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Machiavelli: His life and times, by Alexander Lee

by
17 July 2020

Nicholas Cranfield finds fascination in a weighty work on Machiavelli

NICCOLÒ MACHIAVELLI was born and died in Florence. He was a couple of years older than Dürer, Copernicus, and Michelangelo, and ten years older than another Italian political scientist and social observer, Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529).

This biography begins among market-goers on the Via Pisana heading into the city of Florence on the afternoon of 3 May 1469, when Niccolò was born as the office of None was beginning. He dies in the last sentence, 570 pages and 30 chapters later, on 21 June 1527.

His family had prospered in previous generations, but had fallen on hard times commercially, compromising the young Machiavelli’s education. But he had enough Latin (and Roman history) from the priest who sodomised him at school to become, age 29, an envoy for the Republic in the Chancellery.

He was more than capable of the linguistic cut and thrust in the scholarly societies that met under the Medici, and penned teasing sonnets and plays with acerbic pastiche, as well as extended political reports and treatises, and a civic history, preferring to write in Italian.

One moment we glimpse him penning a note from the Baglioni fortress at Castiglione del Lago (April 1505) and another find him in the arms of a woman half his age, Barbera Raffacani Salutati.

His long-suffering wife, the mother of his children, Marietta (Corsini), often protested at his repeated absences on delegations to the likes of the murderous Cesare Borgia, Louis XII of France (1500, 1504, 1510, and 1511), Pope Julius II in 1506, and Emperor Maximilian I (1507-08).

She put up with any number of his extra-marital affairs and the public scandal of knowing that he also frequented rent boys. It cannot have pleased her that their 19-year-old son Ludovico was known to enjoy sex with younger men.AlamyPortrait of Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito (late 16th century); in the book

Alexander Lee seems uninterested in art; I would love to know whether Machiavelli was part of the selection committee that appointed Michelangelo to paint the Battle of Cascina in the Palazzo della Signoria.

Michelangelo and Leonardo are not in the index, but they do feature. When Michelangelo’s David was first set up, it was stoned, and his great bronze statue of Pope Julius II in Bologna was toppled from San Petronio; and we find Machiavelli consulting Leonardo’s maps for the Arno canal.

From Lee’s magisterial biography, rich in detail and light on speculation, the writer and political scientist emerges as a flawed but markedly fascinating individual, whose only creed seems to have been his observation that, “death can sometimes be forgotten, but property never”; he was not religious.

 

Canon Nicholas Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, in south London.

 

Machiavelli: His life and times
Alexander Lee
Picador £30
(978-1-44727-499-5)
Church Times Bookshop £27

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