The Life and Times of Niccolo Machiavelli (review)

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No Heaven for Suckers

Open Letters Monthly

Bartolomeo Piccolomini

November 2010


An Unlikely Prince: the Life and Times of Machiavelli

By Niccolo Capponi
DaCapo Press, 2010

It falls to the Duchess, in Anthony Trollope’s great novel The Prime Minister, to be always “making up the party, — meaning the coalition, — doing something to strengthen the buttresses, writing little letters to little people, who, little as they were, might become big by amalgamation.” Her husband, the Duke of Omnium, the Prime Minister of the book’s title, is mulishly introverted, and the Duchess fears for the longevity of his coalition government if she is not constantly shoring it up with lavish entertainments and constant backstage finessing. And when her efforts begin to tire even her, she exclaims, “I’m not a god, or a Pitt, or an Italian with a long name beginning with M., that I should be able to do these things without ever making a mistake.”

Trollope is certain that his readers will mentally supply the name that’s momentarily slipped the Duchess’ mind, and he’s equally certain of his connotations – that business about never making a mistake is meant to associate with the M-name a high, even notorious, degree of steely control, a dispassionate ability to put the success of the enterprise ahead of any expense or effort (and certainly any moral qualms) needed to achieve that success.

The Italian with a long name beginning with M is Niccolo Machiavelli, that most misunderstood of writers. Beginning while he was still alive, flourishing in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and with us still today is the same vague impression of Machiavelli the poor Duchess had: the weasel, the inventor of realpolitik, the champion of ends justifying means. He stands for us in history always unchanged: the counselor behind the arras, whispering duplicities into the ears of both Medici princes and Republican magnates, telling them it’s better to be feared than loved. Even as early as Shakespeare’s day, to be ‘a machiavel’ was to be an unprincipled student of evil, and all subsequent ages have been predictably divided: the tyrants call him far-sighted and sympathetic, and the governed (and resentful) call him the serpent in the garden, tempting mankind away from the noble Roman ideals of selfless service to one’s country. Macaulay contemned his fellow historian in the roundest possible terms. Theodore Roosevelt appreciated the vigor of his prose style but deplored what he took to be the philosophy behind that prose. In an introduction to an edition of the man’s work, Mussolini praised his clarity of vision.

He’s known for one book, of course, Il Principe – The Prince, first published in 1537, five years after Machiavelli’s death. He’d begun work on it while rusticating at his poor country estate after being dismissed from office when the Medici returned from exile and ousted Machiavelli’s friend Soderini from control of Florence in 1512. It was around this same time that he wrote his other masterpiece, The Discourses on Livy – both are the works of a man who by his own confession had nothing to do with his evenings anymore. Prior to his sacking, he’d been steadily rising in the civil and diplomatic service of Florence for more than a decade, writing policy papers for the Chancery, filling the office of a minor magistrate, and going on diplomatic missions to half a dozen of the foremost capitals of Europe.

Since the expulsion of the Medici in 1494, Machiavelli had been a busy, useful man – conducting state affairs by day and drinking in the taverns with his co-workers by night (somewhere along in here he also got married, to a faithful, aggrieved girl who endured his absences and perhaps his mistresses, bore him some healthy children, and faded from history almost without leaving even her name … it was Marietta, and we have some of her complaining letters). When the Medici returned to power, all that ended – Machiavelli was discharged from all his responsibilities, and a year later, in 1513, he was arrested on suspicion of being involved in a plot against the Medici. He was very likely innocent, but the authorities only came to this conclusion after first imprisoning and then torturing him (he suffered the infamous strappado, although obviously not severely enough to prevent him from using his hands and arms to write in later years). He retired to his country place in Sant’Andrea and took to brooding on the nature of Fortune.

Machiavelli had grown up during what in retrospect looked like a golden age; the rule of Lorenzo de’ Medici, when Florence was comparatively peaceful and well-respected in inter-city and international affairs. And for a while when his friend Soderini was gonfalonier of a restored republic, Machiavelli had been able to steer those affairs himself. It had left him very little time for extraneous compositions; more than one scholar has pointed out that Machiavelli’s job-related bad luck in 1512 was good news for his readers.

Niccolo Capponi, curator of Florence’s Capponi Archive and the latest biographer of Machiavelli (he claims direct biological descent – by way of the carping Marietta?), would certainly agree about the good news; he’s not the first Italian scholar to call Machiavelli the greatest writer of Italian prose (some of us who’ve read Il Principe tend not to agree and go right on giving Dante the double crown of prose and poetry). And he’s not unaware of the sheer enormity of Machiavelli’s reputation – how could he be? The din of it has rung in the ears of biographers for centuries. But Capponi is more interested in the “personal, very human” traits of the man than the “depth of his thinking” – he tells us right at the outset of his new book An Unlikely Prince: The Life and Times of Machiavelli that he can identify with his subject’s sense of humor, “as shocking as it may appear to those not born and bred in Florence.”

This is the first comprehensive life of Machiavelli in English in nearly a decade – and one of the most informal and altogether agreeable books about this controversial figure in a good deal longer than that. In his bibliography, Capponi cites the Holy Trinity of Machiavelli biographers, Tommasini, Villari, and Ridolfi, reminds us “one must not forget the oblique biographical approach” found in G. Sasso’s 1993 2-volume Niccolo Machiavelli, and mentions Sebastian de Grazia’s intensely strange and memorable Pulitzer Prize-winning 1994 volume Machiavelli in Hell mainly for its treatment of Machiavelli’s “religiosity.” As you might expect, his notes over-brim with primary materials, so much so that if you were to peruse the book’s critical apparatus first, you’d be warranted in thinking you had a very thorough, very dry reading experience ahead of you.

Very thorough, yes, but not dry at all, and the reason is a bit ironic. In his narrative of Machiavelli’s life, Capponi consistently alludes to his own and his subject’s shared status as Florentines – the peculiarity of that city’s inhabitants is characterized as a constant throughout the ages. It has the exact opposite of the effect it should have: instead of making all non-Florentine readers feel excluded, it brings Machiavelli alive in a way no other biographer has quite managed, even if the accumulation of civic back-patting can get a bit accumulative. Per I bischeri non ce paradiso, we’re told, as Capponi retails an old Florentine saying, “No heaven for suckers” – and it gives us a taste of what he’s talking about, the pungent, funny, rude Florentine style of seeing things. He follows up on it every chance he gets. In a note about the compagnacci – the ‘bad companions’ who banded together in defiance of the strictures of Florence’s reactionary Savonarola – Capponi writes:


These proud little asides are a twinkling highlight of the book, but their allure can occasionally send Capponi chasing a bit too far afield to collect them. “From the contents of [Machiavelli's sometime colleague Francesco] Vettori’s letter one could easily believe sodomy to have been the favorite sport of male Florentines,” he tells us (although his very existence all these generations later hints that Machiavelli and Vettori might have been excessively fond of joking with each other in their letters, as correspondents sometimes do), and then, having brought the subject up, he feels compelled to discourse on it for a bit:

And there follows a paragraph-long clarification of the philosophical polarities between Fortuna and fottere …which is to say, even the most engaging narrators sometimes require patience … not only in this, but also in the idiomatic laziness that frequently besets his prose. People “hook up” in these pages; things go “to Hell in a handbasket,” wrongdoers “lie through their teeth,” and at one point we’re told “the Medici, opting for an if-you-can’t-lick-’em-join-’em policy, played their trump card.” No English translator is listed for An Unlikely Prince, so Capponi must have come by all these cliches and idioms honestly – although the cracks still show sometimes, as when he informs us that “… in the Discourses, Machiavelli was singing to the choir.”

Such popular concessions lessen the verity of a text, make it seem more a thing of deadlines and royalty advances than timeless scholarship, but they only slightly mar this intelligent and energetic book. Capponi’s slang is an exponent of his narrative’s vigor – and perhaps a reflexive device for softening the impact of his scholarship, which in unguarded moments can seem as wide-ranging as it is opinionated. You quickly learn to watch for his asides, and to think about them – as in this envisioning of a scene from Machiavelli’s boyhood:

And what of the controversy surrounding this man and his writings? What of the Duchess and her tossed-off opinion of this ruthless machiavel? Capponi has already warned us that he’s more interested in the man than his writings – readers will find far less textual analysis here than, say, in Maurizio Viroli’s Il sorriso di Niccolo – and he proves as good as his word. The Epilogue to his story, a sparkling chapter called “Name-Calling,” gives a breezy overview of critical reception of his subject throughout the ages (and the “Pavlovian effect” Machiavelli’s name has on many readers), enough, certainly, to remind us that this writer, more than any other, exists for the ages out of context. Millions more people have hand-picked quotes from The Prince than have ever actually read it, and sometimes even learned commentators have failed to do justice to its complexities. An Unlikely Prince spends less time on those complexities than some readers will want, and here perhaps that Florentine knowingness tells against the author, who’s content to wink in the direction of a quote from The Discourses: colui che e violento per guastare, non quello che e per racconciare, si debbe riprendere – One should reprimand whoever is violent in order to break [things], not one who is [violent] in order to mend. 

Instead, Capponi is constantly looking for the man behind the theories, and what he finds is reassuringly human, as he tells us:

“In reality,” Capponi says, “Niccolo was a complex figure, and trying to pin him down can have the same effect as eating a hot dog: You bite it on one end, and everything inside shoots out from the other.” Likewise this book: unassuming, surprisingly nutritious, messy, and very, very good.