In This Article Niccolo Machiavelli

  • Introduction
  • Biographies
  • Historical Background
  • Bibliographies
  • Italian Editions
  • Classic Treatments
  • Comprehensive Anglo-American Interpretations
  • Comprehensive Continental Interpretations

Renaissance and Reformation Niccolo Machiavelli
by
Christopher Lynch
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 April 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0092

Introduction

As he suggests in a justly famous letter written to a friend in 1513, Niccolò Machiavelli (b. 1469–d. 1527) lived most fully when he communed in thought with the great ancient writers on the greatest deeds of Antiquity—and in succeeding centuries he continued to live on in the thoughts and through the writings of such great thinkers as Spinoza and Tocqueville; Marlowe and Shakespeare, Fichte and Nietzsche, not to mention indirectly in the deeds of Cromwell, Robespierre, Mazzini, and Lenin. Machiavelli comes to us wrapped in this diverse and contested tradition but also and more immediately in the garb of contemporary scholarship, where diversity and contestation abound, as well. One thing all scholarly parties can agree on is that the Florentine was vastly important—be it as a preeminent expression of the cyclonic intellectual activity of a time we now call the Renaissance, as the restorer of classical republican ideals, the founder of the modern world, the apostle of power politics, or the father of modern revolutionary thought. Born at a time of relative stability for Italy due in no small part to the successful machinations of Florence’s Medici rulers, Machiavelli’s young adulthood saw the stability vanish with the invasion of Italy by the French and the expulsion from Florence of the Medici. By 1498 he found himself serving the republican government of Florence that, in 1512, was itself brought down, leading to Machiavelli’s political banishment and to the writing of the works that would cause him to be counted among the greatest figures of the Renaissance and of the intellectual history of the Western world.

Biographies

Machiavelli’s life was filled with drama and intrigue, both political and sexual, and with ambitious enterprises and playful gags. What seems most to have consumed him, though, was thinking. Few biographers of the outsized lives of great thinkers resist the temptation either to split the Gordian knot of interpretation by means of a narrative of intellectual development or to reduce an infinitely complex man to one committed to a single idea. Although one cannot expect the following biographers of Machiavelli to be an exception—aside from Atkinson 2010, which helpfully sticks to pertinent facts—one can gain from them a clear sense of the trajectory of his life and a glimpse of the subtlety of his thoughts. Vivanti 2013 in particular grapples with Machiavelli’s development as a thinker; Ridolfi 1963 and Viroli 2000 help one vividly imagine his personal life. Villari 1878, now dated, remained a biographical touchstone until after the Second World War.

  • Atkinson, James B. “Niccolò Machiavelli: A Portrait.” In The Cambridge Companion to Machiavelli. By James B. Atkinson, 14–30. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL9780521861250.002E-mail Citation »

    A concise sketch of Machiavelli’s early life, his fourteen-year career in Florence’s republican government, years of prolific exile, and partial rehabilitation in later life. Relies heavily on Machiavelli’s own correspondence. Perhaps the best single-chapter biographical orientation for readers new to Machiavelli.

  • Ridolfi, Roberto. The Life of Niccolò Machiavelli. Translated by Cecil Grayson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963.

    E-mail Citation »

    Since the time of its publication and until Viroli’s Niccolo’s Smile in 1998 in Italian and 2000 in English, the standard short biographical reference. Somewhat romantic and intent on humanizing Machiavelli.

  • Villari, Pasquale. The Life and Times of Niccolò Machiavelli. 2 vols. Translated by Linda Villari. London: C. Kegan Paul, 1878.

    E-mail Citation »

    A translation from Italian of Vita di Niccolò Machiavelli, the standard treatment well into the 20th century. Hyperbolic and romantic by 21st-century tastes, it is nonetheless comprehensive and well documented in accordance with 19th-century standards. Text available online.

  • Viroli, Maurizio. Niccolò’s Smile: A Biography of Machiavelli. Translated by Antony Shugaar. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.

    E-mail Citation »

    Readable translation of the 1998 Italian Il sorriso di Niccolò: Storia di Machiavelli, a generally straightforward biography. Viroli supports but does not overemphasize his theses, developed elsewhere, that Machiavelli was a religious believer and a devoted republican. Seeks to establish that Machiavelli was not Machiavellian in his personal and professional affairs.

  • Vivanti, Corrado. Niccolò Machiavelli: An Intellectual Biography. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013.

    E-mail Citation »

    Weaves a treatment of Machiavelli’s life into a developmental account of his work. Explicitly hedges against the civic humanist interpretation, holding that the goal of ridding Italy of political corruption governed all other considerations and convictions. Likely to eclipse other available biographies.

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