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Machiavelli and His Friends: Their Personal…
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Machiavelli and His Friends: Their Personal Correspondence

by Niccolò Machiavelli

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This collection of letters gives a fabulous insight into Italian renaissance life covering the period from1497 to 1527. I had previously read a selection of Machiavelli’s letters, but when the collection is limited to just the letters of one person then you only get half the picture. This volume of letters features as many letters from Machiavelli’s friends as it does from the man himself and so suddenly a much fuller picture emerges. We get both sides of the story, we learn the reasons for many of the letters, we get other peoples views of Machiavelli and some stories have more closure. Machiavelli was a great man of letters, but some of his correspondents were not too far behind.

The letters can be divided into three distinct periods of Machiavelli’s life. The first period sees him as a man of increasing importance in the political sphere of Florentine life. He held various government posts and enjoyed a good relationship with Pierro Soderini the chief officer of the fledgling Republic. Machiavelli is a man of importance thoroughly immersed in the business of government, often being sent as ambassador or negotiator to other states and his correspondence reflects this aspect of his life. While away from Florence it was essential that his supporters in government kept him informed as to what was happening in his absence; some of this is very amusing as there was obviously a Machiavelli faction in the offices who sorely missed their leader when he was away. This is an example from his two underlings Biagio and Andrea:

“My Machiavelli, a thousand poxes upon you, for keeping us in great anxiety and things remain very hard for us in the 2nd Chancellery, so that theses conditions and all that goes on, etc., have us in a tizzy. We are beginning to learn how to deal with Ser Antonio, and every day his stomach bothers him; I believe it is because he does not have his Madonna Agostanza here to warm him up or give him exercise on the see-saw, however we often laugh in the 1st Chancellery and we have a few little parties at Biagio’s house……”

Along with the chit chat are reports on what is happening in Florence and Rome, essentially to keep Machiavelli informed of developments. Machivelli’s letters are full of the latest analysis on foreign policy and toward the end of the period: his pet project the organisation of the Florentine militia.

In 1513 the Medici family replaced the Republican government and Machiavelli failed to keep his job, worse still he was thrown into prison and tortured following his suspected involvement in a counter coup. These events marked the start of a second very different period in his life. He soon secured his release from prison but was banished to his farm in the country and could no longer take part in political life and instead put his talents to use in writing political treatise such as the The Prince. Effectively his exile from politics did not stop him thinking about the increasingly desperate situation for his beloved Florence and there were plenty of men who still valued his opinions. Machiavelli’s correspondence to Francesco Vettori is full of his political thoughts and at times appears to be a rehearsal of ideas that would appear later in The Prince He had his eye at all times on getting back into favour with the Medici family and bemoaned his fate at being sidelined..

From 1520 until his death in 1527 he gradually found more employment. His plays were performed, he carried out various tasks for Governors and other important people and finally he secured favour from the Medici’s and was again carrying out ambassadorial and even military tasks His patron and most frequent correspondent during this period was Francesco Guiccardini governor of Modena and Reggio. Guiccardini was a member of the nobility, but Machiavelli addressed him as an equal and the two men wrote about their love affairs as well as their business.

The letters cover a turbulent period in Italian history and provide first hand accounts of the political manoeuvrings, but they are so much more than this; providing a wonderful portrait of Florentine life and the characters of the period. The letters cover such things as: arrangements and negotiations of dowry’s, events on the field of battle, ideas for home improvements, difficulties of communication, the merits of favoured courtesans, advice on matters of love, health issues and fear of the plague and of course family business. Machiavelli and his friends were not effete courtly lovers, they were men of the world and their letters reflect this

Machiavelli himself comes across not only as the sharp political operator that he was, but also as a man in love with life, fascinated by the latest news and world events.. He was loyal to his friends, outspoken to his enemies, enjoyed banter and practical jokes, passionate in his beliefs and perhaps at times a little too honest for his own good.

This is typical Machiavelli, his patron has sent him to Carpi on business where he stayed with the bishop and his friars. Machiavelli wants to emphasise his importance so that he will be served the best food and get the best room. He arranges for his patron to send him frequent messages, instructing the messenger to ride up to him sweating and the horse well lathered to demonstrate the importance of the dispatches. Machiavelli was enjoying himself and he wrote:

“I must tell you that the crossbowman arrived with your letter and said, bowing to the ground that he had been sent expressly and in all haste - everyone sprang up with such bowings and such a hubbub that everything was topsy-turvy and several people asked me what the news was. And I in order to heighten my prestige said that the Emperor was expected in Trent, that the Swiss had convened fresh assemblies, that the king of France wanted to go and confer with that king, but his counsellors were advising him against going - so they all stood around with their mouths open and with their caps in hand. And even as I am writing this, I have a circle of them about me; to see me write at length, they marvel and gaze at me as one inspired and I to make them marvel even more, sometimes pause writing and breathe deeply, then they absolutely begin drooling…….
Your Lordship knows how these friars say that when one is confirmed as being in a state of grace, the Devil no longer has any power to tempt him. Well, I have no need to fear that these friars will infect me with their hypocrisy, because I believe that I have been adequately confirmed”


James Atkinson and David Sices have produced an exemplary book, There is a very good general introduction as well as a more detailed introduction to each batch of letters by year, informing the reader of the essential events of that period. The translation is lively, there are copious notes and a very useful list of all the letters by year and who wrote them and of course a very good index. These letters serve as a wonderful portrayal of renaissance life and bring to life both men of public renown as well as the forgotten clerks and family members. A wonderful reading experience and a five star book. ( )
6 vote baswood | Jan 13, 2013 |
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