Scion of a Florentine family of minor noble extraction, Niccolò Machiavelli was born into a world beset on all sides with social and political strife. The Florence in which Machiavelli came of age was sharply divided along the axes of religious asceticism and aristocratic extravagance, the former personified by the book-burning Dominican friar Savonarola, the latter by the de facto ruler of the city, Lorenzo de’ Medici (appropriately dubbed “The Magnificent”). This tension between adherence to spiritual ideals and the pursuit of temporal riches is entirely characteristic of the Renaissance, during which religious fervor and worldly ambition often found themselves at loggerheads. And yet, the florescence of internecine political conflict so characteristic of Italy during this period was also a consequence of the peninsula’s unique sociopolitical structure. Unlike the rest of Europe, the major kingdoms of which (e.g. France, Spain) were still bound by the antiquated customs of feudalism, Italy comprised a patchwork of democratic and despotic regimes. Thanks to its central geographical location with respect to major trade routes, Italy had given birth to an entirely new class of sovereign whose authority derived not from hereditary right but rather economic might. This ascendancy of the merchant class (among whom we can count the Medici) posed fundamentally new problems of how to procure the consent of the governed in the absence of traditional modes of legitimation.
It is within this labyrinthine maze of power and intrigue that Machiavelli plied his trade as a statesman, advisor and diplomat. The trajectory of Machiavelli’s professional career closely mirrors the tumultuous events of his era. Upon the expulsion of the Medici from power in 1494, Machiavelli entered into public service as the Second Chancellor to newly-liberated Republic of Florence. In said capacity Machiavelli functioned as something of a factotum— his duties ran the gamut from negotiating peace treaties to commanding the Florentine citizen’s militia, all while conducting precarious diplomatic relations with a veritable who’s-who of Renaissance heads of church and state. These activities provided Machiavelli with an invaluable reservoir of practical experience upon which he would later draw extensively in his literary works. And yet, like so many statesmen before him, Machiavelli ultimately found himself subject to the vicissitudes of fortune. Restored to power in 1512 and justifiably paranoid of the old regime, the Medici quickly accused Machiavelli of conspiracy and summarily imprisoned him. Happily, then-Pope Leo X intervened on Machiavelli’s behalf and negotiated for his release. Soon thereafter, Machiavelli retired to his modest country estate outside Florence where he would devote the rest of his days to various scholarly pursuits that he hoped might regain him the favor of the Medici. Despite a handful of Pyrrhic victories to that effect, Machiavelli died a de facto exile in 1527 at the age of 58.
Written by Sean Hallowell, Department of Music, Columbia University
Nederman, Cary, "Niccolò Machiavelli," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
Max Lerner’s introduction to the Modern Library edition to The Prince and The Discourses (New York: Modern Library, 1940)