Yet Florentines gave Lorenzo credit for the victory.

Florence printed its first book, a commentary on Virgil, in 1471, though Venice became the center of publishing in Italy. Pisa had been under Florence since the early 15th century, and Lorenzo tried to lift them up by buying a house there and by reviving their university in 1472. Florence would continue to emphasize liberal and humanistic studies while Pisa would teach law, medicine, and theology.

In 1473 the Citta de Castello led by the wealthy Vitelli family revolted against Pope Sixtus IV (1471-84), and Lorenzo sent aid to them. Sixtus favored his nephew Pietro Riario with extraordinary promotions from bishop of Treviso to archbishop of Florence and cardinal, and after his death on January 3, 1474 the Pope gave Imola to Pietro’s brother Girolamo, who was to marry Caterina Sforza. The Pope wanted to borrow 40,000 ducats from the Medici bank in Rome to buy Imola, but Lorenzo refused to make the loan. Sixtus sent papal forces led by Duke Federico of Urbino, and they drove out the Vitelli on September 1. Lorenzo resented this intrusion into Tuscany, and to protect Faenza and Forli he negotiated an alliance with Venice and Milan in November and raised 6,000 men. Sixtus considered Lorenzo his enemy and appointed Francesco Salviati to be archbishop of Pisa in 1475 even though Florence traditionally approved ecclesiastical appointments in Tuscany. For the next three years Lorenzo used force to prevent Salviati from occupying his see. When Charles the Bold of Burgundy died in 1477, Lorenzo saved the Bruges office from financial disaster.

The Florentine family of the Pazzi were banking competitors of the Medici and also hated them because Lorenzo cheated Giovanni de’ Pazzi out of an inheritance from a cousin of the Medici by changing the law so that male nephews had more rights than daughters. Pope Sixtus transferred papal funds to the Roman branch of the Pazzi. Although Lorenzo’s sister Bianca had married Guglielmo Pazzi, the family feud continued. Girolamo Riario conspired with Guglielmo’s brother Francesco Pazzi and Archbishop Salviati to murder the Medici brothers Lorenzo and Giuliano. The Pope favored their overthrowing the Medici but did not approve of using violence. They hired Imola’s captain Gian Batista da Montesecco, but he refused to murder Lorenzo in a church and was replaced by two priests; Antonio Maffei was from Volterra and resented how the Medici devastated his town, and Stefano da Bagnone was the tutor of Jacopo Pazzi’s illegitimate daughter. Francesco Pazzi and the oligarch Jacopo di Poggio Baroncelli targeted Giuliano.

Although he probably was not aware of the plot, Cardinal Riario invited the Medici brothers to attend mass in Florence’s great cathedral on Sunday, April 26, 1478. When the priest held up the host, Giuliano was stabbed nineteen times; Francesco Pazzi was accidentally stabbed in the leg. Lorenzo was wounded in the throat but drew his sword and managed to escape to the sacristy with the help of friends. Salviati and the elderly Jacopo Pazzi with thirty troops tried to seize the government and arouse people to revolt. Jacopo rode through the streets shouting “Popolo! Liberta!” but the people responded by chanting “Palle, Palle” in support of the Medici. Jacopo returned to the palace and fled to the mountains. A crowd gathered, and about fifty armed men and the palace guard attacked and killed all the Perugians. Others invaded the Pazzi residence, dragged the wounded Francesco out of bed, carried him to the palace, and hanged him from a window. Archbishop Salviati was also hanged, and two of his assistants were strangled. Lorenzo had the Pazzi name abolished, and they were not allowed to marry or own property.

The two priests Maffei and Bagnone were caught, castrated, and hanged. Jacopo was captured by peasants and brought back to Florence, where he was tortured and hanged. The innocent Cardinal Riario was protected from the mob by the government, which passed judicial sentences against all those killed by the angry Florentines. Baroncelli escaped to Turkish territory, but the Sultan honored Lorenzo’s request and had him returned to Florence for execution. Montesecco wrote a full confession describing the conspiracy and was executed as a soldier by sword. All together about eighty people were killed, some of them innocent victims of mob violence.

Pope Sixtus excommunicated Lorenzo and warned that all Tuscany would be put under interdict if they did not surrender Lorenzo for punishment. Florence refused, and the interdict led to war. Florence created a board of Ten to manage war. The Pope was supported by King Ferrante of Naples, and Milan and Venice supported Florence. However, Venice was busy fighting the Turks, and Milan was still experiencing a struggle for power after the death of Galeazzo Sforza. Florence withstood the first campaign. In the second on September 7, 1479 Ferrante’s son Alfonso captured the Florentine camp by surprise, and the Florentines fled; but they managed to gather at San Casciano. Duke Alfonso decided to besiege the town of Colle, and on November 24 he offered the Florentines a truce that they gladly accepted. In addition to the heavy taxes needed for the war, the destruction of crops in Tuscany caused famine and pestilence, and the interdict blocked religious rites. Sixtus refused to accept surrender, but Lorenzo went to Naples and negotiated a peace treaty with Ferrante that was signed in February 1480.

Lorenzo was welcomed back to Florence as a hero, and he consolidated his power by reforming the political system with the Council of Seventy who served for five-year terms and delegated power to the Eight (Otto di Pratica) in charge of foreign and military affairs and the Twelve (Dodici Procuratori) who controlled domestic affairs and finances. He also agreed to reform the income tax which fell on profits from land and houses and a progressive poll tax, making commercial profits almost exempt. Having no salaried position, Lorenzo was accused of diverting public funds for his private use. The Medici bank did business in every country in Europe and the Levant, receiving deposits, making loans, and dealing in wool, cloth, silk, dyes, alum, spices, and furs.

In August 1480 a Turkish flotilla landed an army of 7,000 that captured Otranto, causing trepidation on the Italian peninsula. Duke Alfonso of Calabria moved his army south and regained Otranto the next year. Pope Sixtus moved to rally Italians against the Muslim threat, and he reconciled with Lorenzo on December 3. After these experiences Lorenzo worked hard to maintain the triple alliance of Florence, Milan, and Naples, and he endeavored to improve relations with the Pope. In 1481 Lorenzo became part of a special commission on finance with seventeen members. His father Piero had acquired Sarzana for Florence in 1468, but Genoa took it back in 1478 while Florence was preoccupied. Lorenzo wanted it back but in 1484 was only able to take Pietrasanta south of Sarzana, which he got back without a general war in 1487.

The Medici bank in Bruges had trouble, and in 1481 Lorenzo sold it to its manager Tommaso Portinari for only 16,616 florins. Lorenzo also kept on good terms with France where the Lyons branch of his bank was growing. When Louis XI died in 1483, French depositors took out their money, causing the bank to suspend payments until Lorenzo replenished the supply. Some criticized that this was done at the expense of Florence. The branches in Rome and Naples also had difficulties. In 1484 the London bank was shut down, and the bank in Florence had to repay 51,533 florins borrowed from Bruges. That year Pope Sixtus moved his funds back to the Medici bank in Rome. Lorenzo used the 55,000 florins he held in trust for his two cousins, the sons of Pierfrancesco de’ Medici. When they came of age in 1485, he had to give them the villa of Cafaggiolo and other property to compensate for the loss of money.

Lorenzo’s closest friend, most constant companion, and tutor of his children was the classical scholar and poet Angelo Poliziano. He and the philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola taught at the Platonic academy, and both were present when Lorenzo died. Lorenzo patronized sculptors such as Andrea del Verrocchio and the painters Sandro Botticelli and Domenico Ghirlandaio among others. Leonardo da Vinci came to Verrocchio’s workshop as an apprentice in 1466 and stayed in Florence until 1482. Michelangelo studied at the humanist academy the Medici had established, and in 1489 Lorenzo welcomed the 14-year-old artist to his daily table.

Lorenzo was not as interested in business as his grandfather, and he delegated it to branch managers and his general manager Francesco Sassetti. Lorenzo’s mistresses were tolerated by his wife Clarice, who bore him ten children, though three died in infancy. Clarice died in July 1488, and the next year Lorenzo fell in love with the married Bartolommea dei Nasi. In 1489 Lorenzo sent Portinari and Cristofani Spini to negotiate a commercial treaty with England, which agreed the wool on their ships would be landed at Pisa rather than Venice or Genoa. Florence promised that only English ships would be allowed to bring wool to Pisa.

Also in 1489 Lorenzo produced the play La Rappresentazione di San Giovanni e Paolo which was performed by the boys of the Company of St. John the Evangelist. In this morality play Emperor Constantine’s daughter Costanza is cured of leprosy by prayers and wants to become a nun. Her father sends her fiancé, the general Gallicano, on a dangerous mission. Two Christian soldiers, Giovanni and Paolo, go with him, and their prayers help them defeat the Dacians. Gallicano gives credit for the victory to Christ and decides to serve God also. Constantine abdicates and explains (Lorenzo’s) ideas on government. The ruler must not seek his own advantage or luxuries but the general welfare. He should set a good example and serve the servants. His son blames his troubled reign on his toleration of Christians. The apostate Julian becomes Emperor and distributes the wealth, but he persecutes Christians, making Giovanni and Paolo martyrs. Saint Mercurio is raised from the dead and wounds Julian, who while dying acknowledges that Christ has won.

Like his father and grandfather, Lorenzo also suffered from gout. He married his oldest daughter Lucrezia to Giacopo Salviati, his daughter Contessina to Piero Ridolfi, and Maddalena to Franceschetto Cibo, the illegitimate son acknowledged by Pope Innocent VIII. Lorenzo’s oldest son Piero married Alfonsina Orsini in 1488. Alamanno Rinuccini criticized Lorenzo in his book On Liberty, arguing that his usurpations would cause cultural degeneration. When he was ill, Lorenzo helped bring a reconciliation between King Ferrante of Naples and Pope Innocent VIII in February, 1492. In March his second son Giovanni became a cardinal at age 17 and later Pope Leo X, and his nephew Giulio, whom he raised after his father Giuliano was killed, became Pope Clement VII. As Lorenzo was dying, he was visited by Savonarola who, according to Poliziano, urged him to repent and blessed him. Lorenzo died on April 8.

Florence and Savonarola 1492-98

Piero de’ Medici was only 22 years old when he succeeded his father Lorenzo in 1492, but his cousins Lorenzo and Giovanni were much older and richer and resented his immaturity. Instead of mediating between Milan and Naples as his father had, Piero took the side of King Ferrante of Naples against Ludovico Sforza of Milan. Florence joined the league with Naples and the Pope against the French invasion of 1494 that was supported by Milan. After Charles VIII led his army across the Apennines, Piero changed his mind and declared that Florence would be neutral. When Piero asked for money to defend Florence, Lorenzo Lenzi said resistance was futile. His cousins agreed and sent a message to the French camp to tell Charles they sympathized with the French invasion. Their message was intercepted, and they were detained. They both escaped and told Charles that if Piero was eliminated, Florence would join France against Naples.

On October 26, 1494 Piero went to meet with the King of France at his camp. He offered Charles 200,000 florins and the fortresses of Sarzana, Sarzanella, Pietrasanta, Pisa, and Livorno. Piero went back to Florence, but on November 9 the palace refused to let him enter with his guard. He went to get more soldiers, but the great bell summoned more citizens to the piazza. So he left for Porto San Gallo with his family. On that day the French army entered Pisa, which took the opportunity to become independent of Florence. The Signoria banished the Medici family from Florence and put up a reward of 4,000 florins for Piero’s head and 2,000 for his brother Giovanni’s. The cousins changed their name to Popolano and took down their Medici arms. The Medici palace was prepared to house the French king, and Medici wealth was confiscated.

Charles VIII led his army into Florence on November 17. The commissioner Piero Capponi tore up the agreement the French had made with Piero. When the King said they would blow their trumpets, Copponi replied, “And we our bells!” The Florentines negotiated a new agreement, and the French promised to return Pisa and the fortresses and reduce the subsidy to 50,000 florins then and to 70,000 later; but Pisa revolted, and the French left garrisons at the other fortresses at first. The French left Florence on November 27. Five days later a parliament assembled and abolished the Medicean regime and its laws, recalled all political exiles, and accepted the Signory’s proposal to empower twenty accoppiatori to appoint magistrates for a year. They decided to adopt some ways of the powerful Venetians by electing a Great Council of one thousand men and a senate of eighty. The Great Council elected all major officers and became Florence’s legislature. On December 20 Ferrara’s ambassador Manfredo de’ Manfredi noted that men were carrying more weapons into the government palace and that private parties were arming and recruiting armed supporters.

Girolamo Savonarola was born at Ferrara on September 21, 1452. His grandfather brought him up with strict moral and religious principles, and his father educated him in the scholastic philosophy of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. After earning a degree in liberal arts, in April 1475 he joined the Dominican monastery at Bologna. They emphasized preaching, and he was sent to Florence in 1482. He was not particularly noticed, but during Lent in 1485 he began his prophetic sermons on how the Church would be scourged and reformed. In 1487 he left Florence and went on a preaching tour of Lombardy before returning to Bologna for more study.

Lorenzo de’ Medici invited Savonarola back to Florence in 1490, and he became a popular preacher at San Marco. His Advent sermons ending on January 9, 1491 drew larger crowds. Then he gave fifty Lenten sermons that were even more tempestuous. He railed against ritualistic religion, ignorance of the laity, thieving priests, lucrative benefices, sale of Church offices, clerical lechery, sodomy, oppression of the poor, and unfair taxes. In his fiftieth sermon on April 6 he preached to the leaders of the government. In his Apologeticus de ratione poeticae artis Savonarola criticized the humanists whose intellects were so influenced by antiquity that they would not diverge from its usage. He was elected prior of San Marco and made the required visit to Lorenzo the Magnificent, who summoned him when he was dying in April 1492. That year Savonarola predicted that France’s Charles VIII would invade Italy.

When Charles VIII entered Florence in November 1494, Savonarola called him “an instrument in the hand of the Lord who has sent you to cure the ills of Italy.”2 He said he would scourge Italy and Rome for their vices. Charles decided to be lenient with Florence. As the Florentines became disillusioned by Charles, the fiery preacher clung to him as Florence’s savior. When he left Italy, Charles returned Pisa to Florence as he promised; but the Pisans fought for their independence. During this war Savonarola’s opponents increased their criticism of his regime.

Savonarola emphasized moral reform as the way to renew the Church. He criticized courtesans and gamblers and the way they dressed. On December 2, 1494 the Parlamento established Twenty Electors, but opposition to this increased in the next five months. Savonarola preached for civic peace and unity and on December 14 discussed government to officials, and that day only men were allowed to attend. Savonarola argued that rule by one man is best but only if he is good. He believed that democracy is better than tyranny. He said that it was the will of God for Florence to be ruled by the people. This sermon was later published as his Treatise respecting the Rule and Government of the City of Florence, and Machiavelli called it the noblest rules ever devised for the government of a state. Savonarola’s tax proposals were presented to the General Council on February 5, 1495. This was Italy’s first regular tax on property, and it imposed a ten percent income tax from real property while abolishing all loans and arbitrary assessments. His tax system lasted until 1865. He also advised the Council to end the siege of Pisa and concentrate on Livorno, which was Florence’s harbor city for wheat from France.

The Signory was made up of the eight Priors and the Gonfalonier of Justice. Six of the nine could punish with fines, exile, mutilation, or death. On March 19, 1495 the Great Council voted 543 to 163 to grant the right of appeal against that two-thirds vote. Savonarola preached in favor of this reform. In May 1495 one of the Twenty Electors, Giuliano Salviati, went to the Signory and resigned to protest the quarreling among the Twenty. The others resigned on June 7, and electoral powers returned to the Great Council. Savonarola also persuaded the Great Council to enact a law on August 13 against summoning a parliament, and it passed 618 to 73.

On July 21, 1495 Pope Alexander VI wrote a letter to Savonarola inviting and ordering him to come to Rome, but he used illness as an excuse and declined. On September 8 the papal clerk Bartolomeo Floridi wrote a reply but sent it to Savonarola’s enemies at the Florentine convent of Santa Croce. He was put under the Lombard Vicar General Sebastiano Maggi, who was also to preside over an inquiry into his writings and actions, and his license to preach was suspended during the inquiry. In his reply Savonarola refuted the points and explained his prophecies as a messenger for God. He explained he has enemies because he preaches the truth. On May 24 he had been attacked on the street. Alexander wrote again to him on October 16 withdrawing the order to go to Rome but continuing the ban on preaching. Savonarola stopped preaching and spent his time writing. On February 11, 1496 the Signory ordered the friar to give a series of Lenten sermons, and on February 17 he began his sermons on the book of Amos. He followed this with a series on the books of Ruth and Micah. Pope Alexander tried to win him over by offering him the red hat of a cardinal, but Savonarola replied that he would rather have a hat of blood.

Savonarola wrote in Latin and translated some of his works into Italian. He published more books than anyone in Florence. These included The Triumph of the Cross, On the Simplicity of the Christian Life, The Love of Jesus Christ, Compendium of Revelations, Treatise on the Seven Steps of the Spiritual Life by Saint Buenaventura, and his sermons. He preached that only a few would be saved, and most would go to hell; but, unlike later Protestants, he believed that men and women could earn their own salvation. In his sermons, which were often two or three hours long, he would describe imaginary dialogs in which he would refer to himself in the third person as the friar. His main theme was rooting out corruption to achieve renewal.

His most devoted disciple Fra Domenico da Pescia organized groups of young volunteers who sought to guard the city’s morality. They were especially concerned about the carnival before Lent. During the carnival on February 16, 1496 about 6,000 boys participated in the march with banners praising Christ. During an epidemic in September 1497 Domenico sent a letter to the children who had moved into the country to avoid the plague, implying their purity enabled them to exorcise and ward off evil spirits.

Florence was suffering from war, more taxes, famine, unemployment, epidemics, and political conflict. Those who opposed Savonarola were called the Arrabbiati (The Angry), and many of them were in the government. On November 7, 1496 Pope Alexander VI subordinated San Marco to the provincial over the Tusco-Roman congregation of Dominicans. That winter Savonarola became even more popular, and in January 1497 his advocate Francesco Valori was elected Gonfalonier of Justice. He went after those writing against Savonarola. Girolamo Muzi was arrested, fined sixty gold florins, and banned from public office for five years. He replied by hiring a man to put insulting rhymes in public places.

During carnival Savonarola had the children go to each house and ask for luxuries such as ornaments, lewd pictures, gaming tables and cards. Botticelli had been converted and gave up his lascivious paintings. Copies of Boccaccio’s Decameron and Petrarca’s Laura with erotic illustrations were also surrendered to the flames. These vanities were piled in a pyramid 60 feet high in the central piazza, and the carnival was concluded with “burning of the vanities.” On February 19 the Signory had to be protected from bread riots by Mediceans. During Lent in 1497 Savonarola’s sermons were on Ezekiel. On March 1 people elected Bernardo del Nero as Gonfalonier of Justice and other Mediceans as priors. In April the Signory became concerned about military movements with 2,000 mercenaries led by Piero de’ Medici, and by April 28 they were just outside Florence. Valori suggested they take Piero’s friends and allies hostage, and about fifty were held in the palace. Florence was suffering from a plague, and the Council ordered preaching stopped on May 5.

On Ascension Day some Arrabbiati extremists started a riot during one of Savonarola’s sermons in the cathedral. Pope Alexander had excommunicated Savonarola on May 13, and the document was read in Florence’s churches on June 18. Savonarola’s supporters in the Great Council rallied behind him, and he began preaching again after Christmas. He also tried secretly to get Church leaders to organize a General Council to put Alexander on trial. On July 23 a priest was arrested for declaring that Savonarola and his friars were Sodomites. He was forced to confess from the pulpit in the cathedral that he told lies, and then he was confined in a cage in the infamous Le Stinche prison.

On August 4 Lamberto dell’ Antella was arrested, and the same day he named Bernardo del Nero and four others for helping Piero’s effort to overthrow the Florentine government. Two days later the Signory summoned Count Ranuccio da Mariano and 300 soldiers to guard the palace. By August 17 all five conspirators had been interrogated. The Signory gathered 200 judges, and they found all five guilty of treason. Under the new law any Florentine citizen could appeal a death sentence to the Great Council, but Valori, who wanted to get rid of Bernardo del Nero, intimidated four of the nine of the Signory into voting against the appeal, and the five men were beheaded. Their removal helped the Frateschi party of Savonarola control the government for the next six months. Months later relatives of the victims murdered Valori, his wife, and their child, and none of the murderers were prosecuted.

The “burning of the vanities” was repeated again in February 1498; but this time more people resented it, and Savonarola’s enemies won the elections on March 1. His Lenten sermons were on the book of Exodus. Pope Alexander had written to the Signory on February 26 that if they did not turn over Savonarola for punishment, he would put the city under an interdict. Yet the Pope sent another letter the next day saying that he would absolve the friar if he would stop preaching. This was followed by a much more harsh letter on March 9. Savonarola’s last option seemed to be an appeal to a Church council, but this angered the Pope even more.

The devoted Domenico da Pescia had offered to undergo a trial of fire. When the Franciscan friar Francesco da Puglia offered to do the same with Savonarola to prove he was wrong, Domenico said he would take Savonarola’s place in the ordeal. Francesco refused that, but the Franciscan Giuliano Rondinelli took his place. They were to walk between two rows of burning sticks soaked in oil, but on April 7 their arguing over the conditions lasted until a thunderstorm began, dispersing the crowd. The rain stopped, and people came back.

The next afternoon demonstrators gathered by San Marco, and the mob threatened to set it on fire. Commissioners brought a warrant for the arrest of the friars Savonarola, Domenico da Pescia, and Silvestro Maruffi. Savonarola urged his followers to let faith, patience, and prayer be their arms, and he gave himself up with Domenico to avoid violence. Silvestro hid and was captured.

Savonarola was tortured so severely that both legs were dislocated at the knees and hips, and both arms at the elbows and shoulders. Concerned that he would become feverish and delirious, Savonarola decided to confess, but he refused to sign their documents. He confessed to what he thought was true. On April 19 the commissioners destroyed their minutes and started over. Francesco Ceccone was assigned to write a report, and Savonarola believed it was full of lies. Silvestro was tortured and broke down, but Domenico remained faithful to his friend. Finally Savonarola said he signed because he was afraid of being tortured again, and then he revoked his entire confession. He was ready to die for the truth, but he denied all their accusations. They tortured the others and got them to confess he was an impostor. Then the Pope sent two commissioners to Florence to review the case, and they tortured Savonarola again and convicted him of heresy. On May 23 he and the other two were hanged and then quickly burned. Four days later announcements made in all churches requiring all those with writings by Savonarola to turn them in within four days or face excommunication.

Florence and Machiavelli 1498-1517

People in Florence wanted to get back Pisa, and in the summer of 1498 they hired the condottiere Pagolo Vitelli to besiege it until it was captured. After their cannons breached the walls, Vitelli withdrew with his exhausted men. The disappointed Commissioners sent orders to arrest him, and Vitelli was brought back to Florence in chains, tried for treason, and executed in October 1499. That month Louis XII sent Swiss and Gascon mercenaries to help Florence; but the Gascons deserted, and the Swiss mutinied. The French king blamed the Florentines. Francesco Pepi, the Gonfalonier of Justice for the first two months of 1500, raised funds by taxing the wealthy on an accelerating scale with the taxes on their assets more than their income.

In June 1498 Niccolo Machiavelli had been appointed chancellor and secretary of the Ten, making him the supervisor of all Florence’s papers on domestic and foreign affairs. In July the Signory dispatched him to Countess Caterina Sforza of Imola and Forli, but he was instructed not to promise her that Florence would defend her state. In July 1500 Florence sent Francesco Della Casa and Machiavelli to Louis XII in France. Della Casa became ill, and Machiavelli negotiated many issues. When the Cardinal of Rouen said that Italians knew nothing of war, Machiavelli replied that the French knew nothing of statesmanship, or they never would have allowed the Church to become so powerful. He returned to Florence in September, and the re-elected Ten now served six months instead of the two of the Signory.

In 1501 Duke Cesare Borgia of Romagna and Valentinois invaded Florentine territory and plundered villages. Florence appealed to their French ally. After Cesare was given a salary, he left. Montepulciano revolted in the south, and Florence sent an army against Siena. Pandolfo Petrucci had become the ruler of Siena in 1500, but he fled from Borgia in 1503 and came back to rule after Cesare’s death in 1507. In 1512 Petrucci made peace with Florence and gave back Montepulciano, and he died that year. Pistoia was torn apart by factions. In June 1502 Piero de’ Medici’s ally Vitellozo Vitelli helped Arezzo revolt against Florentine domination by declaring independence, and soon Cesare’s commanders were stirring up revolts in the upper Arno Valley. Louis XII ordered his Borgian ally to lay off his Florentine friends, and he sent French troops to the Arno Valley. The rich were forced to loan money to the government.

Using Venice as a model again, Florence decided they needed more stability than the two-month terms of the Signory, and they voted to make Gonfalonier of Justice a job for life. On September 20, 1502 Piero Soderini was elected, and he began serving as Gonfaloniere on November 1. He put the finances in order and was a good administrator. That fall Machiavelli was sent to spy on Duke Cesare Borgia, and he recommended that Florence send an ambassador empowered to negotiate. The Duke and Paolo Orsini signed an agreement on October 28, and Machiavelli sent a secret copy with his dispatch on November 10. Cesare promised to continue the stipends to the Orsini and Vitelli. Machiavelli traveled with Cesare and his army in December to Forli. After Pope Alexander VI’s death in August 1503 Machiavelli went to Rome.

Piero de’ Medici served in the French army that was fighting the Spaniards in Italy; but as the French were going home, Piero drowned in the Garigliano River on December 28, 1503. This made the more capable Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici and his brother Giulano prominent.

Soderini sent Machiavelli to Louis XII again in January 1504 to explain their position and observe the French preparations. Spain and France signed a three-year truce at Lyons on February 11, giving Spain the kingdom of Naples. In April 1505 Machiavelli was sent to the Baglioni in Perugia, and he learned that they allied with Bartolommeo d’Alviano and the Orsini to take Pisa from the Florentines. Then in May he went to Siena, where Pandolfo Petrucci told him he wanted an alliance with Florence because he could not check Alviano without their help. Machiavelli went back to Florence and prepared for war, and he was sent on a mission to Pope Julius II.

Consulted about the long war with Pisa, Machiavelli recommended replacing mercenaries with residents from the country. Florence had been relying on mercenaries for nearly two centuries, and their motivation was often questionable. Machiavelli worked on developing his idea for a militia with a patriotic spirit. In January 1506 he began traveling throughout Tuscany with letters patent to enroll soldiers. He suggested giving peasants military training, and on December 6 the Great Council of Florence voted 841-317 to establish a national militia, limiting it to country residents. They appointed a commission of Nine to supervise the militia with Machiavelli as their secretary. They soon had 5,000 recruits and began to serve at Pisa but were inferior to professional troops. During the siege Lucca supplied Pisans with food. Florence insisted they stop that and in 1507 gave Lucca the town of Pietra Santa and the Mutrone fortress for their agreement.

Machiavelli was sent to Siena again in August to meet with the Legate Cardinal of Santa Croce and find out what he had learned from meeting with Maximilian and whether he would come and assume the imperial crown. Then Soderini sent Machiavelli in December as an envoy to Maximilian to offer him at least 30,000 ducats. He wrote from Innsbruck on March 22, 1508 that he doubted whether Maximilian would persevere in the conquest. Machiavelli went to Switzerland in June and reported on German affairs.

In May 1509 Pisa sent eight envoys to Florence, and finally on June 8 Pisa opened the gates to the Florentine commissioners. Soderini and Machiavelli made sure that the army took them food and distributed it freely. The Florentines sent the ambassadors Giovan Vittorio Soderini and Piero Guicciardini (father of the historian) to meet Machiavelli at Verona, and on October 24 they agreed to pay Maximilian 40,000 ducats for his friendship and protection. Machiavelli was sent with the second installment to Mantua in November, and to gather intelligence in preparation for the war over Verona.

Although Machiavelli recommended flexible alliances, Gonfaloniere Soderini wanted to remain faithful to France. When France went to war against Venice and the Papal States in 1510, Machiavelli was sent to Blois to tell Louis XII why Florence remained neutral. Louis also supported the General Council that met at Pisa in 1511. Pope Julius II reacted by calling a council at the Lateran, and then he put Florence and Pisa under an interdict for having sanctioned the council at Pisa. Machiavelli traveled in Italy to prepare for war and in August 1511 renewed the expiring truce with Siena for 25 years. In the agreement mediated by the Pope to prevent the Florentines from summoning the French, Siena surrendered Montepulciano to Florence which pledged to support the Petrucci in Siena. On September 10 a Florentine commission sent Machiavelli to meet cardinals on the road to Pisa. Then he went to Milan and France. King Louis wanted peace, but the Pisa council was pushing the Pope toward war. Machiavelli returned to Florence on November 2 and left the next day with 300 troops to keep order at the Pisa council, which began meeting on November 5.

Pope Julius formed the Holy League with Venice and Spain that defeated the French in Italy in 1512 while weak Florence considered abolishing the republic and recalling the Medici. Cardinal Giovanni had helped Pope Julius II. The Spanish army led by Ramon of Cardona, Viceroy of Naples, was ordered to invade Tuscany. He demanded that Florence depose Soderini and let the Medici return as private citizens. Gonfalonier Soderini summoned the councils, and they agreed to defend the popular government. He had forty Mediceans imprisoned on August 27, 1512, but they were soon released. Two days later the Spaniards took Prato and killed 5,000 citizens, raped women, and looted churches as the militia and mercenaries fled. Piero Soderini was condemned to five years exile and on August 31 fled from Florence. On the same day Giuliano de’ Medici returned to Florence, and ambassadors were sent to the Viceroy and Cardinal Giovanni. When the Florentine commissioners promised to join the Holy League, pay the Spaniards 140,000 ducats, and accept the return of the Medici as private citizens, the Spaniards agreed to depart.

On September 14 Cardinal Giovanni entered Florence with 400 lances. Mercenaries had also been smuggled into the palace and piazza. Giovanni resided in the Medici palace that had been empty for many years. Two days later a parliament was called, and by acclaim they appointed a balia of 45 mostly Mediceans to reform the state. They abolished the Great Council and the militia, and they appointed accoppiatori to choose the Signory and Colleges. Florence once again had a senate of Seventy, a council of the Hundred, and a Signory with eight Priors and the Gonfalonier of Justice elected every two months. Although the Medici were to be equal citizens, in practice the balia took its orders from Cardinal Giovanni.

Within two months Machiavelli lost all his positions. Young Paolo Boscoli and Agostino Capponi believed in the pagan idea of tyrannicide and plotted to kill Giuliano and Cardinal Giovanni. One wrote names of probable supporters on a piece of paper which he lost. The paper was found in February 1513, and the two conspirators were arrested. Among the names on the paper was Machiavelli, who was banished for one year. On February 17 the two Medici imposed an arbitrary tax of 4,600 florins on the city. When Pope Julius II died on February 13, Giovanni was ill; but he was carried in a litter to Rome. He won over Cardinal Francesco Soderini by promising him that his nephew Lorenzo would marry a Soderini lady, and on March 11 they elected Giovanni to be Pope Leo X, setting off joyful celebrations in Florence. He began by making his cousin Giulio a cardinal. He also published an amnesty that released Machiavelli, whose enemies blocked his employment, causing the lover of politics to turn to writing. He wrote his friend Vettori that after fifteen years of serving the republic his poverty was proof that he was honest.

Pope Leo X annexed Florence to the papacy and patronized the artists Raphael and Michelangelo. His brother Giuliano married a French princess, and King François made him the Duke of Nemours; but his health declined, and Giuliano died on March 17, 1516. Piero’s only son Lorenzo was 24 years old, and he worked with Leo in governing Florence. Pope Leo declared that Julius II’s nephew Francesco Maria della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, was deposed in favor of Lorenzo. Francesco used his army to resist the papal forces, but he had to yield Urbino to Lorenzo.

Italian Wars with France and Spain 1517-29
Italian Wars under Spanish Rule 1530-59

Machiavelli’s Prince

Niccolo di Bernardo Machiavelli was born on May 3, 1469 in Florence. His father had a copy of Biondo’s long history of Italy from 410 to the present, and he purchased Livy’s history of republican Rome by agreeing to compile an index of the place-names in the books. Niccolo married Marietta Corsini in 1501, and she bore him six children. After serving the government of Florence for fifteen years Machiavelli in 1513 moved to a small farmhouse at Sant ‘Andrea in Percussina, and there he had time to study and concentrate on his writing.

Machiavelli wrote Il Principe (The Prince) in Italian and began distributing it in manuscript with the Latin title De Principatibus (About Principalities) in December 1513, but it was not printed until 1532, five years after his death. At first it was dedicated to Lorenzo de’ Medici’s son Giuliano, but after his death in March 1516 it was dedicated to Lorenzo’s grandson Duke Lorenzo of Urbino. In the dedication Machiavelli wrote that he valued his knowledge of the actions of men which he had gained from his experience in politics and from his extensive reading in ancient history. He recently suffered from the “malignity of fortune” and wrote the short but influential book while in exile from Florence.

In The Prince Machiavelli wrote about princely states ruled by one man, and in his Discourses he would discuss republics. Princely states were either hereditary or new or mixed. The combination suffers from the difficulty of new states because all men will change masters in order to improve themselves. Yet they may take up arms against their master and discover they made things worse. Machiavelli explained that this is because a new prince must harm those over whom he has taken authority, and he may have trouble satisfying the expectations of his friends. No matter how strong one’s armies are, one always needs the support of the local people to take over a province. If one attempts to possess a foreign district, troubles arise. These may be held more easily if the prince goes there to live. An army offends the people, and the prince who uses force makes enemies. Thus defense by colonies is more useful than defense by armies. The sooner a prince can recognize problems, the easier it is to solve them. If they grow too large, there may be no remedy. The ancient Romans knew how to trust in their own character and prudence. King Louis XII was able to occupy Milan, but by helping Pope Alexander VI occupy the Romagna he chose the wrong strategy, weakening himself and driving away his friends while strengthening the temporal power of the Church. Louis also made a major blunder in taking power from Venice, illustrating Machiavelli’s axiom that whoever makes another powerful ruins oneself.

Machiavelli advised princes to let acquired cities be ruled by their own laws. As famous princes who founded states by their own powers he cited the ancients Moses, Cyrus, Romulus, and Theseus. Other states have been founded by the arms of others or by luck. Francesco Sforza became the ruler of Milan by using his own strength, but Cesare Borgia gained power because of the fortune of his father Pope Alexander VI. The Borgias helped Louis XII dissolve his first marriage, and he entered Italy with Alexander’s consent and with help from the Venetians. The Pope then got troops from Louis to conquer the Romagna. After Cesare established his reputation, he abandoned the French help and relied on his own skill and deception. Machiavelli noted that people injure others through fear or hate, and Cesare aroused these emotions.

Some men have become princes by committing crimes. The Sicilian Agathocles rose to become prince of Syracuse; but a man who murders citizens may gain power but not glory. Machiavelli believed that cruelty could be used well if it diminished, but the use of increasing cruelty is bad. A prince who gains power with the help of nobles has more trouble holding on than the one who does so with the help of the people. The aims of the common people are more honest, but nobles often want to oppress people, who simply do not want to be oppressed. The prince should be wary of ambitious advisors who care more for themselves. The man who becomes a prince by the good will of the people has their support as long as they are not oppressed. Yet even a man who gains power against the wishes of the people with the aid of nobles may win over the people by protecting them. The prince who has the support of the people has a strong city that will drive off an attacker.

During the lifetime of Machiavelli the Roman Church gained greater temporal power, and the papacy was even able to drive Louis XII out of Italy. Venice became a powerful state in Italy, but the union of the other states was able to keep the Adriatic power in check. The houses of Orsini and Colonna in Rome could subdue the Pope. Alexander VI was the first pope to use money and arms to increase his power extensively by employing his son Cesare. Pope Julius II continued this trend by taking Bologna, defeating the Venetians, and driving out the French.

For Machiavelli good states depend on good laws and good arms, but he warned that the use of mercenaries and auxiliaries is dangerous and less effective. A republic with its own armies is stronger than one using foreign armies. Machiavelli argued that the use of mercenaries and foreign troops resulted in Italy’s being overrun by Charles VIII, plundered by Louis XII, ravaged by Fernando, and disgraced by the Swiss. Pope Julius failed at Ferrara with mercenaries and turned to the Spanish soldiers of Fernando. Foreign forces are almost always harmful because they either lose or take over when they win. The Pope’s auxiliaries were defeated at Ravenna, and only by luck did the Swiss come and drive away the victorious French. In 1353 the Greek Emperor John V Cantacuzenus foolishly invited an army of 10,000 Turks to help him against his neighbors with the result that Greece was eventually enslaved by the Muslims. Foreign auxiliaries are more dangerous than mercenaries because they are already trained to obey someone else. Cesare Borgia used French troops at first in the Romagna; but as his reputation increased, he could rely on his own troops. Machiavelli suggested that the Roman empire’s use of Gothic troops led to its fall.

Machiavelli recommended studying the art of war. Even in peace time the body and the mind must be trained. A prince should read history and think about the actions of great men. He warned against being too idealistic and neglecting hard realities, writing,

There’s such a difference between the way we really live
and the way we ought to live
that the man who neglects the real to study the ideal
will learn how to accomplish his ruin, not his salvation.3

Thus Machiavelli counsels the prince to learn how not to be good in some circumstances. If one is generous without letting people know of it, one may suffer from the opposite reputation. The prince who wants to keep a reputation for generosity has to burden the people with taxes and becomes odious; but if he is poor, no one will respect him. By being parsimonious he may live on his income and still be thought a liberal man while defending against enemies and undertaking projects with burdensome taxes. Louis XII and Fernando were able to wage wars because they were not considered generous. Generosity may cause one to become poor or rapacious.

Machiavelli believed that the prince should be considered merciful rather than cruel, but he may use cruelty to keep his subjects united and loyal by making examples of a few. This is more merciful than being too tender-hearted and allowing disorders. New states are in danger and require some cruelty. Machiavelli believed it is safer for the prince to be feared than to be loved. People are less likely to offend a prince they fear than one they love. However, the prince must avoid being hated, which can be caused by confiscating property or taking women.

People praise princes who keep their word, but Machiavelli found that those who did not keep their promises often won out over those who did. People can fight with laws or with force; the first is human, and the second is bestial. The prince should be wary like a fox and strong like a lion. A prudent prince will not keep his word if it becomes contrary to his interest or when the reasons for the pledge no longer apply. Sometimes a prince has to do things against honesty, charity, humanity, or religion in order to preserve the state. The prince should avoid doing anything that makes him hated or contemptible. He must be on guard against his own people and against foreign powers. As long as people are devoted to him, conspiracies are not likely to be successful. Machiavelli pointed to France as a well-governed state, and he recommended the authority of a parliament. Wise princes will delegate unpleasant jobs to others and retain pleasant ones.

Machiavelli cited examples in ancient Roman history when emperors trusted their troops more than their people. This could work if they maintained control over their soldiers. However, he noted that in his time gratifying the people has become more important than rewarding the soldiers because now the people have more power. He observed that Italy used to have a balance of powers, but he no longer took it as a precedent. The best fortress is not being hated by your people. In escaping one danger, one finds another. Prudence is analyzing the dangers and accepting the one that is least bad as the best choice.

The prince’s intelligence comes from those around him, and a wise prince chooses able and intelligent advisors. He should let them know he wants the truth, and he should avoid flatterers. He should be a liberal questioner and a patient listener. Machiavelli concluded The Prince with “an exhortation to restore Italy to liberty” that was apparently aimed at the newly restored Medici family. He lamented that military campaigns have not worked because “the old methods of warfare were not good, and no one has been able to find new ones.”4 He hoped that they could raise new armies and change their formations; but his idea of using their own militias still relied on military strategies, and he apparently did not aspire to unite Italy as a nation.

Machiavelli’s Discourses

In a famous letter Machiavelli wrote how he would come home and go into his study to read about the ancient men and would discuss with them the reasons for their actions, and four hours would pass without boredom. His Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy were probably written between 1513 and 1517, but they were not printed until 1531.

In his Discourses Machiavelli refers to the three traditional forms of government that can each be good or bad. Government by one person may be a principality or a tyranny; a state run by a few people can be an aristocracy or an oligarchy; and a republic governed by many people may be a democracy or anarchy. As people learned to value prudence and justice, they began to elect princes who were prudent and just. However, a hereditary monarch tends to degenerate because people are no longer chosen for their worth. Machiavelli believed that all six forms of government are defective because the three good ones are temporary, and the bad ones are evil. He found that if a state is a combination of a principality, aristocracy, and democracy, they keep watch over each other. Ancient Rome replaced a line of kings with two consuls, and with a senate it became a combination of a principality and an aristocracy. Eventually the plebeians were able to elect tribunes to represent them, and the Roman republic came close to perfection with both power and freedom.

Machiavelli believed that laws are necessary to keep people good just as hunger and poverty motivate people to be industrious. The people are the best guardians of liberty because the upper class tends to become greedy and avaricious. Public indictments for crimes are necessary in order to preserve republican liberty as public enforcement prevents disorder that would result from private or foreign forces. Yet false accusations and repression can be harmful to states. Machiavelli praised founders of republics and kingdoms, but naturally tyrants deserve much blame. He believed that religion can benefit a state, but the lack of religion in the Roman Church ruined Italy. The Church gained temporal power in Italy but was not strong enough to rule the entire country. The ancient Romans used religion to reorganize their state and quell disturbances.

Corrupt people who are liberated will have difficulty maintaining their freedom. After a capable prince a weak prince may be maintained, but a second weak prince will have difficulty. Well organized republics may have a succession of good rulers and become great. They establish a system of rewards and punishments for their citizens. Most people are not entirely good or bad. Governments should not delay these rewards even in difficult circumstances. Yet Machiavelli suggested that when a problem arises, it may be safer to delay handling it than to attack it. Rome occasionally granted dictatorial power temporarily in an emergency with good results; but it is harmful for civic life if a person takes authority for oneself.

Weak republics tend to be indecisive and then act by necessity rather than by choice. Moving quickly from humility to arrogance and from mercy to cruelty without using appropriate measures is imprudent and harmful. People are easily corrupted. A crowd without a leader is ineffective. One should not make threats and then request authority. Ambitious men may seek to rise by first avoiding injury but then by injuring others. No one magistrate or council should be able to block the legal actions of states. People may be deceived by a false “good” and desire their own ruin when they are moved by great hopes and bold promises. One man who is respected can restrain a multitude. When people are not corrupt, a state’s affairs are easily conducted. Where equality is prevalent, a principality cannot be created; but where no equality exists, a republic cannot be formed. People who are united will be courageous, but the divided are weak. The multitudes are wiser and more stable than a prince. Machiavelli believed that people create less serious errors than a prince and therefore are more trustworthy.

Ancient Rome increased its greatness by destroying nearby cities and by freely accepting foreigners. Republics may expand by confederating several republics, by making alliances, or by obtaining subjects. Machiavelli observed that one moves from a humble condition to a great fortune more often by fraud than by force. Yet people who believe they will conquer pride with humility often deceive themselves. Weak states make ambiguous decisions, and slow decisions may be harmful. Machiavelli discussed the military value of infantry and cavalry and the new innovation of artillery. He believed that a state incurs danger when it employs mercenaries or foreign auxiliaries. Men’s judgments are often mistaken about important issues. Machiavelli argued that fortresses in his time were more harmful than useful. They are not necessary against enemies and are harmful against one’s subjects. A fortress is harmful to holding one’s native city while they are useless for holding acquired cities. He observed that insults and verbal abuse rebound by causing hatred of those who employ them without any benefit. Yet he warned that it may be dangerous for a state not to punish an injury committed against the public or a private person. Powerful states do not buy friends with money but by their skill and strong reputation.

Machiavelli discussed conspiracies and warned that they can be dangerous before, during, and after the action. Few conspiracies turn out to be advantageous. Those who want to maintain good fortune must change with the times, and Machiavelli cited the humanity and patience of Piero Soderini. In difficult times those persons with true ability are sought, but in easy times men of wealth and from good families find favor. Machiavelli recounted how Camillus won over the people of Falerii with an act of humanity after a schoolmaster tried to betray his city by turning over his students. Camillus sent the children back whipping the schoolmaster, and the grateful citizens surrendered to him. Xenophon portrayed Cyrus winning honors and victories by kind and humane treatment, but Hannibal won victories with cruelty and violence. A prince should not complain about the sins committed by his people because they may arise because of his negligence. Strong republics and good men maintain the same spirit of dignity in different kinds of fortune. One’s native land may be defended with shame or with glory. One does not need to keep promises that are exacted by force. What is not obtained through ordinary methods may occasionally be accomplished through audacity. A good citizen for love of country will forget private injuries. Keeping a republic free requires new measures every day.

Machiavelli began writing The Art of War in 1519, and it was printed in 1521. In the preface he argued that soldiers should love peace more than anyone because they get nothing but injury from war. He lamented that military customs have been corrupted since the ancient times, and he advised never deviating from the venerable model of the Romans. He recommended not engaging in battle if one can gain the results wanted without fighting. Also he would only fight if he hoped he would succeed. Hired soldiers are hard to choose well and are likely not to fight. When mercenaries do fight, they are dangerous if they win. Machiavelli strongly recommended an army of citizens who are loyal because they are well governed as the only secure defense. Good soldiers are eager to return to peaceful pursuits.

In 1520 Machiavelli was appointed official historian of Florence, and he spent five years writing his History of Florence, completing the eight volumes in 1525. He died June 21, 1527.

Machiavelli’s Mandragola

Machiavelli probably wrote his play Mandragola in early 1518, and it may have been performed during the carnival festivities connected to the Medici marriage that year to the French princess Maddalena de la Tour d’Auvergne. The historian Guicciardini wrote a letter to Machiavelli on December 26, 1526 in which he described this play as a comic jest at the amorality of their times.

Mandragola was written and performed in Italian, but the young Florentine gentleman Callimacho sometimes speaks in Latin to the doctor of law, Nicia, to impress him. The play is set in Florence, but it could be Rome or Pisa. Callimacho tells his servant Siro that he has discovered the beautiful Lucrezia, and he longs to possess her even though she is married to the wealthy Nicia. After six years of marriage they are still childless and want to start a family. Callimacho says he has become friends with Ligurio who has promised to help him. Nicia tells Ligurio that he would do anything to have children. Callimacho admits to Ligurio that he would act cruelly or viciously to obtain his desire. Ligurio advises him to pretend that he has studied and practiced medicine in Paris.

Ligurio introduces Callimacho to Nicia, who denies that he is impotent. They agree to send Siro to get a specimen of Lucrezia’s urine, and Callimacho promises Nicia that his wife will have a child within a year. Callimacho says that a potion from the mandrake root can make a woman pregnant, but the first man who has her afterward will die within eight days. He advises Nicia to get someone else to sleep with her to suck off the poison in one night. Nicia wonders how he could persuade his wife, and Ligurio suggests that he get her mother Sostrata to take her to the confessor.

Sostrata has learned the Machiavellian idea of choosing the least of two evils as a duty. Ligurio tells her he will explain the situation to her confessor, Fra Timoteo, and he assures Nicia that the friar will say what they want for 25 ducats. Ligurio talks to Timoteo and says his philosophy is what is good for the greatest number. Ligurio tests Timoteo who agrees to help them. Sostrata works on persuading her daughter Lucrezia, who is very reluctant to submit her body to shame and to cause the death of the man who shames her. Timoteo tells Lucrezia that she must sacrifice an uncertain evil of the man’s possible death for the certain good that will result if she gets pregnant. Sostrata warns her that a woman without children is without a real home. If her husband dies, she is left like an animal. Timoteo promises that holy water will wash away the sin.

Callimacho is worried that his desires and expectation may bring disappointment; but his passion for the girl is very strong. Ligurio tells him that he will have the friar wear a disguise which Callimacho must do also as the young man they get to sacrifice himself. Callimacho knows that the potion is only a glass of spiced wine. Ligurio persuades him that he will be able to visit Lucrezia often because she will not want a scandal. Callimacho has Siro take the medicine to Nicia’s house. Timoteo is afraid that bad company will lead him to a bad end, but he participates for the money.

Nicia does not recognize Callimacho and leads him into the bedroom and later throws him out. Callimacho is pleased with his success and tells Ligurio that he has accepted him as his lord and master. Lucrezia will let Callimacho come and go as he pleases. Nicia lets him have a key to his house and promises to pay Timoteo.

This original farce entertains and illustrates the questionable ethics of Machiavelli’s political ideas, especially when the promised “good” is questionable and based on deception. People choose evils for a good that is by no means “certain” with the result that the unscrupulous are able to manipulate the gullible in order to increase their power.

Aretino and Italian Comedies


1. Altercazione by Lorenzo de’ Medici translated and quoted in Lorenzo dei Medici and Renaissance Italy by C. M. Ady, p. 134.

2. The Life of Girolamo Savonarola by Pasquale Villari, Volume 1, Book II, chapter 2 quoted in History of Florence by Ferdinand Schevill, p. 444.

3. The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli tr. Robert M. Adams, p. 44.

4. Ibid., p. 74.

Copyright © 2011 by Sanderson Beck

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EUROPE & Reform 1517-1588

Milan and Venice 1400-1517
Florence, the Medici and Machiavelli
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Italy and Humanism
Eastern Europe 1400-1517
German Empire 1400-1517
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Summary and Evaluation Europe 1400-1517

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