The author of The Prince—his controversial handbook on power, which is one of the most influential books ever written—Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) was no prince himself. Born to an established middle-class family, Machiavelli worked as a courtier and diplomat for the Republic of Florence and enjoyed some small fame in his time as the author of bawdy plays and poems. In this discerning new biography, Ross King rescues Machiavelli's legacy from caricature, detailing the vibrant political and social context that influenced his thought and underscoring the humanity of one of history's finest political thinkers.
A strange new type of insect appeared in the meadows beside the river Arno in Florence in the summer of 1498. These swarms of gold-bodied caterpillars had a human face—eyes and a nose could be distinguished—while on the head was a golden halo and a small cross. They quickly became known as "Brother Girolamo's caterpillars."
"Brother Girolamo" was Girolamo Savonarola, a charismatic, green-eyed Dominican friar from Ferrara who for the previous six years had dominated Florence's spiritual and political life with his fire-and-brimstone sermons. By 1498, however, his mesmeric hold over the city had finally been broken. He was excommunicated by Pope Alexander VI in the summer of 1497, and less than a year later, on the morning of May 23, 1498, he was hanged in the city's main piazza as punishment for, in the words of one chronicler, "stirring up discord in Florence and of disseminating doctrine that was not entirely Catholic."1 Cut down from the scaffold, his body was consumed on a bonfire; afterward his ashes were thrown into the Arno from the Ponte Vecchio, washing downstream to the spot where, a few weeks later, the caterpillars mysteriously appeared.
Savonarola was not the only casualty in Florence in May of 1498. Two Dominican priests were hanged beside him, while other supporters of Savonarola—known by their opponents as Piagnoni (Snivelers)—suffered equally unpleasant fates. The friar's most powerful political ally, Francesco Valori, was murdered with a billhook; a bolt from a crossbow killed Valori's wife. Dozens of other Piagnoni were fined or deprived of their political rights, and several friars from the convent of San Marco, where Savonarola had served as prior, were sent into exile. Even the bell of San Marco, nicknamed La Piagnona, did not escape punishment: it was removed from its tower and given a public flogging before it, too, was exiled from Florence.
Retribution reached the highest levels of government as the Signoria—Florence's ruling council—began an immediate purge of Savonarola's sympathizers from their official posts. All ten members of the Dieci di Libertà e Pace ("Ten of Liberty and Peace"), who handled foreign policy, were dismissed, as were the eight men comprising the Otto di Guardia ("Eight of the Watch"), the committee in charge of criminal justice. Also losing his post was an official in the Chancellery named Alessandro Braccesi. His replacement was a twenty-nine-year-old political novice named Niccolò Machiavelli. Twenty-nine—the age of eligibility for voting—was a remarkably young age for a man to hold such an important post. Most young men in Florence remained under the authority of their fathers until the age of twenty-four, and some did not achieve their legal majority until twenty-eight. But Machiavelli would make up for his youth and inexperience with a formidable intellect and an impeccable education, and with tremendous amounts of energy and ambition.
Machiavelli had been born in Florence on May 3, 1469, the eldest son of Bernardo Machiavelli and his wife, Bartolomea. "I was born in poverty," Niccolò would later write, "and at an early age learned how to scrimp rather than to thrive."2 Like many things he wrote, this claim is something of an overstatement. His mother seems to have descended from an ancient and distinguished family, while his father came from a prosperous clan that for many generations had owned large tracts of land in the rolling, vine-clad hills south of Florence. It is true that Bernardo Machiavelli was by no means a rich man. He once described himself on a tax document, all too truthfully, as being "without gainful employment."3 But he lived in a large house in the Santo Spirito quarter of Florence, near the Ponte Vecchio, and he also owned a farm outside Florence in the village of Sant' Andrea in Percussina, complete with vineyards, apple orchards, olive trees, and livestock. His rural possessions furthermore included a tavern and a butcher shop.
Bernardo Machiavelli had trained for a legal career and then pursued, not very diligently or successfully, a career as a notary. However, he evidently enjoyed a reputation in Florence as a first-class legal brain. He became friends with the chancellor of Florence, an eminent scholar named Bartolomeo Scala, who featured him as a legal expert in a 1483 treatise entitled Dialogue on Laws and Legal Judgments. But Bernardo's most notable trait was his passion for books. His formal education would have seen him studying Latin grammar, perfecting his handwriting, and learning how to compose wills and certify business and marriage contracts. His mind roved more broadly and searchingly over human affairs than such paperwork would suggest, and by the 1470s he was dabbling in classical literature. Scala's Dialogue may well have done him justice by having him knowledgeably quote authors such as Plato, Justinian, Cicero, and Lactantius. Bernardo certainly acquired for his personal library, sometimes at no mean expense, editions of works by writers such as Livy and Macrobius; and he borrowed books, when he could not afford to buy them, from institutions such as the library of the convent of Santa Croce. One of his most prized possessions was an edition of Livy's History of Rome that he acquired for free by compiling an index of place names for its Florentine printer. Eleven years later, in 1486, he had the volume bound in leather, a task for which he compensated the binder with three bottles of red wine from his estate in the country.
Bernardo was far from alone in his reverence for classical literature and history. An intense preoccupation with the culture of the ancient world had placed Florence at the forefront of new intellectual and artistic activities—what later came to be known as "humanism"—that shifted the intellectual emphasis from theology to the more secular studies that had once been the bedrock of classical literature. The head of the Florentine Chancellery between 1375 and 1406, a scholar named Coluccio Salutati, had argued that classical texts could teach important lessons about contemporary moral and political life not found in the Bible. He and his followers . . .