In 'An Unlikely Prince', Niccolo Capponi Rethinks Machiavellis

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.

An Unlikely Prince: The Life and Times of Machiavellis

Price: $26.00
Publisher: Da Capo
Length: 360 pages
ISBN-10: 030681756X
Author: Niccolo Capponi
Publication Date: 2010-06

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.


This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.