Authors: Niccolò Machiavelli

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Italian critic and political theorist

May 3, 1469

Florence, Italy

June 21, 1527

Florence, Italy


Niccolò Machiavelli, whose The Prince set forth in realistic and cynical terms the principles of action a ruler must use to gain and hold power, was born in 1469 into a family with a long tradition in Florentine politics. His father, Bernardo Machiavelli, was a lawyer who was forced into an ignoble position as a treasury official in Florence because his dwindling inheritance was no longer adequate to support him and his family. Niccolò Macchiavelli, growing up during the period of Girolamo Savonarola’s greatest activity, was twenty-eight years old when the reformer-monk, after having been the most powerful spiritual leader in Florence, was arrested, tortured, and hanged as a heretic in March, 1498.

Niccolò Machiavelli

(Library of Congress)

Machiavelli began his political life a few months after Savonarola’s death. Having served briefly as a minor clerk, he was then appointed as a secretary to the Second Chancery, largely through the influence of his friend Marcello Virgilio Adriani, who was the head of the First Chancery. He was sent on a number of minor diplomatic missions, the first important one being a mission to Forli in 1499, where he attempted unsuccessfully to discover the sentiments toward Florence of Caterina Sforza. He traveled twice to the court of King Louis XII, marched with Pope Julius II in 1506, and visited Emperor Maximilian in 1508, but the most impressive political figure he met was Cesare Borgia, whose political tricks and murders he came to know first hand. Borgia later became the prototype for the model of statecraft in The Prince. Macchiavelli was married in 1502 to Marietta Corsini, by whom he had several children.

In 1512, following the fall of the republic and the return of the Medici to power in Florence, Machiavelli, in spite of attempts on his part to win over the Medici by unsolicited advice, was dismissed from his office in the chancery. He was then forty-three years old and not wealthy; his pay had never been enough to enable him to put money aside. In 1513 he was arrested because his name was on a list prepared by conspirators who planned to murder Giuliano Medici. While under torture he strongly declared his loyalty to the Medici, but he was not readily believed; only after four weeks in prison was he released.

He dedicated most of his remaining days to writing. The Prince, which he wrote in 1513 though it did not appear until 1532, is a guide to power politics that is both the natural product of his political experiences and observations and an attempt to win the favor of Lorenzo the Magnificent. His comic drama, The Mandrake, written about the same time, soon became popular because of its swift plot and clever dialogue. His The Florentine History has often been praised for its historical and literary value. Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, a more liberal and republican political study than The Prince, is regarded by many critics as a more important product of Machiavelli’s experience than the more famous work.

Machiavelli died in Florence on June 21, 1527, shortly after an unsuccessful attempt was made to find a place for him in the newly restored republican government. Ironically, the man who dissected the essence of Renaissance power was never able to use it to his own political advantage.

Author Works Nonfiction: Descrizione del modo tenuto dal Duca Valentino nello ammazzare Vitellozzo Vitelli, Oliverotto da Fermo, il Signor Pagolo e il Duca di Gravina Orsini, wr. 1503 Discorso dell’ordinare lo stato di Firenze alle armi, 1507 (Discourse on Florentine Military Preparation, 1965) Rapporto delle cose della Magna, wr. 1508 Ritratto di cose di Francia, wr. 1512-1513 Il principe, wr. 1513, pb. 1532 (The Prince, 1640) Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio, wr. 1513, pb. 1531 (Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, 1636) Discursus florentinarum rerum post mortem iunioris Laurentii Medices, wr. 1520 La vita di Castruccio Castracani, 1520 (The Life of Castruccio Castracani, 1675) Discorso delle cose fiorentine dopo la morte di Lorenzo, 1520 (Discourse on the State of Florence After the Death of Lorenzo, 1965) Dell’ arte della guerra, 1521 (The Art of War, 1560) Istorie fiorentine, 1525 (The Florentine History, 1595) Discorso: O, Dialogo intorno alla nostra lingua, 1525 (Discourse: Or, Dialogue About Our Language, 1961) Drama: Andria, pb. c. 1517 (based on Terence’s play; English translation, 1969) La Mandragola, pb. c. 1519 (The Mandrake, 1911) La Clizia, pr. 1525 (based on Plautus’s play Casina; Clizia, 1961) Poetry: Decennale primo, 1504 (First Decennial, 1965) Decennale secondo, 1509 (Second Decennial, 1965) Serenata, 1513-1514 (Serenade, 1965) L’asino d’oro, 1517, 1549 (The Golden Ass, 1965) Canti carnascialeschi, 1523-1524 (Carnival Songs, 1965) Lust and Liberty: The Poems of Machiavelli, 1963 Bibliography Ascoli, Albert Russell, and Victoria Kahn, eds. Machiavelli and the Discourse of Literature. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993. A collection of essays that focus on the literary aspects of Machiavelli’s writings, historical, political, and artistic. Bondanella, Peter E. Machiavelli and the Art of Renaissance History. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1973. This astute study constitutes a chronological survey of Machiavelli’s development as a literary stylist. Focuses on the compositional techniques that he employed in depicting the character and conduct of heroic personages. Lacks a formal bibliography, but there are copious endnotes for each chapter. Grant, Ruth Weissbourd. Hypocrisy and Integrity: Machiavelli, Rousseau, and the Ethics of Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. This work challenges the usual standards for political ethics and sheds light on Machiavelli’s argument for the necessity of hypocrisy. Grant interprets the writings of Machiavelli as pro-hypocrite and the writings of Rousseau as anti-hypocrite and balances them in a conceptual framework encompassing the moral limits of compromise, and integrity in political behavior. Grazia, Sebastian de. Machiavelli in Hell. 1989. Reprint. New York: Vintage, 1994. A colorful intellectual biography. Hale, John R. Machiavelli and Renaissance Italy. New York: Macmillan, 1961. A standard biography. Kahn, Victoria Ann. Machiavellian Rhetoric: From the Counter-Reformation to Milton. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994. An examination of Machiavelli’s political and social views as expressed in his literary works. Bibliography and index. Machiavelli, Niccolò. Machiavelli and His Friends: Their Personal Correspondence. Translated by James B. Atkinson, edited by David Sices. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996. Arranged chronologically and with an introduction and historical annotations by the translator, these 257 letters written to Machiavelli, and 84 written by him, offer a broad view of the life, people, places, and crucial events of Renaissance Italy. Rebhorn, Wayne A. Foxes and Lions: Machiavelli’s Confidence Men. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988. Analyzes Machiavelli’s literary and political works in the context of his personal life. Roe, John. Shakespeare and Machiavelli. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell and Brewer, 2002. A detailed comparison of the works of the two writers, emphasizing the Machiavellian aspects of Shakespeare’s characters and plots. Skinner, Quentin. Machaivelli: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. A concise introduction to Machiavelli’s political thought. Sullivan, Vickie, ed. The Comedy and Tragedy of Machiavelli: Essays on the Literary Works. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000. A collection of essays covering Machiavelli’s non-political works. Sullivan, Vickie B. Machiavelli’s Three Romes: Religion, Human Liberty, and Politics Reformed. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996. Drawing on Machiavelli’s writings from The Florentine History, The Prince, and Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, the author provides a unique and important study of Machiavelli’s political thought. She offers a new understanding of Machiavelli’s religious views, maintaining that he uses both pagan and Christian elements in his political philosophy. Viroli, Maurizio. Niccolò Machiavelli: A Biography of Machiavelli. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000. A brief general-interest biography of Machiavelli focusing primarily on his career as a diplomat, secretary in the Republic of Florence, and writer.

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