The banishment and arrest of Niccolò Machiavelli

February 15, 2013
The banishment and arrest of Niccolò Machiavelli

Press conference: 15 February, 12:00 - Bargello Museum

Recreation of Original Proclamation: 19 February, 15:30 - Palagio di Parte Guelfa

On 19 February, the City Government of Florence staged a historic recreation of an event that took place exactly 500 years earlier: a Town Crier, on horseback, replete with uniform and trumpet, pronounced at the main sites in the city center an official proclamation calling for information about the whereabouts of Niccolò Machiavelli. This is part of Florence’s celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the writing of The Prince.

This reconstruction was the subject of an official press conference, organized by the Comune of Florence under the auspices of the Honorable Professor Valdo Spini, at 12:00 in the Bargello Museum on 15 February 2013. Prof. Lino Pertile, Director of the Harvard University Centre for Italian Renaissance Studies at Villa I Tatti spoke briefly about Villa I Tatti’s contribution to the 500th anniversary celebrations. Prof. Stephen J. Milner (University of Manchester), who translated an edition of The Prince and other political writings (London 1995) then described his archival discoveries about the Town Crier and the proclamation against Machiavelli, and placed them in the context of Machiavelli’s writing of The Prince. Dr. Nicoletta Marcelli (Villa I Tatti), co-editor of the The Prince for the Edizione Nazionale delle Opere di Machiavelli, will then speak on the subject of Fortune in the life and works of Machiavelli.

Whilst Visiting Professor at the Harvard University Centre for Italian Renaissance Studies at Villa I Tatti in Florence, Prof. Milner discovered unpublished archival documents that shed new light on the moment which initiated the chain of events that led to the writing of The Prince. Whilst working on the figure of the Florentine Town-Crier in the fifteenth and early sixteenth century, Prof. Milner came across the original proclamation (‘bando’) which was read out by the town crier on 19th February 1513. The text of the proclamation, seeking information on Machiavelli's whereabouts and who might be holding him, had been known for some time.  However, using the information gathered from examining hundreds of similar proclamations made between 1470 and 1530, Prof. Milner was able to map the numerous sites within the city where the Town Crier, mounted on a horse and armed with his silver trumpet to attract the attention of the crowds, would have made his proclamation. Further archival discoveries shed light on the payments made to four horsemen who were then mandated by the authorities to search the streets of the city looking for him, and the payments they subsequently received for his capture.

These events provide a context for understanding Machiavelli’s The Prince, one of the most famous political tracts ever written; this year marks the 500th anniversary of its first draft. Often characterised as the foundational text ofrealpolitik and the most clinical analysis of the dynamics of power, its continued popularity has seen its maxims adapted to address the contemporary worlds of banking and finance, institutional management, and how to get ahead in business.

The circumstances of its composition are often overlooked. On the return of the Medici faction to Florence in September 1512, Machiavelli was removed from his post in the city’s Chancery on account of his close association with the previous leading citizen and head of the republican government, Piero Soderini. A victim of regime change, he remained under suspicion due to his extensive network of contacts and the experience gathered over the fourteen years he spent at the heart of the Florentine political machine. He was confined for a year to his smallholding in Sant’Andrea in Percussina, just outside Florence, with a surety of 1,000 gold florins.

When his name then appeared on a list of potential sympathisers to a conspiracy to overthrow the Medici which was discovered and handed in to the authorities, they wasted no time in seeking his capture, imprisoning him, and subjecting him to torture. Yet while the lead conspirators were summarily executed and their associates exiled, it seems no evidence of Machiavelli’s direct involvement in the conspiracy came to light and, under the general amnesty granted on the election of Giovanni de’ Medici as Pope Leo X in March 1513, Machiavelli was released and returned to his smallholding.

It was here that Machiavelli began a regular correspondence with Francesco Vettori a former colleague from his diplomatic missions under Soderini whose family connections meant he survived the regime change in Florence. Posted to Rome as Ambassador to the Papal Court, Vettori was in a perfect position to petition the new Medici Pope for Machiavelli’s repatriation and reintegration into the Florentine political and diplomatic world. Yet Machiavelli’s former colleague and friend proved less than enthusiastic at the prospect of being linked with a known political suspect and prevaricated and deferred in the face of Machiavelli’s regular requests for support.

This game of cat and mouse was played out through their correspondence mainly over the summer and autumn of 1513 which focused on the different types of political government found in Italy and abroad; how they were best conquered and held; and which political leaders of the day adopted the best policies in the contested world of Italian Renaissance politics. In the famous letter of 10 December 1513 Machiavelli makes the first mention of the ‘small work’ he had pulled together on the basis of their discussions, referring to the tract by the Latin title ‘De principatibus’ (‘Concerning Principalities’). Subsequently modified and amplified the first draft formed the basis of the work that we now know asThe Prince.

Machiavelli twice dedicated the work to members of the Medici family in the hope of gaining favour and employment as he sought to overcome what he saw as ‘the malignity of fortune’, pinning his hopes on the pithy and attention grabbing advice contained in his handbook for new rulers. Whether they ever received it is not known, an unconfirmed report recounting how the intended Medici recipient took more interest in a pair of hunting dogs gifted by another petitioner at the same time.