Niccolò Machiavelli lived in Florence at the end of the Italian Renaissance.  Owing to the rivalry between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire, the Italy of Machiavelli’s day was not a unified political entity but a patchwork of city states.  Florence, the city and its dominions (rural areas and neighboring towns) was one of 6 major powers (along with Milan, Venice, the Papal States, and Naples).   While France, Spain, and England were coalescing into nation states Italy and Germany (the western part of the old Holy Roman Empire) remained mere geographical entities whose leaders spent their considerable wealth, skill and creativity in petty rivalries, stratagems conspiracies, and wars.  As a result, Machiavelli’s Italy was politically impotent but it provided an excellent school for learning the art of political intrigue.

Niccolò was born in 1469 the same year that Lorenzo (The Magnificent) de’ Medici became ruler of Florence, which is symbolic because his life was bound up with the Medici family.  The political climate during Niccolò’s childhood in Florence was established in 1434 by Cosimo de’ Medici (Lorenzo’s grandfather), who parlayed his father’s banking fortune into a political dynasty.  Cosimo established a political system that Machiavelli would call a Civil Principality, an oligarchy dominated by Cosimo.  The system was based on a tight coalition of influential families, who measured their power in terms of the number of patronage relationships that they could maintain with people from lesser families.  The Medici, owing to the patronage power afforded by the resources of their Bank, dominated the ruling coalition.

Niccolò Machiavelli was from a lesser family, noble but not independently wealthy.   His father, a lawyer, gave Niccolò a typical Renaissance education which fitted him for a career as a civil servant.    His father not being a Medici patron, Niccolò could not, in the normal course of things, look forward to a high government career, but in 1492, Lorenzo died leaving his role in the city to his arrogant and ignorant son, Piero (The Fatuous) de’ Medici.  Then in 1494 Charles VIII of France invaded Italy.  Piero so mismanaged things that Florence lost territory in the process and his miscalculation brought down the government. 

The regime change gave Niccolò his opportunity, and his skill enabled him to build an outstanding career in civil service.  If Machiavelli were speaking at a conference, the program’s biography of him might read as follows.

Head of the Second Chancery of the Republic of Florence (1498 -1512), and secretary of the Ten of War and Peace.

Diplomatic missions:

  • 1500 to Louis XII king of France.
  • 1502 to Cesare Borgia
  • 1506 to Pope Julius
  • 1507 to Emperor Maximilian

Publications (by dates of composition)

 Note that all of these writings are still in print.

The Medici returned to power in 1512 and Niccolò Machiavelli lost his job. The new regime imprisoned Niccolò in connection with an anti-Medici plot (in which he had no part) but soon released him as part of a general amnesty to commemorate the ascension of Giovanni de’ Medici to the Papal thrown which he ruled as Leo X.  Niccolò made his peace with the Medici.  In 1520, family agents gave him a contract to write the History of Florence and of the Affairs of Italy, which he presented to Pope Clement VII (Giulio de’ Medici) in 1526. 

Italy’s troubles continued as it became a battle ground in the struggle between the Valois Dynasty of France and the Hapsburg Dynasty, which controlled Spain, ancestral lands in Austria, and the crown of the Holy Roman Empire.  The Papacy formed alliances with the Valois and the Hapsburgs at various times in an attempt to play one off against the other and maintain some freedom of action.  In 1526 Pope Clement VII (Giulio de’ Medici) formed the League of Cognac, which allied the Papacy, Venice, Florence, England, and France under Francis I; against the Habsburgs under Emperor Charles V.   The war again brought down the Medici regime in Florence.  One of Charles V’s generals lost control of his troops which sacked Rome on May 6, 1527.  Niccolò Machiavelli took part in the defense of Florence but died shortly after the Sack of Rome on June 21, 1527.

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