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Authors: Niccolo Machiavelli

The Prince

Table of Contents
NICCOLÒ MACHIAVELLI (1469-1527) was born in Florence. He served the Florentine republic as a secretary and second chancellor, as ambassador and foreign policy maker, but when the Medici family returned to power in 1512 he was suspected of conspiracy, imprisoned and tortured, and forced to withdraw from public life. His most famous work,
The Prince
, was written in an attempt to gain favor with the Medicis and return to politics.
TIM PARKS was born in Manchester in 1954 and moved to Italy in 1981, where he has lived ever since. He has written eleven novels including
, and, most recently,
Dreams of Rivers and Seas
, as well as a history of the Medici bank in fifteenth-century Florence,
Medici Money
. He lectures on literary translation in Milan and his many translations from the Italian include works by Moravia, Tabucchi, Calvino, and Calasso.
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This translation first published in Great Britain by Penguin Books (UK) 2009
Published in Penguin Books (USA) 2009
Translation and editorial material copyright © Tim Parks, 2009
All rights reserved
eISBN : 978-1-101-15950-7
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Necessity. Must. Have to. Inevitably. Bound to
. These are the words that recur insistently throughout
The Prince
. And then again:
, and, on the other hand:
. These opposites are linked together by an almost obsessive use of
so that
as a result
as a consequence
. From start to finish we have a vision of man manoeuvring precariously in a suffocating net of cause and effect. What is at stake is survival. Anything extra is luxury.
The Prince
was written by a forty-four-year-old diplomat facing ruin. After fourteen years of influence and prestige, a change of regime had led to his dismissal. Suspected of conspiring against the new government, he was imprisoned and tortured. The rapid reversal of fortunes could not have been more devastating. Found innocent and released, he left town to live with his wife and family on a small farm. For a worldly man and compulsive womanizer, used to being at the frenetic heart of public life, this too felt like punishment. Idle and bitter, he tramped the hills by day and, in the long, empty evenings, began to write down some considerations on how to win power and, above all, how to hold on to it, how
to be a victim of circumstance. The result was a slim volume that would be a scandal for centuries.
Niccolò Machiavelli was born in Florence in 1469, the same year Lorenzo de' Medici (il Magnifico) came to power. First male child after two daughters, Niccolò would grow up very close to his father, Bernardo, an ex-lawyer, mostly unemployed, with good contacts but no significant wealth or influence. If the son was to rise in the world, and he was determined to do so, he would have to count on his own wits and charm. Niccolò's younger brother, Totto, chose not to compete and went into the priesthood. The boys' mother, it should be said, was an extremely devout woman, a writer of religious poems and hymns. Their father on the other hand was sceptical, more at home with the sober works of Latin antiquity than the Bible. Niccolò may have taken his writing skills from his mother, but over divisions on religion he stood with his father and the Roman historians.
One says of Lorenzo il Magnifico that he ‘came to power', but officially Florence was a republic and since Lorenzo was only twenty years old in 1469 he was far too young to hold elected office; an explanation is required. When, in the thirteenth century, the Florentines had thrown out the noble families who used to run the town, they introduced a republican constitution of exemplary idealism. A government of eight
led by one
, or prime minister, would be elected every two months by drawing tags from a series of bags containing the names of well-to-do men from different guilds and different areas of town. This lottery would allow each major profession and each geographical area to be adequately and constantly represented. Every individual (of a certain social standing) could expect a brief share of power in order that no one could ever seize it permanently.
The system was unworkable. Every two months a new government might take a different position on key issues. The potential for instability more or less obliged whichever family was in the ascendant to step in and impose continuity. From 1434 on, the Medicis - first Cosimo, then Piero, then Lorenzo - had been manipulating the electoral process to make sure that most of the names in the bags were friendly to themselves and that all of those actually selected for government would toe the Medici line. Hence, although the Florentines still liked to boast that they were free citizens who bowed the knee to no man, by the mid-fifteenth century they were in fact living in something very close to a dictatorship. When the rival Pazzi family tried to assassinate Lorenzo in the Duomo in April 1478, it was because they saw no legitimate way of putting him in his place as an ordinary citizen. Machiavelli thus grew up in a society where the distance between how things were actually run and how they were described as being run could not have been greater. He was close to his ninth birthday when the captured Pazzi conspirators, one an archbishop, were hung upside down from the high windows of the city's main government building and left there for weeks to rot. He would have understood very young the price of getting it wrong in politics.
The young Machiavelli might also have had reason to doubt that there was any meaningful difference between matters of religion and matters of state. The pope had backed the Pazzi conspiracy, priests had been involved in the assassination attempt and Lorenzo was excommunicated after it failed; the religious edict was a political tool. A war between Florence and Rome ensued and the hostility only ended in 1480 when Turkish raids on the southern Italian coast prompted a rare moment of unity in the peninsula. Years later, Lorenzo would so ingratiate himself with a new pope as to get his son Giovanni made a cardinal at age thirteen. From excommunication to pope's favourite was quite a change of fortune and once again it was more a matter of politics than of faith. Nothing, it appeared, was beyond the reach of wealth and astute negotiation.
At this point Machiavelli was twenty-one. We know very little of his early adult life, but one thing he definitely did at least once was to listen to the fiery preacher Girolamo Savonarola, head of the influential monastery of San Marco. Savonarola's was a different kind of Christianity: rather than the corrupt, pleasure-conscious world of the papacy, whose decadence had offered no resistance to the rise of Humanism, this austere monk represented an early manifestation of what we have come to call fundamentalism, a return to the biblical text as the sole authority on earth and a vision of the Church as embattled and defensive in a world increasingly interested in values that had little to do with the gospel story. With great conviction, Savonarola preached the virtues of poverty, advocated the burning of any book or work of art that was impure and prophesied doom for the sinful Florentines in the form of a foreign invasion. In 1494 his prophesy came true.

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