Torture, Medici Fool Inspired Machiavelli: Manuela Hoelterhoff

The cover jacket of "Machiavelli: A Biography," by Miles J. Unger. Source: Simon and Schuster via Bloomberg

In 1513, a depressed bureaucrat sat down to write the most famous job application in history.

From his farm outside Florence, Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) could see the great city’s roofs and fancy himself back in the palace, whispering advice into Medici ears.

“I am so desperate,” he cried to a friend, “I would roll stones.”

Miles J. Unger starts his smartly entertaining biography in the dusty village of Sant’ Andrea in Percussina with the frantic scribe draped in threadbare robes filtering his acidulous views on statecraft into the tutorial he titled “The Prince.”

Utterly enjoyable in its secular, cynical and anticlerical world view, “The Prince” brought him fame everlasting (but sadly no job).

Machiavelli’s quirky character, intellect and charm are vividly described by Unger. By the time Machiavelli dies, perhaps of a broken heart because of his bad luck with jobs, we’ve met a complexly layered Florentine who was also a patriot, diplomat, battle strategist (amusingly bad at this), playwright and wit.

Studying the simple footgear of Franciscan monks, he pronounced them members of “the republic of clogs.”

He couldn’t stand the pious. Catching a sermon by monk superstar Savonarola, who preached a message of misery and privation, Machiavelli got so depressed that he canceled a date with his favorite courtesan.

Great Day for an Auto da Fe

The burning of Savonarola in the piazza in 1498 was a happy highlight of Machiavelli’s life. In the consequent reshuffling of the cabinet, he became Second Chancellor, handling the Florentine Republic’s foreign correspondence and traveling widely, usually into war zones. These were unbelievably chaotic times.

Battles, torture and executions punctuate Unger’s narrative, along with assassinations, the favorite tools then of regime change.

Consider Caterina Sforza, the era’s most powerful woman. When her second husband was murdered (as was her first), she energetically executed 40 possible conspirators in the town square of Forli.

“If her sex made her exceptional among the petty rulers of Italy, the frequency with which those close to her tended to meet violent deaths was only slightly above the norm,” notes Unger.

As the Second Chancellor, Machiavelli was courier to a bewildering array of crowned heads who all wanted a piece of Italy. He met with the Holy Roman Emperor, Spanish and French kings, the Pope and, in the weirdest episode, Leonardo da Vinci.


The two huddled over Leonardo’s surreal plan to divert the Arno river and starve the enemy town of Pisa, whose food supply arrived by boat. A combination of bad luck, balky diggers and Pisan saboteurs doomed the effort.

And then, after 14 happy years, Machiavelli was fired when a famous family returned to rule Florence: the Medici.

Worse, he was wrongly connected with an assassination plot and jailed for 22 days in a lice-infested cell from which he could hear prayers offered on his behalf.

Of course he later said the non-stop droning was greater torture than enduring the strappado -- being trussed up with his hands behind his back and dangled from a rope.

That he was physically able to write “The Prince” when he got out is impressive.

But with five kids and a wife to support, he finished quickly, inspired by his memory of Cesare Borgia, the swarthily handsome commander known for his decisiveness, ruthlessness and poison-dispensing sister.

Cesare has some rather large blemishes on his biography. Still, it’s hard not to share Machiavelli’s contempt for pretentious leaders who dither and end up doing bad by halfheartedly attempting the good.

Chaos All Around

What a busy blogger he would be in the U.S. capitol today. Machiavelli had seen all the indiscriminate slaughter he could stomach in his heyday as Second Chancellor. A prince, he argued, should make judicious use of dissembling and assassination to avoid civil wars.

“Wherever you turn your eyes you see the earth wet with tears and blood, and the air full of screams, of sobs, of sighs,” he wrote in a letter that could just as well have been posted from Iraq or Libya.

Effete Giuliano de’ Medici died without reading “The Prince.” Machiavelli then sent his masterwork to another Medici, the dumb Lorenzo, who also didn’t read it. Nor, I assume, have today’s warriors in Washington, D.C.

“Machiavelli: A Biography” is from Simon & Schuster in the U.S. and U.K. (416 pages, $28, 20 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, Bloomberg’s arts and culture section. Any opinions are her own.)

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