Last reviewed: June 2018
Italian critic and political theorist
May 3, 1469
June 21, 1527
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
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.