As part of its celebration of "The Year of Italian Culture," Italy is commemorating the 500th anniversary of the writing of a classic work: Machiavelli's Il Principe (The Prince). Although completed in 1513, the treatise by the man who "put the science into political science" wasn't published until 1532, five years after his death. Machiavelli's name since penetrated the global vocabulary as an international byword for political cunning and pragmatism. However, no one, as T. S. Eliot observed, “was ever less Machiavellian than Machiavelli.”
After fourteen years as a civil servant and diplomat in the Florentine Republic, Niccolò Machiavelli was tried, tortured, and exiled after the Medici reclaimed power. Frustrated in his forced retirement to his modest country home, Machiavelli began work on The Prince in the hope that a clear-eyed, no-nonsense tactical handbook would display his political acumen and win him a government position.
His dreams, personal and political, never materialized. He died—“of a surfeit of failure,” one historian stated—before the printing of his masterwork. But by analyzing affairs of state dispassionately, with logic and objectivity, Machiavelli put the science into political science.
Five centuries after Machiavelli’s time, The Prince still compels and shocks readers for two reasons: what its author says and how he says it. What if a prince acts so ruthlessly that he loses the adulation of his people? Better to be feared than loved, shrugs Machiavelli. Since men are generally ungrateful, vacillating, cowardly, and greedy, he observes, they might promise their souls to a prince yet desert or betray him because love is fickle, while fear is not. Machiavelli never agonized over whether the ultimate end might justify any means. He was sure it would.
Just as remarkable as The Prince’s unflinching pragmatism is its language. Considered by some the finest Italian stylist of the Cinquecento (1500s), Machiavelli wrote in a clean, stiletto-sharp vernacular that echoed the everyday speech of his fellow Florentines (including, in some of his more ribald works, their earthiness).
Machiavelli, whose satiric play The Mandrake is still revived and performed around the world, couldn’t resist mocking the pretensions of some of his newly prosperous countrymen. In his own twist on bella and brutta figura, he recounts the story of a character named Castruccio. A man from Lucca invites him to dinner at his house, which—thanks to a recent windfall--he has just remodeled in the most ostentatious manner possible. During the meal Castruccio suddenly spits in his host’s face. Rather than apologize, he explains that he did not know where else to spit without damaging something valuable.
Shortly before his death, the heart-broken political strategist wrote to a friend, “I love my country better than my very soul.” His country, which ignored him in life, didn’t know quite what to say of him in death. His monumental tomb in Florence's Santa Croce, the burial site for Italy’s titans of history, reads simply, “To so great a name, no epitaph can do justice.”
Words and Expressions
machiavellismo –- political cunning
machiavellico –- crafty
machiavellicamente –- in a crafty manner
vivere da principe –- to live like a prince
principesco -– princely, prince-like
Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language. Click here for more information on her "writer's studio" in Capri this fall.