If the name Machiavelli is familiar to readers, it is likely to summon hazy memories of a high school or college course in European history—“Machiavelli. hmm, didn’t he write something about how rulers should be ruthless in their pursuit of power and how they treat their subjects?” The work for which Machiavelli is most well-known, perhaps more accurately notorious, is The Prince, a small book that he wrote for the Florentine politician and power-broker Lorenzo di Medici in the 1520s.
The work quickly earned Machiavelli a devilish reputation among some contemporaries that developed into a mixed legacy for later generations. For some, Machiavelli is simply a villain whose rejection of idealism in politics augured some of the horrors of the modern world. For others, Machiavelli is a brilliant articulator of the principles of modern realpolitik and the importance of cajolery, careful compromise, mendacity, and when necessary, raw brutality in achieving the aims of a given leader, political party, state, or nation.
In An Unlikely Prince: The Life and Times of Machiavelli historian Niccolo Capponi argues that neither of these versions of Machiavelli is accurate. Rather, to understand Machiavelli and his works, including his most well known—The Prince, The Discourses, the play The Mandrake—we must understand the world in which he lived, worked, and contemplated politics. That world was late-15th and early-16th century Florence, an Italian city state that vied for prestige, prosperity, and military power with Rome, Venice, the Swiss confederation, and other European states.
Within Florence various families—foremost the Medicis—and their followers sought control all in the name of what Capponi terms ‘honor and gain’ (honore et utile). Machiavelli’s Florence was a tumultuous place throughout the thinker’s life; indeed, his youth witnessed the rise, fall, and eventual execution of the firebrand “visionary political and religious reformer” Fra Girolamo Savonarola and in Machiavelli’s final year the horrific sack of Rome by Swiss and Spanish forces cast doubts on the future of Florence.
Capponi insists that Florence—tremendously energetic but volatile, arrogant but capable of cynically self-effacing humor, cultured but also brutal—served not simply as a backdrop for Machiavelli’s thinking but as a constituent element in its formation. Machiavelli wrote in very specific social and historical circumstances and for particular individuals. His work reflects these circumstances and aims as well Machiavelli’s pursuit of fame and fortune and, more mundanely, employment.
Capponi insists that Machiavelli was not so much a transcendent genius as a smart, but as often as not fallible, operator in a complex game of intrigue and bureaucratic one upsmanship that preoccupied him for most of his life. Time and time again in Capponi’s account we find Machiavelli reading wrong the political struggles around him and paying the price—dismissal, disinterest, contempt—for his lack of savvy.
For Machiavelli’s main failure was his intense dedication to classical precept and antique example. Like most men of his era, Machiavelli learned in school the literature of the humanist canon—the discourses and rhetoric, the political treatises and histories of the ancient Greeks and Romans—and this material both enabled and straight-jacketed his thinking about the world around him. This Machiavelli is not a revolutionary but a precocious appreciator who never quite outgrew the lessons of his schoolroom, and whose habit of tailoring his writing to particular patrons makes for an uneven and inconsistent body of work.
It’s a convincing argument. Indeed, for a generalist audience An Unlikely Prince should more than suffice as an account of Machiavelli’s life. Capponi knows his business and the work does an exemplary job of making extensive use of archival research and critical materials, both traditional and more recent, but not enslaving itself to them.
The flaws? Capponi’s prose is admirably lucid and straightforward but sometimes falls into an off-putting casualness. “Alright” and “A lot” and other colloquialisms proliferate here and sometimes the paradigm of Florentism through which Capponi reads Machiavelli’s works seems too reductive; but all in all, this is a smart and engaging study for readers interested in Machiavelli’s life and thinking.