Spaghetti alla Machiavelli? Don't think so.

The Plague Doctor in full regalia

Another side of the Plague Doctor

Portrait of the artist as a young man

Blog

DID THAT REALLY HAPPEN?

September 15, 2013

Tags: Machiavelli Bibliography

I suppose the most honest answer would be, at least for me, not exactly. I’ve done my requisite years of research, and I really do know what happened and when. But then you take liberties. Historical novelists dabble in history. Even if they’re obsessed by a certain character or period and know everything there is to know about it, they’re still novelists. Not historians. Not biographers.

So what really happened in Machiavelli and how much did I make up? Well, obviously, I’m not telling. A magician never explains how the trick was done. I have tried, however, to follow Machiavelli’s path through life faithfully. If he was in Venice, I put him in Venice. If he was traipsing around the Romagna after Caesar Borgia, I dutifully chronicle his comings and goings.

I have invented a few characters—to fill in the blanks. Back before Facebook pages and Twitter accounts allowed everybody to chronicle every single minute of their lives in excruciating detail, there were periods when the record is silent.

Although Machiavelli wrote and received thousands upon thousands of letters in his lifetime (it was his job), there is not a lot of personal data contained therein. For example, from his wife, Marietta, precisely one letter survives. In it she complains, one assumes not for the first time, that he’s never home when she needs him, and now she’s having a second child . . .

Based exclusively on this correspondence, a writer could tell a tale rich in intellectual content and history. But imagine constructing a story about Hillary Clinton based solely on the letters and cables she wrote as Secretary of State. We’d never hear anything at all about Monica Lewinsky!

So I have invented and embroidered. If you want to fact-check me, or attack me for being an unreliable narrator, here are a few suggestions for further reading.

Machiavelli’s works

The Prince (tr. Peter Bondanella) (Oxford World Classics,2008)
With an excellent introduction by Maurizio Viroli

Discourses on Livy (Oxford University Press, 2009) tr. Julia Conway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella

I highly recommend these two the translators, who do a bang-up job, There is nothing worse than a stilted, lifeless translation of Machiavelli, and there are more than a few on the market.

Biographies:

I worked from a book published in Italy between 1877-1882. Profesor Pasquale Villari’s masterful early biography, Niccolò Machiavelli e i suoi tempi. English edition, The Life and Times of Niccolò (with the accent) Machiavelli (London: T. Fisher Unwin 1898). This work is generally unavailable today in both languages, unless you live near a large University research library. I read it at Columbia University when I was Upper-West-Side-based.

However, don’t despair. For our purposes (i.e. checking to see if I got it right) try Maurizio Viroli’s Niccolò’s Smile: A Biography of Machiavelli (Hill and Wang, 2002).

Sebastian de Grazia, Machiavelli in Hell (Vintage 1994) won a Pulitzer prize. Although tough sledding, it is a great intellectual biography, tracing the development of Machiavelli’s thought and its place in the Western philosophical, historical and political traditions.

Other interesting books about the Italian renaissance:

Jakob Burckhardt: The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy two volumes (Harper Colophon Books, 1958, original published in1860). A classic, but still a relevant and eye-opening look at the period.

Christopher Hibbert, The House of Medici: It’s Rise and Fall (Morrow Quill Paperbacks 1980). A good look at the history of Florence in Machiavelli’s times.

Of course, on the most intriguing personality of the period, there is: Donald Weinstein, Savonarola and Florence: Prophecy and patriotism in the Renaissance (Princeton, 1970)

And just for fun:

My hands-down favorite historical novel about Renaissance Italy: Irving Stone, The Agony and the Ecstasy, a perennial bestseller about the life of Michelangelo.

Finally, for even more fun, try The Borgias (SHOWTIME), a 3-season TV series about that nefarious Spanish family. But be forewarned. The costumes and the actors are beautiful, the locations gorgeous although a little contrived and the interiors are splendid. Everything is beautifully filmed, but historically, it can be way off base, especially when it comes to cannonry and warfare.

I really feel sorry for the biographers and historical novelists of the future. Setting a book in our century is going to require sifting through the great garbage heap that is Facebook and Twitter.

Selected Works

Historical Fiction
Machiavelli is a big, obstreperous historical novel set in Florence during the Italian Renaissance. This epic piece of storytelling brings the world of fifteenth-century Italy to life as it traces Machiavelli’s rise from young boy to controversial political thinker.

Quick Links