Nipissing University

History 2155 -- Early Modern Europe

Italy in the Time of Machiavelli

 Steve Muhlberger

 After a century in which political fragmentation was dominant, dynasties made a rebound around 1500.  The extended
power of a few western European dynasties made politics a whole new game.  In particular the rivalry between the Habsburgs and the French Valois unified European politics, making all wars, all disputes, into one continent-wide contest.

In this lecture, however, I will talk about  how great-power rivalry circumscribed the freedom of smaller
powers.  Our example will be Italy.  Italy had the misfortune to be cockpit of Europe, the very birthplace of the conflict between the two big dynasties.  Italy became the testing ground for the new style of warfare.  Italy was the prize that the great dynasties first contended for.  The Italian wars between 1494 and 1540 helped kill the Italian Renaissance; they also inspired a new history and a new political science.  Thus the Italian wars are well worth our investigation.
The trouble in Italy began with an old, old conflict:  the competition between the a branch of the French royal family and the rulers of Aragon in Spain for the southern Italian kingdom of Naples.  In the 1490s, King Charles VIII of France had both the resources and the will to meddle in the south.  Charles himself was an unprepossessing person with not too many brains,
a dreamer of chivalric dreams, but he was the son and grandson of two kings who had piled up money in the treasury and beaten enemies close to home.  The Italian project looked all that much more appealing when Lodovico Sforza, duke of Milan, offered to help him take Naples.

The idea of a French invasion did not appeal to other Italians, since the French would have to cross their territories, with unpredictable consequences.  This was precisely the sort of situation that Cosimo de' Medici or Lorenzo Magnifico, in previous years, would have tried to defuse through negotiations.  The current Medici strongman of Florence, Piero, was however, not the equal of his ancestors.  Instead of acting as a middleman, he allied himself with Naples and agreed to fight the French if they showed up.  But when in 1494 King Charles and Duke Lodovico began marching down Italy with an army of unprecedented size, 18,000 men and 40 cannon [Parker, 9], Piero de' Medici panicked.  He rode out to meet Charles and presented him
with the keys to all the important fortresses in Florentine territory.

Piero's abject cowardice lost him the domination of the city.  When he returned to Florence, the citizens chased him out, and reinstituted a real republic in place of the sham they had had for the previous 60 years.  This was the beginning of a long series of trials and tribulations for Florence, which are of particular importance in European history because they provided Niccolo Machiavelli with the political experience he later wrote up in his famous books,  The Prince  and  The Discourses.  So we will look at Florentine events in more detail than we might otherwise.   That Italian experience has become the background for a lot of the European tradition of European thought.

The new Florentine government of 1494 had no more chance of resisting Charles VIII than Piero had, so they admitted him.  Florence, never a great military power, was in no position to offer serious resistance.  It had to hope that cooperation with the French would eventually lead to the restoration of its own territory.

Charles's great army had a similar effect elsewhere. But the whole expedition ended in a laughable anti-climax.  Charles found
himself trapped in the boot of Italy with all the states save Florence ranged against him.  He successfully fought his way home, but had to abandon Naples to Ferrante, and died as soon as he got to France.  It seemed that Italy was left in much the same state as it had been before.  Certainly it was left alone for the next five years.

Those same years were a time of turmoil for Florence.  The expulsion of the Medici had left the city without a real constitution, and there was debate about how the government would work.  After years of tyranny in disguise, there was wide support for a popular government, one that would give decision-making power to all the respectable citizens.  There were important elements who opposed this:  not only Medici partisans, but also other members of wealthy, established families who hoped for an oligarchy.  The question was decided in an unexpected way: by the intervention of a revivalist preacher, the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola.

Savonarola had been working in Florence for some years, since the days of Lorenzo Magnifico, denouncing everything that people like Lorenzo valued:  the wealth, sophistication and sensuous beauty of the city.  Savonarola thought that Florence typified what was wrong with his times, and warned that such worldliness would bring punishment down from heaven.

Savonarola's prophecies seemed to have come true with Charles VIII's invasion.  Here was the scourge of God, and perhaps the champion who might clean up the mess in Rome.  After the fall of the Medici, Savonarola became the most influential political figure in the city; and when he spoke for an popular government, he won the day.

For four years, from 1494-98, Savonarola, who was not a Florentine citizen and never held office, was nevertheless its effective ruler.  Savonarola, like old Cosimo de' Medici, appealed to the poorer citizens against the rich and influential.  His message was civic revival through Christian virtue, a turning against worldliness and corruption.  He had enough followers that sinners abandoned the streets:  Youths and children formed volunteer brigades that, in the understated words of an older historian, who knew nothing of modern Iran, "roam[ed] the streets..[and] induced gamblers to hand over the tools of their trade and women too fashionably dressed to renounce their scandalous display [Schevill, 446]."

Savonarola's regime had plenty of opposition.  For one thing, continued attachment to the French alliance had not gained the return of Florentine fortresses and towns.  There were lots of people, influential ones, who despised the popular party and
Savonarola's crew and called them indifferently the Piagnoni, "the Snivellers."  Further, Pope Alexander VI, the Borgia pope, was irritated by Savonarola's preaching against corruption at Rome and on the Papal throne itself, though Savonarola named no names.  In 1497, Alexander got angry enough to excommunicate Savonarola.  The city continued to support the friar, but he was in a dangerous position if even one of the frequent city elections should go against him.  In March of 1498, this happened: a group of civic officials gained office who were determined to get rid of Savonarola.
Quickly thereafter, a dispute over whether Savonarola was a true prophet led to civic unrest. Anti-Sniveller mobs roamed the streets until Savonarola, to avoid civil war, let himself be arrested.  The government then tortured him into admitting he was a fake and condemned him to death as a heretic.  The confession, though it was coerced, broke most of the remaining belief in Savonarola's mission.  They expected, unrealistically, an innocent prophet to be able to withstand any abuse.

Savonarola's fall and execution did not destroy the popular government.  It regrouped under a president for life named Piero Soderini, whose chief secretary was Niccolo Machiavelli.  Under Soderini, Machiavelli became Florence's chief diplomat, and travelled to all the capitals of Italy and to France, meeting the leaders of the time face to face.  Machiavelli also got the chance to try out his pet military theories.  Machiavelli believed that Florence, like other Italian states, was weak because it citizens no longer fought.  It depended on mercenary troops.  If a citizen militia could be re-established, Florence's independence would be secure.  Machiavelli raised a militia -- out of rural draftees, not citizens -- but on one occasion it did what it was supposed
to.  Pisa fell to Florence's army in 1509.

But despite this victory, the situation of small Italian powers like Florence was getting worse.  Back in 1499, Charles VIII's successor on the French throne, Louis XII, had invaded Italy again, aiming not just at Naples, but at Milan as well.  In 1500, Louis made a fateful alliance with Ferdinand, king of Aragon.  The French king and the Aragonese one would dispossess Ferrante of Naples and divide his kingdom.  Soon after Naples was occupied, Aragon and France fell out.  In the next thirty years, French troops in Lombardy and Spanish ones in Naples would act as millstones to crush the rest of Italy [Schevill].

The popes might have united Italy against these foreigners.   Insteade, they played an inglorious role.  Most of their efforts were aimed at securing property for their sons and nephews, or in moments of high duty, the narrow advantage of the papal states.  Alexander VI made a deal early on with Louis XII to gain French aid for his son, the infamous Cesare Borgia.  Alexander hoped that Cesare could carve out a central Italian principality.  Cesare was a ruthless man (when he wasn't murdering his sister's husbands) and he terrified other Italian rulers until, mercifully, he died young.  Alexander's successor Julius II was just as terrifying as Cesare, taking the field in person against whoever had crossed him most recently.

It was Julius who ended the Florentine Republic.  When Florence stuck with the French, Julius had his Spanish allies take the city and hand it over to the leading Medici, a cardinal who soon after became Pope Leo X, and thus ruled both Rome and Florence.   This was the end, by the way, of Machiavelli's political career, and the beginning of his career as a writer, to which we will eventually return.
Like previous popes, Leo was most intent on preserving his independence and building up the family fortune:  in his case this meant securing Medici rule in the city his grandfather Lorenzo Magnifico had once led.  But he and his cousin, who succeeded him as Clement VII, had a hard time of it.  Each turn of events merely emphasized how strong France and Aragon were compared to any Italian combination; every attempt to play the superpowers off against each other sharpened the rivalry between them.  The wars became even fiercer after 1519, when Ferdinand of Aragon was succeeded by his grandson Charles V, who inherited all of Spain, Burgundy, and the Habsburg lands.  The French king, now Francis I, was not willing to let such a powerful monarch have Italy too.

The Medici popes continued to manoeuvre, but in 1527, Pope Clement's plotting with France infuriated Charles, who was now on top in the peninsula, and his undisciplined unpaid army marched on Rome.  When they got there, they put the city to a horrible sack; Clement himself was obliged to surrender to the emperor, and was kept a virtual prisoner for two years.  It was the end of the devil-may-care Renaissance papacy, and almost the end of the papacy as an independent political power.

The Sack of Rome gave Florence one last chance at republicanism.  The Medici were tossed out, and the city prepared to fight for its freedom.But Florence found out in 1530 what the pope had found out three years earlier.  No matter how
brave they were -- and they were much braver now than in Machiavelli's time -- Spain was too much for them. When Charles  cut Florence's supply routes, the city surrendered -- to be handed back to the Medici, who were now in Charles's good books again.    Clement set up a relative as duke, and the family held the title, under Habsburg protection, until the time of
Napoleon.  For the Spanish hegemony established by Charles V lasted a very long time.

For some historians, the sack of Rome marks the end of the Renaissance; for others, the fall of the Florentine Republic.  As Italy became a Spanish satellite, and was subjected to a repressive religious reform, the springs of innovation dried up.  Italy was becoming less central in the world, as even trade took different routes.

But the Italian wars themselves produced a noteworthy contribution to the culture of Europe -- a distinctive criticism of history and politics associated with Niccolo Machiavelli and his friend, the diplomat Francesco Guicciardini.

These two men were in their professional lives put through an amazing political roller-coaster ride in which everything that might happen had, at least once.  In particular, Italy had suffered every possible disaster save a Turkish invasion.  Perhaps not surprisingly, they took a pessimistic view of politics; in particular, they were skeptical of the value of reason or morality in political life.

Machiavelli was actually the less pessimistic of the two.  Machiavelli continued to believe that politics was the only
life for a man.  Politics was dangerous and unpredictable, and fortune might strike you down at any point, but the struggle was worth it.  The secret was  virtu or virtue; not Christian virtue as preached by Savonarola and all medieval writers on politics, or classical virtues as praised by earlier humanists.  Virtu meant "the strength and vigor necessary to construct a politically necessary society" [Koenigsberger and Mosse, 109].  The successful prince or republican society was not good, it was strong and pragmatic; ruthless or merciful or generous, as circumstances and advantage, not morality, demanded.  Machiavelli specifically rejected the claims of Christianity to set the tone of public life.  To quote Koenigsberger:

     Machiavelli's ideal society was not one of justice...but a republic in
     which all citizens were united by virtu, generating the strength and
     power of will which could cope with ever-present change and survive.
     [What was new about Machiavelli was not the idea that effective
     politics and morality might conflict]; it was the exaltation of [such
     pragmatism] into a way of life essential to the construction of the
     golden age [ibid. 110].

Guicciardini, Machiavelli's lesser known friend, was more pessimistic.  He saw no route whatever into the golden age.  Guicciardini's contribution to political thought was not his theoretical prescriptions, but his disillusioned, detailed historical description of how Italy was enslaved by foreign rulers and betrayed by its own.  Guicciardini's history paralleled
Machiavelli because he saw politics as nothing but self-interest, disguised sometimes perhaps by proclamations of duty or right, but self-interest nonetheless.  Guicciardini thus dedicated himself to charting the course of self-interested power politics, something that he did more diligently than any historian since pagan times.

Together these witnesses to the Italian wars added something interesting to learned European thought:  the idea that Christianity might be irrelevant to the public man and public life, to the political thinker or the historian.  It was not an idea that would be taken up quickly; the Reformation was already underway well before either died.  But it was there, to be picked up and elaborated later.


Gene Brucker,  Renaissance Florence

H.G. Koenigsberger and George L. Mosse,  Europe in the Sixteenth Century

Geoffrey Parker,  The Military Revolution

Ferdinand Schevill,  Medieval and Renaissance Florence.  Vol. 2:  The Age of
 the Medici and the Coming of Humanism

Copyright (C) 1999, Steven Muhlberger.