Earlier today, I was delighted when my son Jack presented me with a handsome gift in the form of The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli. It had been some time since I owned this book, as I’d given away my last copy to the president of a motorcycle club, someone I’d spoken to for hours one evening about the Florentine and his works. This man had been intrigued by what I had to say about Machiavelli and his notorious observations, so I was certain that my prized possession was going to a good home, and so it proved to be.
I would have liked to have written a little about this episode in my autobiographical A Tale of Sound & Fury, but the lengthy exchange in the gloomy recesses of the oak-beamed pub that night was confidential. My host admitted that he was previously unaware of dark intrigues in Renaissance Italy, so it’s enough for me to know that what I had to say on this unusual matter was sufficiently interesting to merit his undivided attention, while I’m as sure as I can be that Machiavelli himself would be pleased to learn that his reputation endured in a potent fashion in this way, centuries after his death.
The book itself is mesmerising on account of the meticulous way in which Machiavelli researched and presented his material, while the subject of attaining and holding on to power is also exhilarating, as we’ve seen demonstrated in the books and television series of Game of Thrones with the lethal feuds between the Starks, the Lannisters and other families. Given the impact that Machiavelli’s work has had, it is entirely fitting that the epitaph on his cenotaph at the church of Santa Croce reads TANTO NOMINI NULLUM PAR ELOGIUM or “No words can do justice to the memory of such a great name”.
For me, it’s deeply satisfying to be able to engross myself in the pages of a book dealing with the lives of ambitious and unscrupulous figures from Renaissance Italy, but reading The Prince brings other pleasures as well. Machiavelli’s notoriety was increased in a lecture delivered in 1897 when he was likened to some “unholy necromancer” on account of how his memory had enthralled people since his death; the author of the work in question makes this perfectly clear, but while I’m no scholar of such matters, it seems to me that the reference to Machiavelli as a necromancer, or one who summons the spirits of the dead, could also be relevant in light of what Machiavelli himself wrote in his letter of December 10th 1513 to his friend Franscesco Vettori:
“When I leave the wood, I go to a spring, and from there to an aviary of mine. I have a book under my arm, Dante or Petrarch, or one of the minor poets like Tibullus, Ovid, and such. I read of their amorous passions and their loves; I remember my own and enjoy myself for a while in this thinking. Then I move on along the road to the inn; I speak with those passing by; I ask them news of their places; I learn various things; and I note the various tastes and different fancies of men. In the meantime comes the hour to dine, when I eat with my company what food this poor villa and tiny patrimony allow. Having eaten, I return to the inn; there is the host, ordinarily a butcher, a miller, two bakers. With them I become a rascal for the whole day, playing at cricca and tric-trac, from which arise a thousand quarrels and countless abuses with insulting words, and most times we are fighting over a penny and yet we can be heard shouting from San Casciano. Thus involved with these vermin I scrape the mold off my brain and I satisfy the malignity of this fate of mine, as I am content to be trampled on this path so as to see if she will be ashamed of it.
When evening has come, I return to my house and go into my study. At the door I take off my clothes of the day, covered with mud and mire, and I put on my regal and courtly garments; and decently reclothed, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them lovingly, I feed on the food that alone is mine and that I was born for. There I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their humanity reply to me. And for the space of four hours I feel no boredom, I forget every pain, I do not fear poverty, death does not frighten me. I deliver myself entirely to them. And because Dante says that to have understood without retaining does not make knowledge, I have noted what capital I have made from their conversation and have composed a little work De Principatibus [On Principalities], where I delve as deeply as I can into reflections on this subject, debating what a principality is, of what kinds they are, how they are acquired, how they are maintained, why they are lost.”
I spend a great deal of time here in my own study, writing by the dead or night or in this instance, by the dying light of a lunar eclipse, so it was perhaps inevitable that I should be fascinated by what the ‘unholy necromancer’ Machiavelli had to say about conversing with the shades of the dead in the same setting. Indeed, the whole thing intrigued me so much that I’ve written a brief study of such matters, but I don’t flatter myself that it’s of the same quality as Machiavelli’s insightful and timeless works.
While the idea of Machiavelli and his incorporeal nocturnal visitors is enough to fill me with enduring wonderment, there is also the matter of those he associated with in life. The introduction to The Prince gives details of many notable personages of the time with whom Machiavelli met and conversed, but of this number, it seems to me that the most influential was Cesare Borgia, a man who was one of history’s more colourful, memorable and engaging characters, regardless of whether or not you believe the lurid stories concerning fratricide, incest and uproarious parties that came to be associated with him.
In his turn, Cesare Borgia briefly employed Leonardo da Vinci as a military engineer, but while I do not know if they ever met, I find myself captivated by the idea that Machiavelli, one of history’s greatest observers and politicians, spent time with Cesare Borgia, one of history’s most visionary, capable and ambitious warlords and with Leonardo da Vinci, possibly the single most gifted man ever to have lived.
It’s true – the internet can perform miracles in allowing me to converse in real time with people on other continents and in different time zones, exchanging photographs and other information in a way that is almost literally magical to me, but if the three men I’ve described above ever met, I would relinquish all the benefits of modern technology in a heartbeat just to be able to take my leisure with them in some magnificent hall for an hour.
Over the years, I’ve found myself in some unexpectedly strange rooms with some exceedingly interesting company, but nothing that’s yet been comparable to being in a Florentine palace with Niccolo Machiavelli, Leonardo da Vinci and Cesare Borgia. My encounter with this immortal triumvirate will never happen, of course, but it’s a pleasing thing to ponder nonetheless and just one of the many pleasures brought to me by my contemplation of the infamous book that’s the subject of this brief post.
“I desire to go to Hell and not to Heaven. In the former I shall enjoy the company of popes, kings and princes, while in the latter are only beggars, monks and apostles.”
Niccolo Machiavelli, 1469-1527.