Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli (1469-1527) was arguably the most influential political thinker of the Renaissance period.
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His best-known work, Il Principle (‘The Prince’), later led to his name becoming synonymous with ruthless political machinations.
To this day, the term “Machiavellian” connotes political deceit, scheming and unscrupulousness.
Here are 10 facts about him.
1. He lived during a time of political turmoil
Machiavelli was born on 3 May 1469 in Florence before becoming a senior official in the Florentine Republic.
From 1487 he began working under a banker, until in 1498 he was named the chancellor and the chief executive officer of the government of Florence.
As chancellor, he had responsibilities in diplomatic and military affairs during an era of tumultuous political tragedy.
French troops under Charles VIII entering Florence by Francesco Granacci (Credit: Public domain).
In 1494, Italy was invaded by King Charles VIII of France and then later by Spain and Austria, resulting in nearly 400 years of rule by outsiders.
Machiavelli’s thinking was defined by this upheaval. It was his dream that the divided Italian city-states would unite under a strong leader to meet its threats on equal terms.
2. He worked with Leonardo da Vinci
As a senior government official, Machiavelli used his powers to commission Leonardo da Vinci and appointed him Florence’s military engineer in 1502.
Leonardo left his post only 8 months after, however it is believed that the two “seem to have become intimate” when they were both in Florence.
A painting of Leonardo da Vinci by Francesco Melzi
Some historians believe their relationship had a significant influence on Machiavelli’s political thinking. His writings appear to be rife with idiosyncratic expressions from Leonardo’s notebooks.
3. He was an enemy of the powerful Medici family
The Medici family – who were the de facto rulers of Florence – played a central role to Machiavelli’s life and works.
When the Medicis were ousted from the city in 1494, Machiavelli’s primary concern was their potential return.
To keep them at bay, he oversaw the recruitment and training of an official Florentine militia. However his army was no match for the Medicis, who were supported by Rome’s papal forces.
Machiavelli dedicated ‘The Prince’ to Lorenzo de’ Medici, depicted here by Giorgio Vasari (Credit: Uffizi Gallery).
When the House of Medici retook Florence in 1512, Machiavelli was deprived of office and imprisoned under conspiracy charges.
While in jail, he was subjected to torture by the strappado – where a prisoner would be hung by his wrists behind his back, and then suddenly dropped towards the floor, dislocating the shoulders and tearing the muscles.
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4. He wrote ‘The Prince’ to regain his lost status
After losing his job as a diplomat, Machiavelli strove to win the favour of the Medicis.
He retired to his estate and turned to scholarship, devoting his time to studying the ancient Roman philosophers. By the end of 1513, he had completed the first version of the political treatise that he would become known for.
Initially, Machiavelli dedicated ‘The Prince’ to Giuliano de’ Medici, but Giuliano died in 1516. The book was subsequently dedicated to the younger Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent.
Machiavelli did not live to see if he succeeded; ‘The Prince’ was published in 1532, 5 years after his death at the age of 58.
Engraved portrait of Machiavelli, from the Peace Palace Library’s Il Principe (Credit: Public domain).
5. ‘The Prince’ is based on Cesare Borgia
The name Borgia is synonymous with decadence, treachery and ruthlessness – most exemplified by the daring and bloodthirsty Cesare Borgia (1475-1507).
The illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI, Borgia worked to carve out what he hoped would be a kingdom for himself that would rival Venice and Naples.
Cesare Borgia, as depicted in ‘Portrait of Gentleman’ by Altobello Melone (Credit: Accademia Carrara).
His ambitions and actions attracted the notice of Machiavelli, who spent time as an emissary in Borgia’s court, and who would write long reports about him.
Many historians consider Borgia to be the inspiration for ‘The Prince’. Machiavelli admired Borgia’s daring, treachery and effectiveness in contrast to the frustratingly slow and prudent Florentine republic.
6. Machiavelli was not amoral himself
Statue of Niccolò Macchiavelli by Lorenzo Bartolini (Credit: Jerbulon / CC).
‘The Prince’ may have gained notoriety for its ruthlessness, but Machiavelli believed in a just government. As a civil servant, he had been one of the republic’s staunchest defenders.
Although his treatise openly encouraged politicians to cheat, bribe, threaten and even kill if necessary, he acknowledged that without respect for justice, society would collapse into chaos.
7. ‘The Prince’ was only one of his works
Cover page of 1550 edition of Machiavelli’s Il Principe.
Besides ‘The Prince’, Machiavelli also wrote treatises on ‘The Discourses on Livy’, ‘The Art of War’ and ‘Florentine Histories’.
Apart from being a novelist, he was also a translator, poet, playwright and wrote comedies and carnival songs.
His poems included ‘Decennale Primo’ and ‘Decennale Secondo’ and he penned the satirical play La Mandragola (‘The Mandrake’).
8. It was banned by the Pope
Although copies of ‘The Prince’ had been circulated among Machiavelli’s friends, it was not published until after his death, with the permission of Pope Clement VII.
The papacy’s attitude towards his work soon chilled and it was condemned by both the Catholic and Protestant churches.
In 1557, when Pope Paul IV established Rome’s first Index Librorum Prohibitorum (‘Index of Forbidden Books’), he made sure to include ‘The Prince’ for its encouragement of political and moral corruption.
9. He became a theatrical stock character of evil
By the 16th century, Machiavelli’s name had found itself in the English language as an epithet for crookedness.
In Elizabethan theatre, it came to denote a dramatic type: the incorrigible schemer driven by greed and unbridled ambition.
In Christopher Marlowe’s 1589 play ‘The Jew of Malta’, the character of Machiavel says:
I count religion but a childish toy, / And hold there is no sin but ignorance.
In Shakespeare’s 1602 play ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’, a characters asks:
Am I politic? Am I subtle? Am I a Machiavel?
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10. He is considered the father of modern political science
Machiavelli’s ideas had a profound impact on politics throughout the Western world. After 500 years, his legacy continues in political life across the world.
‘The Prince’ was accused of having inspired Henry VIII’s defiance of the papacy. A copy was in the possession of the Spanish king and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.
It was later blamed for having incited Queen Catherine de’ Medici to order the massacre of 2,000 rebel Protestants at the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre.
Machiavelli’s tomb in the Santa Croce Church in Florence (Credit: Gryffindor / CC).
He was also said to have directly influenced the founding fathers of the American Revolution.
Machiavelli was the first political writer to separate politics from morality, placing great emphasis on practical strategies over philosophical ideas.
Instead of focusing on what was right or wrong, he considered what needs to be achieved.