A brief, erudite exposition of the Florentine secretary’s mores and intentions.
In this accessible work, Celenza (Classics/Johns Hopkins Univ.) explores why Machiavelli’s The Prince continues to enthrall readers and how the author’s other, less-well-known works, such as his comedies, can help enrich the way we understand him. Employing both biography and history, Celenza delves deep into Machiavelli’s world. Born in 1469 into a cultured family in which the Latin classics were significant parts of his education, Machiavelli lived in a time when the Italian language was just emerging richly from the more stultified Latin, thanks largely to the work of Dante. In 15th-century Florence, the concentration of wealth and influence, exemplified by the Medici family, reached its terrible climax in the murder of Giuliano Medici in 1478 by the rival Pazzi family, with his brother Lorenzo the Magnificent barely escaping with his life. These “premodern conditions” meant that life was fraught with conflict and violence close to home, themes that Machiavelli used to full effect in The Prince. A man of action himself, Machiavelli had held important ambassadorial offices during the Florentine republic’s tumultuous time at the start of the 16th century. He witnessed Cesare Borgia’s military rise and fall, a series of events that impressed on him the importance of a vigorous military behind a decisive leader. When the Medicis returned to power, Machiavelli was imprisoned, tortured and then confined to his farm, where he began writing The Prince as a way of ingratiating himself with his potential new employers. Celenza explores its language (“lapidary, often funny and homespun, but utterly elegant”), its form as a dialogue, its allusions to Latin classics and, above all, Machiavelli's insistence on looking at the world as it is rather than how it ought to be.
A compelling portrait of the life of a man “subject to and involved in history, who believed…that by interpreting the past sagely, one could act more fruitfully in the present.”