Hello! It’s been a while since I posted since, as usual, many projects press, so it’s rare for me to have the time to write the kinds of polished essays I like sharing here. But I’ve been hoping to share more things, since a lot of the history work I’ve been doing lately has helped me with reflecting on current events, and I want to share that faster than the slow grind of book-length work and academic journals will allow. So I’m going to start posting a few things here that are a little rougher. I hope to still post formal essays a few times a year as before, but I’m going to start also sharing things like transcripts of lectures or talks I’ve given, excerpts from my teaching notes, or assemblages from Twitter threads which took meatier turns. I hope you’ll enjoy them, but I’ll also try to always make clear what kind of content each post is, so you know which are the polished essays you’re used to.
I’m also launching a Patreon, so if you’ve enjoyed my posts, books, music etc. please consider supporting me.
I’ve felt torn about Patreon for a long time since, unlike so many wonderful scholars and authors I know, I have a steady living wage from my university and don’t struggle to get by. But, as my Patreon page explains, what I don’t have enough of is the means to hire help. As someone trying to create a lot (and as a chronic pain sufferer who often has fewer than 7 days in my week) it makes an enormous difference to how much I can do if I can pay for help: pay a music editing service to turn polish vocal tracks into completed albums without spending hours on it myself, to pay my part-time assistant Denise who helps with my calendar and paperwork and fire-hose of email which so easily eat up whole days, to hire a sound editor to finally make it possible to launch a podcast with my good friend Jo Walton talking about books, and craft of writing, and history, and science, and Florence, and gelato, and interviewing awesome friends. Even the little post below was made possible by having help, and wouldn’t exist otherwise. And supporters will get updates on what I’ve been up to, and early access to blog posts and podcast episodes, and snippets of outtakes and works in progress. So if you’d like to help me hire the help I need to turn more ideas into reality, and to have more time to write, please have a look at the Patreon page for details, and thank you very much!
Why I Teach Machiavelli Through His Letters
(excerpt from a lecture transcript, so this is how I explain this to students too)
Teaching Machiavelli through his letters is a separate thing from being an historian accessing Machiavelli through his letters. One of the reasons that I love teaching Machiavelli through his letters is that you get a very different view of the person from letters. You get unimportant details. You get the things that the person cared about that week, as opposed to the things that the person wanted to be discussed by many people in the context of that person’s name for a long time. You do get the serious political thought, but you get it mixed with “Where is my salary?” “Hello my friend,” “Here’s the party I was at,” “I have a cold,” all of these very human elements that don’t come to us when we just read a thesis.
Thanks to interdisciplinarity, both at University of Chicago and elsewhere, I move from department to department a lot–I spend some of my time with historians, and some with classicists, political science people, Italian literature or English literature people, and with philosophy people. Each of these disciplines has a different way of approaching text, but many of them approach the text perhaps not with the formal philosophical attitude of “death of the author, we care only about the text,” but all the same with the effective attitude of “we try to learn about this author only through the text,” and only through the formal polished text, the treatise.
When I’m trying to unpack not only Machiavelli but history in general to my students, it’s very easy for the history to seem like a sequence of marble busts on pedestals who handed us great books. It’s much harder to get at the fact that those people are also people who are like us: people who messed up, people who ran out of money, people who had anxieties, people who failed in things that they undertook. People who had friends, people who were nervous without their friends, and lonely. And that isn’t a version of history that we get shown very often. We get shown heroes, we get shown villains, and we get shown geniuses, as if there isn’t a person present as well. Machiavelli is a very valuable example, because we have such a great corpus of letters, but he’s also such a name. If you want to make a shortlist of people who are a marble bust on a pedestal in the way that they’re presented as we talk about the history of thought, Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Cicero, Machiavelli, are major major figures in that way. So the letters humanize them and make them real.
I feel it’s important not to approach these works as if these people are somehow superhumanly excellent, as if these people are somehow perfect in what they undertake. I’ll often be at a conference where someone will talk about a passage in a work in isolation. I was recently at the Renaissance Society of America conference, and there was an interesting discussion of a passage in which Ficino had a really weird interpretation of this one passage of Lucretius. And there was a very nasty fight between two scholars over the interpretation, in which one of the scholars insisted he’s making this complicated subtle three-part reading of a thing that relates to another thing, diagram diagram diagram. The other person said “I think he translated the passage wrong. Because the passage was really hard. And his copy didn’t have a very clear script. And I think he didn’t read the sentence the way we read the sentence.” And the first person was adamant that it is inappropriate to question whether someone like Ficino might have had trouble reading a piece of Latin, that of course his Latin is immaculately better than our Latin. And his Latin was better than our Latin, because he spent more of his life doing it and I do believe he’s better than most classicists at this — but most classicists really struggle with that line. And when you read the commentaries on it there’s lots of ambiguity even now about what it means, and we have dictionaries, which he did not.
It was very interesting to me to see that battle between thinking of the figure as human, in which the question “Did he mess up?” is a valid question, as opposed to thinking of the person as someone who could never mess up. And a lot of the ways we approach historical figures, whether it’s Machiavelli, or Aristotle, or anyone, involve the idea that all of their works are fully intended, that they’re somehow in an a-temporal vacuum, that we should look at them all in sequence, that no one is ever going to change his mind about a thing unless the person themselves made changing their mind about a thing be a big deal. We create this idea of these geniuses where everything they wrote even from early on is exactly what they meant, which then all gets incorporated into material.
I want my students to come away from my courses not thinking about historical figures like that, but remembering that every historical figure had to pay for socks, or had to deal with laundry, or have a servant who dealt with laundry for them and then they had to deal with the servant. But they all had everyday practical existences, and they all mess up. Machiavelli’s letters give you access to somebody who feels like a real human being. Some of the things he’s doing are really weird. Some of the things he’s doing involve bizarre sexuality. Some of the things he’s doing involve uncomfortable politics. Some of the things he’s doing involve very astute politics. Some of them involve very terrifying moments like his wife saying: “I’m so glad you’re alive, we heard that Cesare Borgia massacred all of his people, I’m so glad you’re alive!” And others are very much “We’re trying to get my brother a job and no one will give him a job because it was corruptly given to the other person and we have to figure out how to get my brother a job,” which is not the sort of thing we imagine such people giving their hours to.
When you read Michelangelo’s autobiography there’s an interesting point in it where he stops talking about art for a while and starts talking about the lawsuit that went on between him and people associated with Giuliano della Rovere because he was contracted to build Giuliano della Rovere’s tomb, but then for a variety of complicated reasons the tomb did not materialise as it was supposed to have, largely because the plan for the tomb was the most insane ridiculous over-the-top impossible tomb that you could ever possibly conceive of. That was obviously never going to happen. But also there were lots of fights between him and della Rovere over who had to pay for the marble and whether the marble was delivered and he said the marble was delivered and Della Rovere said the marble wasn’t delivered and there was a crack in it… and all these lawsuits went back and forth, and also Guiliano della Rovere was starting a giant war and invading Ferrara. At one point Michelangelo ran away from Rome saying “I’m not going to work on this stupid tomb any more” and went to Florence, and then Giuliano della Rovere moved an army over to besiege Florence and started threatening them “Florence! I will besiege you and burn you down unless you give me back Michelangelo!” We have these great documents where Michelangelo is begging Signoria “Please don’t make me go back to Della Rovere! I hate him and he just torments me. I’ll build you really good defensive walls! Look at my engineering ideas for how to improve the walls!” and they had to say “No, I’m sorry Michelangelo, we’re not going to war with the Battle Pope just for you, go back to Rome, build the stupid thing.” And he did go back to Rome, and then Della Rovere made him paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling knowing Michelangelo hated painting, basically as punishment for trying to run away. I’m not exaggerating. And that’s why there are lots of angry figures in the Sistine Chapel ceiling. But the wonderful horrible flirtatious strange antagonism between Michelangelo and Giuliano della Rovere is magnificent.
And in his autobiography he’s talking about this lawsuit that arose because of the della Rovere tomb project, in great detail, and then there’s a line that says Michelangelo realized that, while dealing with a bunch of lawsuits and Pope Adrian and such, he’d been so stressed he hadn’t picked up a chisel in four years. Because he spent the entire time just dealing with the lawsuit. (Anyone feeling guilty about being overwhelmed by stress this year, you’re not alone!) And we have four years worth of lost Michelangelo production, because he didn’t do any art that entire time, because he was just dealing with a stupid lawsuit. And that’s not the sort of thing that fits into our usual way of thinking about these great historical figures. We imagine Michelangelo in his studio with a chisel. We do not imagine him in a room with a bunch of lawyers being curmudgeonly and bickering and trapped in contract hell.
Those sorts of things are important, I think, to reintroduce into the way we imagine historical figures. That they have an everyday mundanity that we imagine that they don’t. And I think that’s a big part of why when we compare ourselves to them we feel as if we can’t live up to that greatness. Because we tell edited versions of the lives of great men and great women, in which we edit out the things that feel like us. So of course we feel as if our everyday lives full of mundanity can’t rise to those levels, because we’re not comparing ourselves to the real people, we’re comparing ourselves to the edited version in which we take out the mundanity! So Machiavelli’s letters give us that. And they give us a person with problems, and a person with mistakes, and a person with a sense of humor, and a person with sexuality, all of these elements we erase from our marble busts on pedestals. And so that’s a big part of why I use the letters while teaching, and when my students read them I want them to put together “Here is a real person who is like us,” as well as “Here is the everyday on the ground experience of what it’s like to live in this crisis.”
We need that, when we live in a real crisis ourselves, and it makes us feel so often like we’re powerless and weak compared to these impressive people in the past–but they felt that way too.
Off to Italy again. This seems like a good time to share a link to a video of an illustrated talk Ada gave at the Lumen Christi institute in Chicago in February. It’s a fascinating overview of the place of San Marco in Florence, with lots of excellent pictures. It’s like an audio version of an Ex Urbe post, with Fra Angelico, the meaning of blue, the Magi, the Medici, Savonarola, confraternities, and the complexities of Renaissance religious and artistic patronage.
And here’s one of the pictures mentioned but not shown in the presentation, a nine panel illustration by Filippo Dolcaiati “The History of Antonio Rinaldeschi.” It depicts the real historical fate of Rinaldeschi, who became drunk while gambling and threw manure at an icon of the Virgin Mary. A fascinating incident for demonstrating the functions of confraternities, and for demonstrating how seriously the people of Florence took the protection offered by saints and icons.
Welcome to a new feature here on Ex Urbe — the promoted comment.
From time to time, Ada makes a long substantive chewy comment, which could almost be its own post. Making it into an actual post would take valuable time. The comment is already written and fascinating — but hidden down in a comment thread where many people may not notice it. From now on, when this happens, I will extract it and promote it. I may even go back and do this with some older especially awesome comments. You’ll be able to tell the difference between this and a real post, because it’ll say it’s posted by Bluejo, and not by Exurbe, because it will say “a promoted comment”, and also because it won’t be full of beautiful relevant carefully selected art but will have just one or two pieces of much more random art.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this new post. As I am reviewing macroeconomics, especially the different variations of Solow Model, I cannot help but link “intellectual technology” with the specific endogenous growth model, which attempts to led the model itself generate technological growth without an exogenous “manna from heaven”. In this model, technology growth is expressed endogenously by the factor capital as “productive externalities”, and individual workers, through “learning by doing,” obtain more “skills” as the capital grows. Of course, the “technology factor” in the model I learned is vaguely defined and does not cover the many definitions and various effects of “intellectual technology” not directly related to economic production.
Your conversation with Michael reminds of me the lectures and seminars I took with you at Texas A&M. By the time I took your Intellectual History from Middle Ages to 17th Century, I have already taken some classes on philosophy. Sadly, my fellow philosophy students and I usually fell into anachronism and criticized early thinkers a bit “unfairly” on many issues. That is why your courses were like a beam of light to me, for I was never aware of the fact that we have different logic, concepts, and definition of words from our predecessors and should hence put those thinkers back into their own historical context.
It seems to me that Prof. Peter E. Gordon’s essay “What is intellectual history’ captures the different angles from which you and Michael construe Machiavelli: Michael seems more like a philosophy/political science student who attempts to examine how and why early thinkers’ ideas work or not work for our society based on our modern definitions, concepts, and logic, thus raising more debates on political philosophy and pushing the progress of philosophical innovation; your role as an intellectual historian requires one to be unattached from our own understanding of ideas and concepts and to be aware of even logic that seems to be rooted in our subconsciousness so that to examine a past thinker fairly without rash judgement. Michael is like the one who attempts to keep building the existing tower upward, while you are examining carefully the foundation below. For me personally, it would be nice to have both of these two different ways of thinking.
I have a question: I have been attempting to read a bit of Karl Marx whenever time allows. He argues that our thinking and ideology are a reflection of our material conditions. If we accept his point of view, would it be useful to connect intellectual history with economic history?
Nahua, I think you have hit it spot on with your discussion of Peter Gordon’s essay. When I worked with him at Harvard (I had the privilege of having him on my committee, as well as being his teaching assistant for a course) I remember being struck by how, even when we were teaching thinkers far outside my usual scope like Heidegger, I found his presentation of them welcoming and approachable despite my lack of background, because he approached them in the same context-focused way that I did, evaluating, not their correctness or not or their applicability to the present, but their roots in their contemporary historical contexts and the reasons why they believed what they believed.
For Marx’s comment that “our thinking and ideology are a reflection of our material conditions” I think it is often very useful to connect intellectual history with economic history, not in a strictly deterministic way, but by considering economic changes as major environmental or enabling factors that facilitate or deter intellectual change and/or the dissemination of new ideas. I already discussed the example of how I think the dissemination of feminism in the 19th century was greatly facilitated by the economic liberation of female labor because of the development of industrial cloth production, more efficient ways of doing laundry, cleaning, cooking etc. Ideas about female equality existed in antiquity. They enjoyed a large surge in conversation and support from the intellectual firebrands of the Enlightenment, through figures like Montesquieu, Voltaire and Wollstonecraft. But mass movements and substantial political changes, like female suffrage, came when the economic shift had occurred. To use the “intellectual technology” concept, the technology existed in antiquity and was revived and refined in the 18th century, but it required economic shifts as well to help reach a state when large portions of the population or whole nations/governments could embrace and employ it.
As I work on Renaissance history, I constantly feel the close relationship between economics and the intellectual world as well. Humanism as I understand it began when Petrarch called for a revival of antiquity. Economics comes into this in two ways. First, the reason he thought a revival of antiquity was so desperately necessary was because Italy had become so politically tumultuous and unstable, and was under such threat of cultural or literal invasion from France–these are the consequences, largely, of economic situations, since Italy’s development of banking and its central position as a trade hub for the Mediterranean had filled its small, vulnerable citystates with incomparable wealth, creating situations where powerful families could feud, small powers could hire large mercenary armies, and every king in Europe wanted to invade Italy for a piece of its plump pie. Then after Petrarch, humanism’s ability to spread and succeed was also economically linked. You can’t have a humanist without books, you just can’t, it’s about reading, studying, correcting and living the classics. But in an era when a book cost as much as a house, and more than a year’s salary for a young schoolmaster, a library required a staggering investment of capital. That required wealthy powers–families or governments–to value humanism and have the resources to spend on it. Powers like the Medici, and Florence’s Republican government, were convinced to spend their money on libraries and humanism because they believed it would bring them glory, strength, respect, legitimacy, the love of the people, that it would improve life, heal their souls, bring peace, and make their names ring in posterity, but they couldn’t have made the investment if they hadn’t had the money to invest, and they wouldn’t have believed humanism could yield so much if not for the particular (and particularly tumultuous) economic situation in which Renaissance Italy found itself.
Yesterday I found myself thinking about the history of the book in this light, and comparing it to some comments I heard a scientist make on a panel about space elevators. We all want a space elevator–then space exploration will become much, much less expensive, everyone can afford satellites, space-dependent technologies will become cheap, and we can have a Moon Base, and a Mars program, and all the space stations we want, and all our kids can have field trips to space (slight exaggeration). To have a space elevator, we need incredibly strong cables, probably produced using nanofibers. Developing nanofibers is expensive. What the engineer pointed out is that he has high hopes for nanofiber devlopment, because nanofibers have the ideal demand pattern for a new technology. A new technology like this has the problem that, even if there are giant economic benefits to it later on, the people who pay for its development need a short-term return on that, which is difficult in the new baby stages of a technology when it’s at its most expensive. (Some of you may remember the West Wing episode where they debate the price of a cancer medication, arguing that producing each pill costs 5 cents so it’s unfair to charge more, to which the rebuttal is that the second pill cost 5 cents, but the first pill cost $300 million in research.) Once nanofiber production becomes cheap, absolutely it will be profitable, but while it’s still in the stage of costing $300 million to produce a few yards of thread, that’s a problem, and can be enough to keep a technology from getting support. One of the ways we work around this as a society today is the university system, which (through a form of patronage) supports researchers and gives them liberty to direct research toward avenues expected to be valuable independent of profit. Another is grant funding, which gives money based on arguments for the merit of a project without expecting to be paid back. A third is NASA, which develops new technologies (like velcro, or pyrex) to achieve a particular project (Moon!), which are then used and reused in society for the benefit of all. But looking at just the private sector, at the odds of a technology getting funding from investors rather than non-profits, what the scientist said is that, for a technology to receive funding, you want it to have a big long-term application which will show that you’ll make a steady profit once you can make lots of the thing, but it needs to also to have a short-term application for which a small number of clients will be prepared to pay an enormous amount, so you can sell it while it still costs $300 million, as well as expecting to sell it when it costs 5 cents. Nanofibers, he said, hit this sweet spot because of two demands. The first is body armor, since it looks like nanofibers can create bullet-proof fabric as light as normal fabric, and if we can do that then governments will certainly pay an enormous amount to get bullet-proof clothing for a head of state and his/her bodyguards, and elite military applications. The second is super-high-end lightweight golf clubs, which may seem like a frivolous thing, but there are people who will pay thousands of dollars for an extremely high end golf club, and that is something nanofibers can profit from even while expensive (super lightweight bicycles for racing also qualify). So nanofibers can depend on the excitement of the specific investors who want the expensive version now, and through their patronage develop toward the ability to produce things cheaply.
In this sense the history of the book, especially in the Renaissance, was very similar to the situation with nanofibers. In the early, manuscript stage when each new book cost the equivalent of $50,000 (very rough estimate), libraries were built and humanism was funded because wealthy people like Niccolo Niccoli and Cosimo de Medici believed that humanist libraries would give them and their home city political power and spiritual benefits, helping them toward Heaven. That convinced them to invest their millions. Their investments then created the libraries which could be used later on by larger populations, and reproduced cheaply through printing once it developed, but printing would not have developed if patrons like them weren’t around to make there be demand for the volume of books printing could produce. It took Petrarch, Niccoli and Cosimo to fund a library which could raise a generation of people who could read the classics before there was enough demand to sell the 300-1500 copies of a classical book that a printing press could print. And, working within current capitalism, it may take governments who really want bullet-proof suit jackets to give us our space elevator, though universities, NASA, and private patronage of civilian space programs are certainly also big factors pushing us forward.
In sum, I would say that economics sometimes sparks the generation of new ideas–as the economically-driven strife Petrarch experienced enabled the birth of humanism–but it also strongly affects how easily or quickly a new idea can disseminate, whether it gets patronage and support, or whether its champions have to spread it without the support of elites, patrons or government. Thus, in any given era, an intellectual historian needs to have a sense of funding patterns and patronage systems, so we can understand how ideas travel, where, and why.
One more thought from last night, or rather a test comparison showing how the concept “intellectual technology” can work. I was thinking about comparing atomism and steel.
Steel is a precursor for building skyscrapers. Despite urban demand, we didn’t get a transition to huge, towering metropoles until the development of good steel which could raise our towers of glittering glass. Of course, steel is not the ONLY precursor of the skyscraper–it also requires tempered glass, etc. And it isn’t the only way to build skyscrapers, you can use titanium, or nanotech, but you are very unlikely to get either of those things without going through steel first. Having steel does not guarantee that your society will have skyscrapers. Ancient Rome had steel. In the Middle Ages Europe lost it (though pretty-much everywhere except Europe still had steel). When steel came back in the Renaissance it still didn’t lead immediately to skyscrapers, it required many other developments first, and steel had to combine with other things, including social changes (growth of big cities). But when we look at the history of city development, studying steel is extremely important because the advent of steel-frame construction is a very important phase, and a central enabling factor for the development of modern cities.
My Lucretius book looks at the relationship between atomism and atheism in the same way that this analysis looks at steel and skyscrapers. Atomism was around for a long time, went away, came back, etc. And you can have non-atomic atheism, we have lots of it now. But atomism, as the first fully-developed mechanical model of the working of Nature (the first not dependent on God/gods to make the world work) was, in my opinion, one of the factors that you needed to combine with other developments to reach a situation in which an intellectual could combine mechanical models of nature with skepticism with other factors to develop the first fully functional atheistic model of the world. It’s one of the big factors we have to trace to ask “Why did atheism become a major interlocutor in the history of thought when it did, and not before or after?” just as tracing steel helps us answer “Why did skyscrapers start being built when they did?” There had almost certainly been atheisms before and independent of atomism (just as you can make really tall things, like pyramids or cliff-face cities, without steel-frame construction) but it was rare, and didn’t have the infrastructural repeatability necessary to let it become widespread. Modern atheists don’t use Epicurus, they more frequently use Darwin, just as modern skyscrapers use titanium, but the history of skyscrapers becomes clear when we study the history of steel. Just so, the history of atheism becomes much clearer when we study atomism. Of course, we now use steel for lots of things that aren’t skyscrapers (satellite approaching Pluto!), and similarly atomism has lots of non-atheist applications, but we associate atomism a lot with atheism, just as we think a lot about “towers of glass and steel” and usually think less about the steel bolts in our chairs or the steel spoons we eat with. All applications of steel, or epicuranism, can be worth studying, but skyscrapers/ atheism will never stop being one of the biggest and most interesting, at least in terms of how they changed the face of our modern world. And finally, while minority of buildings are skyscrapers, and a minority of contemporary people are atheists, the study of both is broadly useful because the presence of both in the lives of everyone is a defining factor in our current world.
Once upon a time (circa 1475) the whimsical Will that scripts the Great Scroll of the Cosmos woke up in the morning and decided: Some day centuries from now, when mankind has outgrown the dastardly moustaches of melodrama and moved on to a phase of complex antiheroes, sympathetic villains and moral ambiguity, I want history teachers to be able to stand at the front of the classroom and say, “Yes, he really did go around dressed all in black wearing a mask and killing people for fun.” Thus Cesare Borgia was conceived.
Note: I have discovered that I have a lot to say about the Borgias, so this will be the first of two posts about their impact on Machiavelli. I will try my best to get the second one out promptly. Thank you, kind readers, for being patient with the long delay between the last post and this. It was a chaotic September.
In the middle phase of the Harry Potter saga, my father phoned me one day to exclaim that if he were Harry he would walk up to Crabbe and Goyle and appeal to them in the name of rational self-preservation. Voldemort is a terrible, terrible person who randomly kills people who work for him. Joining his side, or becoming involved with him in any way, is absurdly dangerous. If you’re a Malfoy or something, and you know he’d come after you if you tried to quit, then joining him is certainly the safest option. But willingly getting involved is rather like plunging enthusiastically into a game of Russian roulette. I cite this example because its simple appeal to human Reason (Evil is bad! You don’t want to be around it! Think about it!) is exactly the sort of argument which lay at the heart of the Handbook of Princes genre before Machiavelli got his ink-blackened hands on it. The Princewas far from the first Handbook of Princes. To the contrary, it argued against a long tradition of manuals of etiquette and collections of heroic maxims which were a common literary form, especially in an age when authors made money from their books only by dedicating them to patrons, who were often more inclined to reward books which seemed directly useful to themselves and their heirs.
A typical Handbook of Princes consisted of a mixture of anecdotes and advice. The anecdotes were great tales of heroic exploits, focusing on brilliant and successful historical figures (Augustus Caesar, Henry V, take your pick) or on more obscure stories wherein a single figure (usually from Roman history) is remembered for a single noble act. The presentation focuses on the hero, his character and the virtues (courage, wisdom, patience, generosity, self-sacrifice, industry) which enabled his successes. These works are histories/biographies in a sense, but unlike the modern versions of those genres, were largely devoid of cultural and historical context, and would never discuss how men were products of their times, or how their successes were affected by class movements or economics. The men were successes because they were great men, and by reading about their actions and the virtuous decisions which underlay them, the young prince could absorb these virtues and learn to do the same. Moral advice accompanied these moral examples, advice predicated on a combination of logic and the Renaissance universe in which we must remember God is presumed to take a very active part. The virtuous prince will be more successful than the corrupt or wicked one. Why? First, because people will love and respect him, and therefore obey him. If he acts like Voldemort, reason and self-preservation will drive his followers to realize that it is dangerous to be around him, and he will be abandoned and overthrown. Tyrants fall to tyrranicides. Beneficent monarchs, on the other hand, attract loyal followers who want them to stay in power. People living under a good king will be willing to go to effort to keep him in power.
As for dealing with rivals and enemies, i.e. foreign affairs, here too virtue is advised. The virtuous prince will be more successful. Why? Because people will respect and listen to him. Because chivalrous conduct makes a man outstanding and brave. Because a virtuous man will have fewer enemies, at home and abroad, and thus be able to sleep at night with a clear conscience and less fear of assassins. And because God is part of politics in this age. This culture still believes in trial by combat, that the champion of a virtuous and true cause will always defeat the champion of an unjust one. The saints will like and bless the good king, and drive plague from his kingdom. “But bad things happen to good people too!” objects the devil’s advocate. “What about Job? What about the fall of the Roman Empire? What about nuns who get the Black Death tending to people who have the Black Death?” True, the culture answers, sometimes God sends tests to virtuous men, but by persevering through them with virtue one earns even greater rewards. There is Providence. If there is Providence, it is logically never, ever a good idea to do evil. While the ultimate balance lies in Heaven, even on Earth, in a world with a deep belief in saints and direct divine intervention to answer prayer and protect the chosen, virtue is 100% the right call. And religion aside, won’t a prince who is loved be showered with support and help? Certainly Petrarch and his followers, who were so desperate for peace and stability, would eagerly shower any virtuous prince with support and help, and very sincere loyalty. So stands the genre when a young Machiavelli works with Soderini in the Palazzo Vecchio, attempting to run the government of Florence and to achieve stability and peace in a world of chaos and conquest. This government is the product of Florence’s rebellion against Medici corruption, and everyone knows it exists for the sole purpose of protecting and serving the Florentine citizens and protecting the city and all her works and precious people. No one in Florence has any incentive to do anything but love and support this government. Right?
Unmatched in Infamy:
I was in the palace section of the Vatican Museum recently, showing some friends the dark neoclassical frescoes and blue and gilded Borgia bulls which so oppressively dominate Alexander VI’s apartments that no pope has been willing to inhabit that part of the palace since, when a guide came by with her tour group. She was speaking English as a compromise language, since she was a native Italian and her group was Korean, but since they were all 75% fluent in English it sufficed for basic communication. Basic, but not subtle, so when they entered the room she began, “These are the rooms of Pope Alexander VI, he…” and then I saw a look of exasperated despair wash over her face. How with broken English could she communicate the significance of the Borgia papacy to this group to whom Renaissance Italian politics were so foreign that if she’d told them Michelangelo was a pope, or Duke of Florence, or both, they would probably have believed her. “He was a very very, very very, very, very bad pope,” she concluded, and shooed her flock on. I applauded her concision at the time, but when she had moved on my friends immediately turned on me and (with the full pressure of a common language demanding thoroughness) asked, “Why was he so bad? I mean, this is the high Renaissance right before the Reformation – weren’t all the popes incredibly corrupt and terrible? You’ve been telling us stories about catamites and elephants and brothels all day; what made Alexander VI so exceptional?”
It is a fair question. The papal throne was indeed at its most politicized at this point, a prize tossed back and forth among various powerful Italian families and the odd foreign king, and Italy remains littered with the opulent palaces built with funds embezzled by families who scored themselves a pope. My best short answer is this:
They were Spaniards, and the Italians hated that, so all possible tensions were hyper-inflamed.
Instead of the usual graft and simony, they tried to permanently carve out a personal Borgia duchy in the middle of Italy, and when that was going well, they tried to turn the papacy into a hereditary monarchy.
They very nearly succeeded.
The Borgia family came from Valencia in eastern Spain (then Aragon), and were powerful enough there to frequently secure Church offices for younger sons, including the bishop’s miter. Trivium of the day: Valencia’s Cathedral is known for possessing one of the best accredited Holy Grails (i.e. more confirmed miracles than any leading rival grail candidate), which means both Rodrigo and Cesare Borgia were briefly custodians of the Holy Grail. The first Borgia pope, Callixtus III(originally Alfonso de Borja, b. 1378, d. 1458), was from Valencia in eastern Spain. During the middle years of his career he was instrumental in getting the royal house of Aragon to accept the compromises which ended the schism, in those years when Europe was going through its antipope-a-month phase. He was made a Cardinal as a reward, came to Rome, and was elected pope in 1455 as a compromise candidate. A compromise pope is elected when two or more powerful rivals have a deadlock in which neither can secure the majority necessary to become pope, and neither will let the other win, so they pick someone neutral and extremely old who is guaranteed to die within a couple years, giving the rivals time to level up their bribery skills and try again. The most notable achievements of his three year reign include a brief crusade, excommunicating Halley’s Comet when its bad luck interfered with his crusade (“Take that! No communion or last rights for you, comet!”), and securing Cardinal’s hats for two of his nephews, including young Rodrigo.
Rodrigo Lanzol Borgia, later Pope Alexander VI (1431-1503) was only matrilineally a Borgia, the son of Callixtus III’s sister. He took a law degree at the university of Bologna, and was twenty-five when his uncle became a compromise pope. Making good use of their manifestly narrow window, Callixtus had the city of Valencia promoted from having Bishops to having Archbishops. He thus made Rodrigo an Archbishop, then a Cardinal, and finally gave him the position of Vice-Chancellor of the Church, an important (and lucrative!) position managing the papal purse, particularly its taxes and military expenditures. There is no better office from which to be plugged directly into the detailed workings of the Church, and to secure a precarious but powerful position as one of the foremost non-Romans in Rome. After his uncle’s death, Rodrigo stayed in this position through four more papacies, setting up a permanent household in Rome and there raising his most famous bastard children. When his fifth papal election rolled around in 1492, he was nicely on track to be another mildly-entertaining, thoroughly-corrupt Renaissance pope. The papal election of 1492 was one of the great power games of world history. Anyone seeking to create a board game or one-shot role-playing simulation of an exciting political moment need look no farther. Twenty-three men are locked in the not-yet-Michelangelized Sistine Chapel. They can’t leave until someone receives twelve votes and becomes pope. Everyone has a different goal. A few want to be pope. Others want to sell their votes to the papabile (pope-able candidates) for the best price going. Some want wealth; some have plenty and want to turn it into power. Some want titles; some have titles but have lost the fortunes that should go with them and are hoping to earn that back. Some are young and want to make friends and be owed favors; some are old and want young relatives to become cardinals to preserve the family’s toehold in the College. The Medici Cardinal is sixteen and hoping to cement the family’s hold on Florence. The Patriarch of Venice is ninety-six, dying, and wants to go back to his impregnable hometown and eat candy. Ten of the cardinals present are nephews of previous popes, eager to keep nursing from the coffers and to keep their family fortunes safe from rivals. Eight are pawns of kings and want to secure the clout necessary to get the new pope to grant their masters’ requests should a king want to, for example, divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boelyn (that’s a few decades off but it’s the kind of thing one has to be prepared for). The previous pope glutted the College with his own relatives but all are too young for anyone to be willing to vote for them, so they have thrown their collective clout behind the cunning veteran Giuliano della Rovere: learned, aggressive, interested in art, interested in the classics, and interested above all in how both can be used as tools of power. As for Rodrigo Borgia, he has waited a long time. This may well be his last shot at his uncle’s throne. Resources: all the wealth, contacts, secrets, tax-returns and dirt he has accumulated in decades managing the papal purse.
It was a very complex election, about which we have lots of information, but little that is reliable. We know there were four rounds of voting, and that Borgia was not one of the front runners in the three leading to his unanimous or near-unanimous victory in the last. We have records of enormous bribes, offices and territories representing tens of thousands of florins in annual income changing hands. Some allege that the king of France contributed hundreds of thousands to efforts to get Giuliano della Rovere on the papal throne. It seems pretty clear that the Borgias smuggled letters offering fat bribes into the chapel inside the food which was delivered for the cardinal’s meals. One delightful anecdote from the period claims that the 96-year-old Patriarch of Venice was the last critical swing vote, who, having a wealthy family, secure lines of power, a literally impregnable homeland, and not long to live to enjoy the fruits of bribery, sold out for a couple hundred florins and some marzipan, since, when one is locked in the Sistine Chapel with a bunch of clerics for day after day, sweets are precious hard to come by. In the end even Giuliano della Rovere himself seems to have accepted that, if he could not win, it was better to profit and wait than to remain stubborn and gain nothing. He was still fit, favored by the King of France, and likely to survive to see another election. (For more nitty-gritty details on what we think we might maybe know could have happened potentially, see the wiki.)
Thus Rodrigo Borgia became Pope Alexander VI. One point of friction which came up in the course of the election was a proposal to contractually limit the number of new cardinals the new pope could appoint. All popes strove to load the College of Cardinals with their kin and allies to ensure that their factions had a leg up in the next election, and over the course of the five popes Rodrigo had lived under the portion of stooges and nephews in the college had ballooned like the bubo of a plague victim. Rodrigo Borgia agreed to a high but reasonable limit (I believe the limit was six, although I could be a little off). Then, still within the blushing springtime of his papacy, he trashed that limit and appointed twelve! One of those twelve Cardinal’s hats went to the Archbishop of Valencia, one of his own bastard sons, Cesare Borgia. It was a strange and strained life growing up a Borgia bastard, with a Spanish father but an Italian mother, raised in Rome. The kids learned Catalan as well as Italian and French, not to mention Latin and Greek, since by 1480 humanism was sufficiently victorious that even a twelve-year-old bastard daughter of nobility received a healthy dose of Homer. The Italians considered the Borgias Spanish, but in Spanish eyes they seemed Italian, making them literally at home nowhere. Even within the walls of their own house, as bastard children of a Cardinal they could not be properly acknowledged, at least not in the earlier parts of Rodrigo’s career. This left them wealthy and well-set-up, but also rootless in a world of enemies. Our protagonists here will be Rodrigo’s children by the primary mistress of his Roman pre-papal years, Vannozza dei Cattanei. He had other bastards both before and after, but none that will interest us as much as Giovanni Borgia (1476/7?-1497), Cesare Borgia (1475/6?-1507), Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519) and Gioffredo Borgia(1482-1518).
A Pope Like No Other:
Rodrigo now had one goal: permanently establish the Borgia as one of the great families of Europe. He was an old man, and had to move fast. He bought a ducal title for his intended heir, Pier Luigi. When Pier Luigi died, he bought one for the next son, Giovanni, and made Giovanni commander of the papal armies. He married his younger son (Gioffredo, aged 12) to a princess of Naples (aged 16). He filled the College of Cardinals with stooges who owed their positions and fortunes to the Borgia family, and ensured they had no other allies and many enemies, so they had nowhere to turn if they broke from the Borgia fold. And he positioned his “nephew” Cesare in the College as a cardinal, just as his uncle had positioned him.
All this is expected of a Renaissance pope. He spent lavish sums on redecorating the papal apartments within the Vatican palace, with the Borgia bull all over them. He took a new mistress, the young and enchanting Giulia Farnese, and soon the papal palace rang with the cries of a newborn papal princess. He gave vast sums from the Church’s coffers directly to his children, to spend on amassing land and personal troops. He made corrupt appointments of clerics that fed vast sums into the pockets of allies who never went near the abbeys or peoples whose spiritual well-being they were supposed to oversee. He used papal military forces to pursue personal family vendettas, particularly against the Orsini and Delle Rovere. All this was also pretty standard for a Renaissance pope. Here is where it gets exceptional. Cardinals and other powerful figures who opposed the Borgias kept dying–sometimes of symptoms suggesting poison, sometimes of bloody assassinations, sometimes of obviously trumped up court sentences, or of unexplained issues while they were incarcerated in the private papal prison in Castel san Angelo. The estates of the condemned kept getting confiscated by the holy see, and winding up, not in the papal treasury, but privately in the hands of the popes sons and cousins. Giovanni was a Duke, and begins demanding to be treated as the equal of the many Italian nobles who had looked down their noses all those years at the half-Spanish mutts. Cesare, meanwhile, positioned in the papal conclave and with fourteen-or-so other Cardinals appointed by his father and sure to vote his way, was in a good position to succeed his father in the next election. Now the papacy was ready to become a permanent hereditary Borgia monarchy.
In 1494 big problems began, somewhat hard to summarize, but largely revolving around the primary rival Borgia had defeated in that hard-fought 1492 election: Giuliano della Rovere.
Giuliano della Rovere: “Hey, King of France! This Borgia pope is evil!”
France: “What’s wrong with him?”
Giuliano della Rovere: “He’s better at bribing people than I am, and bought the election I was trying to buy! I hate him! I hate him!! I hate him!!!”
France: “Is that so? What a strange and marvelous age we live in.”
Giuliano della Rovere: “He’s also Spanish.”
France: “What? We hate those guys!”
Giuliano della Rovere: “Please invade Italy!”
Giuliano della Rovere: “To oust the evil Borgia pope and free Rome from corruption that isn’t mine! And if you make me pope, I’ll be your buddy and do whatever you want.”
France: “Tempting… say, Naples is in Italy, right? I seem to remember my distant cousin being King of Naples…”
Ludovico Sforza: “Your Highness should totally invade Italy. On the way in, might I recommend attacking Milan?”
France: “Sforza? Aren’t you the Duke of Milan?”
Ludovico Sforza: “No, my nephew is Duke of Milan. Please invade Italy, attack my home city, and murder my closest relative!”
Della Rovere: “Makes sense to me.”
France: “You Italians have very strange priorities. OK. I suddenly care deeply about this evil Spanish pope. I will oust him!”
Sforza & della Rovere: “Hooray! France is invading Italy!”
France: “CRUSH THINGS!”
Della Rovere: “Hey, don’t crush too much! I want to tyrannize this stuff later.”
France: “CRUSH MILAN!”
Sforza: “Thank you!”
Other Sforza: “You jerk!!”
France: “CRUSH FLORENCE!”
Savonarola: “Have you considered not crushing Florence?”
France: “Oh, I thought you Italians liked being crushed; my mistake.” *gentle condescending head pat*
Machiavelli: “What the… that worked?! How did that work?!?!”
France: “CRUSH ROME!”
Della Rovere: “Excellent! Now, get that evil Borgia pope!”
France: “Right. Where is this evil Borgia pope?”
Alexander VI: “Hello, Your Majesty. Would you like me to make you King of Naples?”
Ludovico Sforza: “Great idea! Go crush Naples!”
France: “Did you two read my character sheet or something? Yes! Naples! That is indeed what I want.”
Alexander VI: “I hereby crown you King of Naples. Now you can crush and tyrannize the entire southern half of Italy without consequence. I shall tyrannize the middle, and you and Sforza can share the top.”
Ludovico Sforza: “Here’s a big bat. Have fun!”
France: “I AM THE KING OF NAPLES! CRUSH THINGS!!!!”
Della Rovere: “Borgia bad! You said you’d oust Borgia!”
France: “Yeah, I can see why Borgia out-bribed you at the election. He’s way better at this evil pope stuff!” SMASH!!!!
Alexander VI: “In the name of Saint Peter, CRUSH THINGS!!!!”
Italy: “Wait, did the papal runner-up just invite the French to invade, and then the pope encouraged them to invade more, and then the pope started a new war of his own to seize the ravaged territories? That’s a new one for the ‘worst popes’ book!”
Alexander VI: “Della Rovere did it.”
Della Rovere: “Borgia did it.”
Savonarola: “THIS POPE IS THE ANTICHRIST! THESE ARE THE END TIMES! APOCALYPSE! JUDGMENT!”
Everyone: “You know, that explains a lot…”
But he remained the pope, however destructive his exploits. He had armies, money, his own prison-fortress, his own courts of law, political instincts honed by decades, detailed knowledge of everyone’s secrets, the authority to grant noble titles (like King of Naples), and the power to damn you to Hell forever and ever. His every move made him more powerful at the cost of his enemies, so the worse things got, the bleaker the prospect of taking down the Borgia monster.
If you can’t take down the monster, one traditional option is to marry it. Yet in this case, even allying with the pope by marriage, effectively agreeing to permanently condone and support whatever antics he got up to, was not necessarily a permanent fix. The infamous and enchanting Lucrezia Borgia deserves an entry of her own someday, but I will treat her briefly here. She was supposed to be one of the most beautiful ladies in the world, with blonde hair which fell past her knees, and a keen and well-trained intellect. I can testify personally to the latter, since I have read some of the letters she wrote to her father from Milan at the age of fourteen, and the depth of her understanding of the European situation as she warns her father of political turmoil along Italy’s northern border certainly adds plausibility to the impossible competence of a lot of teen-aged young adult and anime protagonists. In marriage terms, she was the best catch in the world. Unfortunately, she was too valuable. Alexander engaged her to one noble, then broke it off in favor of a better one, then a better one (“What’re ya gonna do about it? Her dad’s the pope!”). Eventually he married her to a bastard of the Sforza, the ruling family of Milan, then when the Sforza weren’t valuable enough wrangled an annulment (the Sforza objected fiercely: “You can’t do that! We’re Catholic! Ending a marriage requires a special dispensation from the pop… oh, right. #%$&!”) Next Alfonso of Aragon, from the Naples-Spanish royal family. That one ended in a juicy (and unsolved) murder. All the rumors of corruption that follow corrupt rulers naturally followed the Borgias, and I mean all of them. Every important person who died was poisoned by the Borgias. Every body found floating in the Tiber was their fault. Lucrezia was sleeping with her brothers. Lucrezia was sleeping with her father. Giovanni was sleeping with Gioffredo’s wife. Giovanni murdered his own wife. Cesare murdered Lucrezia’s second husband out of jealousy because he was in love with her. Alexander was sleeping, not just with Julia Farnese, but with Julia Farnese’s brother Alessandro. Alexander was sleeping with the Ottoman Sultan’s brother Cem. Most of these rumors must be untrue, and experts have spent many years making baby steps toward sorting true from false, but the majority is pretty much impossible to verify. It does seem to be true that there was a patch in there when so many Cardinals were being murdered that there were active betting pools in Rome where you could lay money on which Cardinal would be offed next. I myself am half convinced by the numerous accounts that claim that Cesare used to go out in the streets at night and murder people for fun. I mean, why not? His dad’s the pope! Many of the claims may be outlandish, but neither historical facts nor the rule of plausibility can really help us quash them when the facts we do have are so exactly what we would expect if everything was true. For example, in 1498, two of Lucrezia’s household servants were found dead in the Tiber without explanation, and shortly thereafter she definitely gave birth to a bastard, which was officially declared to be Cesare’s son, then to be Alexander’s son, then to be her half-brother with no claim about who the father was. What was history supposed to think? And all this time, the Ottoman Sultan’s brother Cem, who was living in Rome as a political hostage, did spend a suspiciously large amount of time hangin’ with the Borgias.
But these were small things. In 1497, one of the bodies floating in the Tiber was their own. Giovanni Borgia, Duke of Gandia, Alexander’s heir. An untouched purse containing gold worth more than a year’s income to many Romans proved it was not a random murder. Alexander launched an intense investigation, then suddenly halted it after less than two weeks without any announcement of the result. No one was convicted. Rumors blamed the Orsini. Darker rumors blamed his fellow Borgias. Young Gioffredo Borgia was accused, on the grounds that Giovanni was supposed to have been sleeping with his wife. Cesare Borgia was accused on the grounds of… of… frankly, it just seems that everyone who knew Cesare and knew Giovanni and knew the situation just agreed, as if by instinct, that it was Cesare. Nothing else made sense. Fratricide–the narrative demands it.
The Dark Prince Rises:
Why kill Giovanni? [Disclaimer: there is no proof Cesare did kill Giovanni. I freely confess that my tendency to believe those who claim he did is based solely on (A) its consistency with his later actions, and (B) the fact that it feels narratively right. There is no proof!] Cesare was supposed to succeed his father as pope. But Giovanni, he was the one who got to be a Duke, to marry a princess, to enjoy the lands and castles, and to carry on the Borgia name. He had been the heir. The logical next heir should have been Gioffredo. Instead Cesare took center stage. He renounced the Cardinalship, becoming the only man in history ever to do so. His father pressured the French into giving him a princess for a wife, and a Ducal title. So little did the actual people ruled by nobles matter to the aristocrats who owned them at the time that they decided to make him Duke of a region called Valentinois for the sole reason that, as Archbishop of Valencia, he was already nicknamed “Valentino”, and this way they wouldn’t have to change his nickname. He took command of the papal armies, and control of the Borgia estates. But Alexander continued to sort-of treat him as a Cardinal and he continued to sort-of act like one, making everyone worry that they might still intend Cesare to succeed his father as pope even though he was now also intending to succeed as worldly heir. What did it mean?
Titular power was not enough now. During Giovanni’s years, Alexander had already started signing papal lands over to his son-and-heir, not as temporary leases but as permanent gifts, carving off pieces of the Papal States and creating a private Borgia kingdom out of what had been Rome’s. You see, titular ducal titles like Gandia and Valentinoi,s to Italian eyes, just meant some faraway nowhereville which gives people money and makes us have to call them “Your Grace”. Such territories didn’t matter, not like a territory in Italy would matter. What Alexander and Cesare made now was different. Alexander gave a big hunk of the papal states to Cesare, as a permanent gift. The cities within the Papal States were governed by papal “Vicars,” i.e. nobility granted rule over sub-territories within the papal lands much as Dukes and Counts are granted sub-territories in a kingdom by a king or emperor. These vicars were in theory appointed by the pope and could be replaced by him, though in practice the position was by custom passed along noble lines from father to son. To depose them all and give their lands to his son as the new vicar was thus technically legal but practically unthinkable, and an as great a shock to the political scene as if a king of France had suddenly deposed half his top nobles. It also implied Alexander’s intention to leave these territories in Borgia hands permanently. Next Cesare raised armies and started, on small pretexts, attacking neighboring city-states and territories, ejecting the current rulers and adding them to his private Borgia kingdom. (“What’re ya gonna do about it? My dad’s the pope!”) A new blotch appeared on the European map. Let me repeat: a new blotch appeared on the European map, a kingdom out of nowhere, carved out in the heart of Italy, a kingdom which no longer belonged to the pope, or any Italian house, but to the Borgias. Whether Cesare became pope next or not, he would be Duke—perhaps soon King—of an ever-growing chunk of the world. No pope had done this. No pope had done anything close to this.
The new and growing Borgia Kingdom was an especially terrifying force in the eyes of those on its ever-changing borders. The pattern rapidly became clear: ally with the pope–by marriage or treaty–or you are next on Cesare’s chopping block. These were not subtle takeovers but outright sieges, with the full brutality of Renaissance warfare. Even Ferrara—the untouchable no man’s land between Venice and Rome which no man dared disturb lest strife on the Venetian border weaken the power whose fleet was the only barrier between the Turk and Christendom—even here Cesare threatened war. The threat of war with the Turk meant nothing to him. He was ready to ravage Ferrara, and would have if the Duke hadn’t speedily married Lucrezia and agreed to condone and acknowledge all his new brother-in-law’s conquests. So even the untouchable noble house of Este fell into Borgia hands. And do you know what plump, gold-fatted city-state lay directly west of the patch where Cesare was playing king-unmaker? Good guess.
Good morning, Mr. Machiavelli. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to prevent Cesare Borgia from conquering Florence. You will serve as our official ambassador to his court. You will shadow the Duke-Cardinal as closely as possible, report to us about his character and tactics, and develop a strategy to keep him from adding Tuscany to his expanding kingdom. While at his court, you will need to maintain yourself and your team with grandeur sufficient to make him take us seriously as a political force, but we can’t send you any funds to pay for this, since Borgia has so completely destroyed peace and order in the region that bandits are rampaging through the countryside robbing and murdering all our couriers. As always, should you or any member of your team be caught or killed, the Signoria will disavow all knowledge of your actions. This message will self-destruct in a few weeks when your office is inevitably looted and burned, but if you throw it in the fire that will speed things up.
Thus began Machiavelli’s very special education in the conduct of a different kind of prince.
Cesare Borgia was both feared and loved. The “loved” part may seem out of place given Borgia infamy, but it was true. The papal vicars Cesare replaced had been widely disliked by the peoples they ruled, since most of them were corrupt and more interested in family advancement than their people’s well-being. Cesare offered something different, and in many cases better. Better how? Because the fundamental purpose of government, from the perspective of a butcher or a weaver, is to keep the peace and prevent killing and looting. Cesare did that. Cesare did that very, very well. How? If someone was caught causing strife in the streets, that person would be executed in the most horrifically graphic possible way and his corpse strung up in public. Consequence: peace. Two examples of Cesare’s activities in this period crop up particularly vividly in the history books, and in Machiavelli’s “little book on princes.” The first is the case of Remirro de Orco. Cesare conquered the territory of Romagna (East/middle hunk of Italy), including the city of Cesena. Such was the chaos resulting from the violent upheaval and expulsion of the old rulers, that the region of Romagna had largely degenerated into chaos, banditry, killing and looting. Cesare needed to bring order. He appointed a mercenary captain named Remirro de Orco, one of his more loyal men, and commanded that he bring peace to the area as efficiently as possible by using maximum brutality. Following Cesare’s order, Remirro carried out numerous executions, using methods gruesome even for the Renaissance, and speedily crushed the region under the iron heel of peace. No one looted. No one dared. After peace was achieved, Cesare inspected the region and confirmed that it was indeed stable, arguably even more prosperous than it had been before his conquests, but that the people were fired with bitterness and rage. The next morning, Cesare had departed, and Remirro de Orco was found in the town square of Cesena, having been sliced in half, with his gore-spewing entrails strewn across the decorative pavement. No one doubted it was Cesare’s doing, but to Machaivelli’s astonishment, the effect of this unthinkable betrayal was instant and lasting peace. The people were satisfied, even grateful, that Cesare had taken revenge upon the brutal oppressor, and the new, gentler vassal he left in place to rule the region was readily obeyed. They did not blame Cesare for the atrocities loyal Remirro had carried out at his express order – instead they thanked him for avenging them. Cesare was loved.
He was also feared, by other loyal vassals who noticed (as my father urged Crabbe and Goyle to) that the villain had a tendency to brutally murder people near him, even loyal servants. This was unheard of. The Handbook of Princes says the success of the prince depends on his ability to inspire loyalty and love from his vassals. The vassal betraying the benefactor is the worst thing in Dante’s Inferno; Dante didn’t even have a section for benefactors who betray their vassals because it simply didn’t occur to the Renaissance political mind that one would ever want to. But it did occur to Cesare. By this phase, by the way, Cesare’s face had been disfigured by syphilis, and he had taken to wearing a mask. And dressing all in black. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, he genuinely did go around dressed all in black wearing a mask, betraying and murdering people. Sadly, we have no documentary evidence that he went “Wa ha ha! Wa ha ha ha ha!” The nervousness that swept through Cesare’s vassals leads us to the second amazing incident, the massacre at Senigallia. In very late 1502, several of the vassals who had supported Cesare in return for receiving power under him and having his help crushing their enemies became increasingly afraid, both for their lives and for Italy and Europe, and plotted against him. This was really quite rational. But they were disorganized and uncertain, and did not follow through well. They heard rumors that Cesare had heard about the plot. They didn’t quite trust each other not to sell each other out to him. One problem led to another, and in the end they decided to abandon the plot, confess to him that they had considered treason but renew their vows to follow him to the end, and beg his forgiveness. They confessed. He forgave. They rejoiced. He invited them to join him for a feast. They heartily accepted. He massacred them all. High on Olympus Hestia sighed, and the vengeful Furies in the depths gnashed their teeth as the Laws of Hospitality lay wounded. Cesare’s vassals never plotted against him again.
I will never forget the letter written to Machiavelli by his friend Biagio Buonaccorsi on January 9th 1503, expressing absolute delight and abject gratitude and relief upon hearing that Machiavelli had survived the massacre at which so many of Cesare’s court had been killed. Throughout this period, dear Niccolo’s friends and family were prepared to read any day that he had been killed, either with Cesare or by Cesare. And they didn’t manage to send him his salary. Once they tried giving it to Michelangelo to carry to him when he was en route to Rome, but even Michelangelo turned back in Cesare-ful times of banditry and chaos. But something else unsettling was happening too. What of our Handbooks of Princes? Shouldn’t a betrayal like that make the rest of Cesare’s vassals turn and flee? Shouldn’t these people rebel hearing rumors of his brutality? Doesn’t the Handbook of Princes genre teach us that every move Cesare is making should fail? Then why does every step he takes seem to be a step up? They’re trying to turn the papacy into a hereditary monarchy, and they’re succeeding. It should be noted that Cesare’s rise does not necessarily completely undermine the advice in the traditional Handbook of Princes. Providence has exalted tyrants before, and fools have followed them, many out of of fear. The apparent (psychological) effects of the incidents with Remirro and at Senigallia are hard to explain, but this can still fit traditional narratives, especially if the Borgias fall in some appropriately cataclysmic way, demonstrating the wages of sin and the grisly fate that waits for bad princes and bad popes. Then Cesare’s story can join our collections of moral anecdotes as an example of hubris and cruelty, while one of his enemies (Guidobaldo da Montefeltro perhaps?) becomes the hero. But for now, hubris and cruelty seem to be winning the day.
Machiavelli’s letters from the period include some of his reflections on these larger philosophical and historical questions, but he does not have the leisure to invent political science just now. That must wait for the leisurely days of his exile. On this mission, every second is reserved for Florence. Seeing all who opposed the rising prince fall one by one, Machiavelli too chose to follow fear’s advice and suggested an alliance. Florence accepted his plan and, after many careful approaches by their wily ambassador, so did Cesare. Florence became an official Borgia ally, agreeing to recognize Cesare’s legitimate claim to his newly-carved kingdom and to offer money and resources to help him conquer more. Florence was safe for now—at least, as safe as Remirro de Orco had been. And it is in this precarious state that we must leave Florence, and Machiavelli, and the triumphant Cesare for a little while, as the spring of 1503 promises Great Change.
Machiavelli, Part the Second: in which terms are defined, moral codes collided, teachers betrayed, a hypothetical man executed, Batman and Sherlock Holmes placed before the reader’s judgment, and Machiavelli never actually appears.
Ethics, or moral philosophy, is the branch of philosophy which deals with decision-making, how we separate correct from incorrect action. A moral philosophy, or ethical system, is the set of criteria by which an individual judges whether an action should or should not be taken. All ethical systems can, believe it or not, be separated into three categories, whose names are, to the eternal detriment of students, misleading and confusing. The three are Virtue Ethics (note, does not necessarily involve any concept of “virtue”), Deontology (no relation whatsoever to “ontology”), and the younger sibling, Utilitarianism, aka. Consequentialism. I will give away my ending here by saying that Machiavelli is the founder of Utilitarianism, and that few changes in the history of thought have so radically transformed the human world. But for the moment we shall live in a world without Consequentialism, for it is in such a world that Petrarch, and Savonarola, and the young Machiavelli find themselves.
Virtue Ethics is any ethical system which judges an action based on the interior motives and feelings of the actor. Did that person will a good deed when the person took that action? If so, it was a morally good action. Did the person will a wicked deed? If so, it was a morally wicked action. The primary question is of the character of the doer: is this a good person or a bad person while performing this action? Virtue Ethics is thus what leads to such legal terms as self-defense, heat of passion and premeditation. Yes this person killed another human being, but it was an act of self-defense: this person does not have the character of a murderer. Yes this person killed another, but (s)he was temporarily out of control due to shock and truma: this person does not have the character of a murderer. Yes this person killed another, but it was a rash, improvised action, not the result of days and weeks of maliciously plotting how to take human life: this person does have the character of a murderer but the flaw is not so deep, not so perverse, not so terrible.
The father of Virtue Ethics is Plato, whose argument in The Republic attempts to define Justice. Is Justice, as one interlocutor proposes, “The will of the stronger?” Is it “the law?” Plato concludes, defines Justice and other virtues as “a harmony of the soul,” i.e. an interior quality independent from any action. In such a system a man is equally virtuous, whether Fortune sends him to rescue a drowning child, to plunge into bloody battle, or to sit in solitary meditation, if his inner state remains the same. Plato also concludes that it is virtue—the inner harmony of the soul—which makes people happy, rather than wealth or fame or power, which bring with them stresses, risk, and, often, the very opposite of happiness.
Deontology is any ethical system which judges action based on a presumed-universal set of laws or rules external to the doer. The rules, and their source, may vary enormously. A patriot who judges actions good or bad based on whether they are lawful or unlawful exercises deontology. A religious person who judges actions good or bad based on a code of conduct taken from a holy book exercises deontology. A philosopher practicing rational deism who judges actions good or bad based on a set of “natural laws” (s)he has logically derived from observations of Nature and human behavior exercises deontology. The uniting characteristic is the focus on rules. Examples: Killing another human being is wrong. Killing another human being over whom you do not hold paternal right of life or death is wrong. Eating an animal is wrong. Eating a certain type of animal is wrong. Eating an animal in a certain month is wrong. Burning a book is wrong. Permitting the circulation of a book whose dangerous content might lure people into eternal damnation is wrong. If there is a father of Deontology it is also Plato, since Plato is the first author to discuss such ideas and to contrast them with Virtue Ethics, but Plato is the first Western philosopher to discuss ethics at all. When his dialogs contrast different views voiced by different interlocutors, are we to credit Plato as the creator of all? Or shall we argue that deontology was already in the air as the “obvious” approach to what was not yet an “-ology.” For simplicity’s sake we can credit Plato as the father of ethics.
Having treated the father, Plato, I will take a split second to present the son, Aristotle (who broke violently [by philosophical standards] with his master and strode off either boldly into the truths of the Earth or foolishly back into the Cave, depending on whether you believe the apprentice or the master). Aristotle presents virtues as a mean between two vices, i.e. bravery is the mean between cowardice and foolhardiness; generosity between miserliness and prodigality. These are, as in Plato, internal qualities, and a brave man can be brave even if he never has the opportunity to show it. Yet Aristotle discusses what he calls habits of virtue. The idea is that someone who does not have the correct virtuous internal disposition might attain it gradually through practice. He who is not naturally generous can nonetheless practice giving to the poor and eventually, through practice, acquire a habit or instinct to give, and thus become generous. A coward who practices charging into danger might gradually become brave. A rebellious child who is forced, through the schoolmaster’s rod, to behave might eventually settle down and learn his grammar. This approach lies, distantly, behind the medieval Christian practices which say, if you’ve sinned, you can improve yourself by rote reciting prayers and giving alms. It lies even more distantly behind our modern practice of assigning public service hours as punishments for minor crimes.
Now, some practical examples of Virtue Ethics vs. Deontology:
EXAMPLE: Guido kills Paolo.
A virtue ethicist is not a position to answer at this point whether Guido has done good or bad. Most deontologists would also be unable to answer. If a deontologist follows a code like some strict forms of Buddhism which say that taking a life is always wrong regardless of the circumstances, such a deontologist could at this point say with certainty: Guido has done wrong. But for all others we need detail:
EXAMPLE 2: Guido is a professional executioner. He kills Paolo, executing a sentence ordered by the lawful government, for a capital crime which Paolo did indeed commit.
Now a broader range of deontologists can answer whether or not Guido has done wrong. In a deontological system in which the lawful government has a right to lethal force and is largely the source of the rules by which we judge (think Hobbes) then Guido has committed no evil. A deontologist who believes it is absolutely wrong to execute anyone can judge that Guido has done evil. Others may want to know what Paolo’s crime was (Murder? Rape? Adultery? Atheism? Public urination? Homosexuality? Freedom of speech?) to determine whether or not it indeed merits death.
Yet, in any or all of these situations, our unfortunate virtue ethicist still has no way to judge Guido because we need to know what is going on in Guido’s mind. Did Guido become an executioner because Guido looooooves killing people and jumped at a state-sanctioned way to do it? If so we would probably not call his action virtuous. Did Guido become an executioner because he saw a botched execution as a child, and thereafter determined to do it himself in order to strive to be as humane and respectful as possible to those about to face the undiscovered country? If so we might call this very virtuous. Was Guido drafted into Hitler’s army where he is following orders? Does he question them? Does he not? Was he brainwashed? Does he hate this task or does he do it unblinkingly? All these details the virtue ethicist must have before answering whether Guido is performing a morally good deed. (For anyone sitting here thinking: No! The Holocaust was unconscionable! No matter what the motives, if Guido was a Nazi it’s evil! Congratulations: you have identified a point in your personal ethics which is firmly deontological.) Note too that in all these executioner scenarios, it does not matter whether or not Paolo is guilty or innocent, deserving or undeserving of death. What matters is whether Guido thinks Paolo is guilty or innocent, etc.
“What about me?” objects voluntarism in a high, squeaky voice. Yes, I was just getting to you. Voluntarism is an ethical system which says that an act is only moral if it is good by both virtue ethics and deontology. That is, an act must be good and permissible by absolute external rules, and the doer must also have good motives while doing it. The quintessential example, for which we may thank William of Ockham (1288-1348), is a man who goes to church. “You may think this is a good act,” Ockham warns his presumed-Catholic High Medieval reader, “but what if the man goes to Church not for God’s sake or out of love and piety, but in order to show off his Sunday finery to his fellow man, and make political and economic connections to further his own earthly greed? Only if a man takes good actions for good reasons is true moral virtue present!” In a less formalized but also more emotionally powerful formulation, which has the distinction of being the first real manifestation of voluntarism in the history of philosophy, Heloise (1101-1164) spends her days in the nunnery praying, and fasting, and looking after the sick, and mortifying her flesh, and everyone tells her she is a very good nun and leading a virtuous life, but, she writes, “Even while I’m praying I spend all day thinking about how much I want to be having sex with Peter Abelard (1079-1142)” (slight paraphrase). “How is this morally good? How is this rote repetition of pious words and actions without feelings behind them supposed to help me become a better person?”
Thus we have deontology, virtue ethics and their child voluntarism. (Deontology: “A child conceived within the strictures of formally permissible union.” Virtue ethics: “And in love!”)
Care to spend a fun evening with your friends? Sit around picking interesting characters from various pieces of fiction and discussing whether they based their decisions on deontology or virtue ethics. This game brings endless delight, especially if you’re the sort who enjoys slotting various characters into the old Dungeons & Dragons Alignment Grid, since this categorization system is actually universally applicable, and leads to many fascinating distinctions and telling disagreements. You will also notice a pair of general patterns, at least in popular fiction of the last few decades, (1) that good guys tend to be more dominated by Virtue Ethics, and bad guys by other motives, and (2) the author or scriptwriter (very common in movies) tends to assume the viewer will judge the characters based primarily on Virtue Ethics.
Batman. Absolute commitment to never using lethal force: deontology. (Unless we think he refrains from killing out of fear of what killing would do to his moral character.)
Spiderman. Uncle Ben was killed because of Peter Parker’s selfish and vengeful impulse in that moment he let the thug go instead of using his powers for good. Why, then, does Peter dedicate himself to fighting crime? If it is because he has come to an absolute conclusion that with great power comes great responsibility, i.e. he is morally required to, that is deontology. If it is because he hopes to redeem the flaw in his character which led to his selfish decision, it is Virtue Ethics at its most habit-of-virtue Aristotelian.
Average Disney Hero. Battles villain to save princess, then villain conveniently falls off a cliff. The virtue ethicist remains content that no shadow is cast on the hero’s character. Hooray, we have neatly dodged any and all possible moral complexity!
Calaban. Prospero enslaves him and seizes control of his native island as punishment for Calaban’s attempted rape of Miranda. Virtue Ethics says Calaban is a horrible and malicious being, and that this punishment is just (unless you have a super-charming actor playing Calaban). Deontology’s answer depends on which of several different rights/laws the individual deontologist considers primary. Right of Conquest? If so, Prospero can do whatever he likes to Calaban. Right of sovereignty? If so Prospero is a wicked invader. Right of benefactor, to punish the ungrateful Calaban to whom Prospero taught and gave so much? Then Prospero is in the right. Right of host, to punish the ungrateful Prospero whom Calaban welcomed to his island? Then Calaban is in the right. Right to punish the terrible crime of rape? Only if the deontologist in question believes in some specific absolute code by which rape is criminal in this specific circumstance.
Sherlock Holmes. Tendency to bend the rules and let criminals escape when he thinks they are good people or generally should not suffer the vengeance of the law: Virtue Ethics. Or is it? In the case of the Blue Carbuncle, Holmes states “I am aiding a criminal, but I may be saving a soul.” Is this an application of religious deontology against law-code-based deontology? In the self-defense killing of The Abbey Grange, Holmes goes through the formula of an impromptu trial before releasing the homicide who he fears would be wrongly convicted in a real trial. Even when he burgles the master blackmailer Charles Augustus Milverton, he invokes the (deontological) duty of a gentleman to aid a lady in distress as his moral justification. Our perfect analytical reasoner walks a fine and subtle line on the edge of what feels like comfortable, emotional Virtue Ethics, but it is hard to catch him actually outstepping the bounds of what he would surely call universal rules of right and wrong. Holmes has, of course, enjoyed many versions, and I encourage everyone (especially fans of the Sherlock TV series) to examine how his ethics vary variant by variant.
Personal favorite for this exercise: Darth Vader. [Do I really need a spoiler warning for this?] He betrays his master the Emperor to save his son. The film presents this as redemptive, and his spirit moves on to the vague glowy-person positive Manichean afterlife of the Star Wars special effects universe. Hooray. Virtue Ethics supports this absolutely, since the morally good side of his character has won out, even after so many evil deeds, proving him good inside. What about the deontologist? If we believe that an apprentice owes true fealty to his master, then this betrayal is a wicked act. If we believe that the father’s drive to protect his child is a natural and universal bond deeper than law, then this killing-in-defense is a good act. If we believe the Emperor was the legitimate ruler of the Empire and that its laws are binding, then this treason is a wicked act. If we believe the Emperor is a tyrant who has unjustly displaced the rightful Republic, then this tyrranicide is, potentially, a good act. What if the general Sith lifestyle says the apprentice is supposed to kill his master to take his place? Then Darth Vader is a lazy bum, and should’ve done this a long time ago. This is but one of many occasions in which Hollywood presents a narrative which is simple and easy to judge using virtue ethics—which is presumed to be the default in today’s audience—but much more complex if deontology rears its head.
Or worse, the dreaded utilitarianism.
Murky waters lie before us as ethics’ third branch stirs from the depths.
Utilitarianism, or Consequentialism, is any form of ethics which judges an action based on the consequences of the action, rather than the action itself or the motive of the doer.
Guido killed Paolo before Paolo could push the nuclear destructor button and end all life on Earth. Guido killed Paolo before Paolo could exterminate a bus full of nuns and orphans. Guido killed Paolo before Paolo could kill ten nuns and ten orphans. Two nuns? One nun?
We moderns, saturated with utilitarianism, feel that these situations are different from one another, though feel discomfort with “the end justifies the means” and all feel that the scale gets slipperier and more uncomfortable as the numbers get smaller. Throughout these scenarios the deontologist’s view is unchanged, unless the set of rules the deontologist is applying has specific caveats for killing to defend life. The virtue ethicist is, of course, not in a position to judge, because the exploding nuns do not tell us Guido’s motive. If Guido killed Paolo in order to prevent the nuclear destruction of thousands of innocents, Guido is probably, by virtue ethics, not actively willing evil. But what if Guido didn’t know or care about the nuclear destructor button, and shot Paolo just because Guido loves shooting people? Or in order to steal Paolo’s avocado club sandwich? What if Guido is a government assassin who was hired to kill Paolo in order to save innocent lives, but who originally became a government assassin in order to have license to kill because Guido just loves, loves, loves killing? In all these cases Guido’s character is different, so the virtue ethicist must judge him differently, while most deontological systems would still pay attention mainly to the act itself. As for Utilitarianism, we have now entered the frightening realm where we must admit that even if Guido committed murder and did it out of love of snuffing out the human candle, it might have saved a hundred billion lives and it is hard to say flat out: that was a bad act.
No greater can of worms has been opened in philosophy’s long march. Several equal perhaps, none greater.
How many lives must Guido save before killing Paolo is justified?
What if Paolo is a drowning baby and Guido saves him, but then Paolo grows up to become an evil overlord and slaughters millions? Does the rescue become retroactively evil?
If, with our finite perspectives, we cannot ever know the infinite consequences of any particular butterfly wing-beat, let alone moral choice, can we ever in fact say with certainty that any act is good or bad? Have we, in fact, surrendered the capacity to judge at all?!
And, stepping back one level, the historical question: If deontology and virtue ethics were both created at the very spark-birth of philosophy, why did it take 1,800 years for the third (to us equally obvious) branch to come into being?
Ah, friends: before we can have utilitarianism, we must have Borgias! Before we can understand why this this third mode of human thought was born, nearly two millennia into the unassailed riegn of the original two, I must narrate the papacy’s darkest and, in my view, most exciting hour. And before I can devote myself to the events around 1503, I must reserve a few days for my own affairs in 2012.
I have determined, based on the volume of questions my the first installment of my Machiavelli series sparked, that two entries on Machiavelli is not enough. I now have a four part plan in mind. I must, therefore, beg some patience from my readers, as I postpone tales of Borgias and adulteries and historically documentable assassinations for another fortnight. I think, in the end, my treatment will be clearer, as well as more comprehensive, if I take my time. In the first entry I addressed Machiavelli’s political and personal life. Next I shall treat his contribution to the field of ethics. Third, I shall turn to the Borgia cataclysm which birthed that ethics. Then, fourth, I shall address religion, why Machiavelli was so long styled “arch-heretic”, and, on a more personal note, my own experiences as an historian specializing in the history of heterodoxy, heresy and unbelief in the Renaissance, who faces regularly that perennial question: “Was Machiavelli an atheist?” A fifth post may yet grow out of more questions, we’ll see.
The next proper installment is underway, but first I want to address one question I received, which was likely intended to be rhetorical, but for which I have an answer. The question was: “Holy cow, why isn’t more history taught like this?”
The answer comes down to what I call the simplification bell curve. The type of treatment I am presenting here of Machiavelli is extremely simplified. I simplify the historical details, using such phrases as “Florence’s republic went through some twists” or “everyone joins forces to attack Venice” to gloss over infinitely complicated political situations which an expert might unpack into many volumes. I also simplify Machiavelli’s thought, presenting not his own words nor even citable paraphrases, but the broadest summaries. Indeed, it would take some effort on my part or a reader’s to trace any of my statements to a single line or section from the authentic text.
This simplification involves an enormous amount of personal judgment on my part, and a corresponding amount of trust on yours, as I ask you to accept my claims while I supply no evidence to verify them. It requires a great deal of expertise, comfort and what I call fluency in a topic, in this case fluency in Machiavelli’s world and thought, for an historian to competently make such simplifications and judgment calls, and I myself demand to know a lot about an author’s background and other works before I will trust that author enough to accept such a simplified narrative. Many do it badly, even misleadingly (intentionally or accidentally); few do it well. There are perhaps a few dozen people in the world who know any given topic well enough, and these are not enough to populate all classrooms. Even when a teacher is truly fluent in one topic, the rigors of scheduling may suddenly demand that our Machiavelli expert suddenly teach Medieval theater, or Heidegger (that was a scary semester). Thus, if syllabi and textbooks frequently resort to details and facts, encouraging memorization as well as critical thinking on the students’ part, this is in my view a reasonable, even necessary device for avoiding the dangers posed if someone less comfortable with a topic attempts to synthetically simplify. I myself would never be comfortable presenting a simplified synthetic narrative of an historical topic outside my own area of specialization. In fact, being still early in my career, I am not yet comfortable putting a piece like this in formal print, since, while I am confident in my fluency in Machiavelli, I do not yet have the publications under my belt to prove it to cautious colleagues.
How is this a bell curve? Because synthetic simplification is a tool well-suited for two points on a bell curve: an extremely introductory treatment of an historical topic can legitimately simplify things in the interest of a novitiate audience, and an extremely expert treatment of an historical topic can also comfortably simplify, relying on trust in the author’s fluency. It is at middling levels of expertise that details, facts, figures and footnotes are necessary, to prove points and so readers can hold the historian accountable, reading critically and questioning anything which seems implausible, biased, partisan or otherwise sketchy. This form of teaching history is less efficient, less elegant and less fun, but nonetheless necessary, and indeed useful, since it teaches the student not only facts but how to interpret them in the raw, a necessity in a world saturated with bias and incomplete information. It presents information, rather than interpretation, because interpretation is far more difficult to do well, and does (and should) ring more warning bells in the minds of readers who know to mistrust interpretations which are not accompanied by evidence. In sum, this style of history requires a lot of historical fluency on one end, and a lot of trust on the other. That, in (not very) short is my theory about why more history is not taught like this.
Next up: Ethics!
Three good basic Florence intros.
The one shown in the middle above, Brucker’s “Golden Age” is a basic textbook with lots of shiny pictures. The others are more detailed, the one on the left by a Machiavelli expert.
This is not the promised second installment of my discussion of Machiavelli. I have been too busy to do it properly. In the mean time, however, I have at last (through the good work of my assistant Athan) figured out the web technology share one of my favorite Florentine experiences – something I know Machiavelli would be delighted to have me share.
Living in the center as I did this year, I was often interrupted mid-footnote by the distant peppering of drum beats. Live music is a constant in the historic center. There is a consistent daily calendar which I soon came to memorize: the accordion player whose medley of “Canta y no llores” and “Somewhere over the Rainbow” (why?!) looped through the lunch hour, solos from Carmen at 3:00, the Peter, Paul & Mary cover guitarist at 5:00, the Peruvian flute and drum band at 6:00, the Bad Clown (my nemesis!) at 9 pm, 9:30 weekends. Other performances vary daily, with a different brass band or or talented youth group occupying key piazzas every weeknight and weekend.
It is impossible to attend even all the good performances, so the first step when the pop-pop-pop of drums float through the window is to listen carefully for the pattern. Is it the regular, modern beat of a marching band? Or is it the distinctive TUM [pause] ta-ta-TUM [pause] ta-ta-TA-ta-ta-TA-ta-ta-TUM! That rhythm means only one thing: an historic parade! And 50/50 odds that means Sbandieratori! The fantastic medieval sport of tossing banners in the air and catching them in elaborate patterns, as the brave athletes risk the public shame that comes with letting the city’s flag touch the ground if the flag falls. Time to rush rush rush down the stairs stairs stairs, then follow the drums and trumpets until you see the distinctive white and red peeking above the crowd.
And now I can share my experience, thanks to the miracle of amateur video!
These clips are grainy, but capture a good sample of the experience. The first in the series streamed below shows the usual first experience: a glimpse of flags swirling above the assembled heads, proof that flag tossing is indeed an ideal form of public display for a world before bleachers and loudspeakers. The second video I filmed while following behind the parade en route to their finale (that one is slightly jiggly at the beginning but still in the middle). The remaining videos show various stages of the display. This performance I filmed was at night, so it’s a little dim, but takes place right in front of the Palazzo Vecchio. You will see many stages of the performance, from the whole troop working in formation passing flags from hand to hand, to displays by pairs or soloists using one, two, three, four, even five flags at once.
(For some reason the video player embedded below sometimes doesn’t display the first time you load the page, but if you only see a blank white space, hit refresh and it will display.)
It’s a fabulous treat to watch, and in the middle of a strenuous weekend of editing and deadline-chasing it was often a beautiful release to rush down and enjoy a dose of historical pageantry: Oh, right! I’m in Florence!
My year in Florence has flown by, leaving me to face up to a life without battlements and medieval towers, without Botticelli and Verrocchio, without church bells to inform me when it’s noon, or 7 am, or 6 am, or 6:12 am (why?), without squash blossoms as a pizza topping, without good gelato within easy reach, and without looking out my window and realizing that the humungous dome of the cathedral is still shockingly humungous whenever I see it, and the facade so beautiful that it hasn’t started to feel real, not even after so long. Among the cravings I have felt for Florence in the first weeks of separation—cravings for watermelon granita, Cellini’s statue of Perseus and long walks between historic facades—the most acute has been for a view: the view up from the square into the little office in the Palazzo Vecchio where Machiavelli worked.
You may have noticed that I appended the tag “S.P.Q.F.” to every post this year. It has been my title for the year-in-Florence chapter of my activities, and in explaining why I find it such a fitting title I am at last going to answer formally here one of my favorite questions. It’s my habit in Florence to strike up conversation with random passing tourists, and as one thing leads to another (and often to pizza, gelato and the Uffizi) there are various questions I am often asked by people who discover they have a chance to talk to a real live Renaissance scholar. “Why did they make all this art?” is a common one. Also “Does the Vatican Library really look like it does in Dan Brown?” (that’ll be another day’s post), but the one which I am always happiest to get, and which I get delightfully often, is “So, why is Machiavelli really so important?” Now, I read The Prince in school, and remembered ideas including the stock “It is better to be feared than loved,” and “The ends justify the means,” but I also remember having no idea then why Machiavelli was a big name. I’m pretty sure my teacher didn’t really know either. In fact, most introductions to the works of Machiavelli that I’ve read didn’t even manage to make it clear. After ten years as a specialist in the Renaissance, I think I can finally explain why.
I cannot, however, explain everything at once. There’s too much to do it well. I will therefore divide it into three parts. Doing so is easy, because Machiavelli made two big, big breakthroughs. If I treat each in turn, with the proper historical context, I think I can make Machiavelli make sense.
Machiavelli, founder of Modern Political Science and History.
Machiavelli, founder of Utilitarianism/Consequentialist ethics.
The latter issue is where Machiavelli picks up such titles as Arch-Heretic, Anti-Pope, and Destroyer of Italy (also father of modern cultural analysis and religious studies). The former, however, is even more universal in its penetration into modern thought.
Many are familiar with S.P.Q.R. (Senatus Populus que Romanus, i.e. the Senate and the People of Rome). This is the symbol and slogan of the city of Rome, and has been from the ancient Republic to today. One finds it on stone inscriptions, modern storm drains, grand coats of arms, sun-bleached baseball caps, tattoos, always as a symbol of pride in the continuity of the Roman people and their republican heart. For we who learn in middle school to place the fall of the Empire in 410 or 434 AD, and the end of the Roman Republic in 27 BC when Augustus became Emperor, it is hard to remember that the Senate and other offices of the Republic continued to exist. They existed under the Caesars. They existed in strange forms under the Goths who replaced the Caesars. There were some struggles in the 550s, but even after the 600s, when we think the political Senate probably ceased to exist, there were still important families referred to as Senators. New senates were periodically reintroduced (the Republic had a big moment in 1144) but even when there wasn’t a Senate, the popes who ruled Medieval and Renaissance Rome had to maintain a careful, wary balance with the Roman mob and the powerful Roman “senatorial” families, who sincerely believed they were descendants of ancient Roman senators. Thus, while S.P.Q.R. is the symbol of the Roman Republic, in a long-term sense it represents more Roman pride in self-government as an idea, whether that self-government operates as it did in the Republic through popular election of Senators from among the members of a select group of oligarchical ruling families, or as it did in much of Christian Rome; by securing minimal concessions from the popes through the ability of the Roman city populace and its wealthy lead families to riot, prevent riots, stop invaders, aid invaders, supply funds, refuse to supply funds, and in crisis moments generally be of great aid or great harm to the pontiff and his forces.
S.P.Q.R. represents civic pride so deeply that, counter-intuitive as it may seem, many other cities picked it up. London occasionally used to use S.P.Q.L., and one may read S.P.Q.S. on the shield above the door of the civic museum of the miniscule one-gelateria town of Sassoferrato. And so, I have chosen S.P.Q.F. as the slogan for my year in Florence. “But none of those cities have a Senate!” you may object. Neither, sometimes, did Rome, but it always had a Senate in spirit, and so did these other cities who, by adopting S.P.Q.*. proclaim that they love their city as much as Romans love Rome.
Petrarch, father of Renaissance humanism, desperately wanted Florentines to love Florence as much as Romans had loved Rome, the ancient Romans that he read about in mangled copies of copies of copies of the beautiful, alien Latin of a lost world. He read of the Consul Lucius Junius Brutus who ordered the execution of his own sons when they conspired against the Republic, while at the same time Florence was hiring noblemen from other cities to enforce her laws, and equipping these mercenary magistrates with a private fortress within the city walls (the Bargello) so they could endure siege when they arrested members of powerful Florentine families, and the families attacked to try to liberate their own. He read of the golden peace forged by Augustus, even as rival Florentine families used meaningless factions like the Guelphs and Ghibbelines as excuses to make bloody civil war within the city’s walls. He read of hero after hero who sacrificed their lives for Rome, as families took turns coming to power and persecuting or exiling their rivals, mingling grudges with politics in wholly selfish ways. Petrarch himself grew up in France because his father had been exiled in the squabbles between Black Guelphs and White Guelphs, and had gone to seek work in Avignon, where the French king had carried off the papacy because Rome and her neighbors were too weak to defend the capital from what had once been her own colony. He was born in exile, as he put it, an exile in time as well as place, for his home should have been, not fractious Italy, but glorious Rome, and his neighbors Seneca and Cicero.
The solution Petrarch proposed to what he saw as the fallen state of “my Italy” was to reconstruct the education of the ancient Romans. If the next generation of Florentine and, more broadly, Italian leaders grew up reading Cicero and Caesar, the Roman blood within them might become noble again, and they too might be more loyal to the people than to their families, love Truth more than power, and in short love their cities as the Romans loved Rome. Such men would, he hoped, be brave and loyal in strengthening and defending their homelands. Rome started as one city, and did not make itself master of the world without citizens willing to die for it.
(Yes, I am going to talk about Machiavelli, and I hope you see here that the fundamental mistake most introductions to Machiavelli make is that they start by talking about Machiavelli. Context is everything.)
“Petrarch says we can become as great as the ancients by studying their ways! Let’s do it!” Petrarch’s call went out and, with amazing speed, Italy listened. Desperate, war-torn city states like Florence who hungered for stability poured money into assembling the libraries which might make the next generation more reliable. Wealthy families who wanted their sons to be princely and charismatic like Caesar had them read what Caesar read. Italy’s numerous tyrants and newly-risen, not-at-all-legitimate dukes and counts filled their courts and houses and public self-presentation with Roman objects and images, to equate themselves with the authority, stability, competence and legitimacy of the Emperors. No one took this plan more to heart than Petrarch’s beloved Florentine republic, and, within it, the Medici, who crammed their palaces with classical and neoclassical art, and with the education of Lorenzo succeeded in producing a classically-educated scion who was more princely than princes.
And we’re off! Fountains! Busts! Triumphal arches! Equestrian bronzes! Romanesque loggias! Linear perspective! Mythological frescoes! Confusing carnival floats covered with allegorical ladies! Latin! Greek! Plato! Galen! Geometry! Rhetoric! Navigation! Printing! Libraries! Anatomy! Grottoes! Syncretism! Philosopher princes! Ninja Turtles! Neo-Stoic political maxims! Neo-Platonic love letters! Lyre-playing! Theurgic soul projection! Symposia hosted by Lorenzo de Medici where philosophers and theologians lounge about discussing theodicy and the nature of the Highest Good! All that stuff that makes the Renaissance so exciting!
In 1506 the Florentine Captain General Ercole Bentivoglio wrote to Machiavelli encouraging him to finish his aborted History of Florence because, in his words, “without a good history of these times, future generations will never believe how bad it was, and they will never forgive us for losing so much so quickly.”
Yes, this is the same Renaissance.
The flowering peak, as we see it, when Raphael and Michelangelo and Leonardo were working away, when the libraries were multiplying, and cathedrals rising which are still too stunning for the modern eye to believe when we stand in front of them, this was such a dark time to be alive that the primary subject of Machiavelli’s correspondence, just like the subject of Petrarch’s 150 years before, was the desperate struggle for survival.
Let us zoom both in and out, for a moment, and take stock of Florence’s situation in the world of Europe as the 1400s close. Florence is one of the five most populous cities in the European world, well… four, now that Constantinople has fallen (1453). Its population is near 100,000, and it rules a large area of farmland and countryside and several smaller nearby cities. It is also one of the wealthiest cities in the world, thanks to the vast private fortunes of its numerous wealthy merchants and banking families, of whom the Medici are but the wealthiest of many. We live in an era before standing armies, but Florence has a force of soldiers for enforcing law, and some modest mercenary armies which it hires.
Who else exists? There is France, the most populous kingdom in Europe, with vast wealth, a population of millions to sustain enormous armies, and Europe’s most powerful king. There are the Spanish kingdoms of Aragon and Castille, with vast naval resources, entering the final stages of merging their crowns into what will soon be Spain. There is the Holy Roman Empire, a complex confederation of semi-independent sub-kingdoms under an elected-but-traditionally-hereditary Emperor who is also ruler of Italy in name, though not in practical terms. There are other kingdoms with ambitious kings and powerful navies: England, Portugal. There is the mysterious and terrifying Ottoman Empire to the East which has made great inroads in the Balkans and Africa. There are the two peculiar and impregnable powers of Europe: Venice with its modest land empire but huge sea empire of port cities and coastal fortresses which pepper the Eastern Mediterranean much farther out than any other Christian force dares go; and the Swiss who live untouchable between their Alps and base their economy almost entirely on renting out their armies as mercenaries to whoever has the funds to hire what everyone acknowledges are the finest troops on the continent. With the sole exception of the Swiss, all these powers want more territory, and there is no territory juicier than Italy, with its fat, rich little citystates, booming with industry, glittering with banker’s gold, situated on rich agricultural fields, and with tiny, tiny populations capable of mustering only tiny, tiny armies. The southern half of Italy has already fallen to the French… no wait, the Spanish… no, it’s the French again… no, the Spanish. The north is next.
That’s how bad it was. That’s why there was such a great flourishing of art and literature and philosophy and invention; because in desperate times people try desperate things to stay alive, and if art, philosophy and cunning are one’s only weapons, one hones one’s art, philosophy and cunning. And that’s why we needed a good historian.
1492. Lorenzo de Medici, the philosopher quasi-prince, dies, leaving the Medici family resources and effective rule of Florence to his 20-year-old son Piero. Roderigo Borgia is elected Pope Alexander VI, handing control of Rome to the Borgias. Also, some guy called Christopher finds some continent somewhere.
1494. The French invade Italy. This can be partly blamed on Borgias, partly on members of the Sforza family squabbling with each other over who will rule Milan, but France, and every other major power in Europe, had been hungry for Northern Italy for ages.
Now is the moment for young Piero, Lorenzo’s successor, educated by the greatest humanists in the world with the reading list that produced Brutus and Cicero, to marshal his family’s wealth and stand bravely before the enemy. Piero… runs away. Not a high point for Petrarch’s idea of instilling virtue and good leadership through classical education.
In the absence of the Medici, Florence’s republic went through some twists (i.e. Savonarola) and managed to persuade the French not to destroy them through sheer force of argument (again Savonarola), and in 1498 (by removing Savonarola) reverted again to mostly actually being the republic it had consistently insisted it still was all this time. S.P.Q.F.
This, now, was Machiavelli’s job when he worked in that little office in the Palazzo Vecchio:
Goal: Prevent Florence from being conquered by any of 10+ different incredibly enormous foreign powers.
Resources: 100 bags of gold, 4 sheep, 1 wood, lots of books and a bust of Caesar.
“Desperation” does not begin to cover it. There are armies rampaging through Italy expelling dukes and redrawing borders. Machiavelli is an educated man. He has read all the ancients, all the histories, all the moral maxims and manuals of government. He negotiates. He makes alliances. He plays the charisma card. We’re Florence: we have all the art, all the artists, all the books; you don’t want to destroy us, you want to be our ally. When that fails, there is the bribery card. We can’t defeat you, France, but we can give you 100 bags of gold to use to fund your wars against other people if you attack them instead. Machiavelli negotiates alliances with France. He negotiates alliances with Cesare Borgia. He negotiates anything he has to. He tries to create an army of citizen soldiers who will not, as mercenaries do, abandon the field when things are against them because they have no incentive to die for someone else as citizens do for their families and fatherland (the Senate and the People of Florence!)
1503. The Borgias fall (a delightful story, for another day). The bellicose and crafty Pope Julius II comes to power.
1508. The Italian territories destabilized by the Borgias are ripe for conquest. Everyone in Europe wants to go to war with everyone else and Italy will be the biggest battlefield. Machaivelli’s job now is to figure out who to ally with, and who to bribe. If he can’t predict the sides there’s no way to know where Florence should commit its precious resources. How will it fall out? Will Tudor claims on the French throne drive England to ally with Spain against France? Or will French and Spanish rival claims to Southern Italy lead France to recruit England against the houses of Aragon and Habsburg? Will the Holy Roman Emperor try to seize Milan from the French? Will the Ottomans ally with France to seize and divide the Spanish holdings in the Mediterranean? Will the Swiss finally wake up and notice that they have all the best armies in Europe and could conquer whatever the heck they wanted if they tried? (Seriously, Machiavelli spends a lot of time worrying about this possibility.) All the ambassadors from the great kingdoms and empires meet, and Machiavelli spends frantic months exchanging letters with colleagues evaluating the psychology of every prince, what each has to gain, to lose, to prove. He comes up with several probable scenarios and begins preparations. At last a courier rushes in with the news. The day has come. The alliance has formed. It is: everyone joins forces to attack Venice.
Conclusion: must invent Modern Political Science.
I am being only slightly facetious. The War of the League of Cambrai is the least comprehensible war I’ve ever studied. Everyone switches sides at least twice, and what begins with the pope calling on everyone to attack Venice ends with Venice defending the pope against everyone. Between this and the equally bizarre and unpredictable events which had dominated the era of the Borgia papacy and pope Julius’ rise to power (another day, I promise!) Machiavelli was left with the conclusion that the current methods they had for thinking about history and politics were simply not sufficient.
Machiavelli did not, however, stop immediately and start working on the grand treatises and new historical method he would hand down to posterity. He had a job to do, and wasn’t concerned with posterity—or rather he was, but with a very specific posterity: the posterity of Florence. S.P.Q.F.
1512. The Medici family returns, armed with new allies and mercenaries, and takes Florence by force. The Pallazzo Vecchio, seat of the Signoria, heart of the city, is converted into the Ducal palace. Machiavelli is expelled from government and, after a little while, is (falsely) accused of plotting against the Medici, arrested, tortured and banished.
Now, after the grand and fast-paced life of high politics, after being ambassador to France, after walking with princes, Machiavelli finds himself at a farm doing nothing. He describes in a letter his weary days, taking long walks through fields and catching larks, retiring to a pub to listen to the petty babble of his rustic neighbors. At the end of a wasted day, he says, he returns each evening to his little cottage, there strips away the dirt and ragged day clothes of his new existence, and puts on the finery of court. Thus attired, ready to negotiate with kings and popes, he enters his library, there to spend the evenings in commerce with the ancients.
And he starts writing his “little book on princes.”
Now, everyone who’s anyone is banished from Florence at some point. Dante, Petrarch, Cosimo de Medici, Benvenuto Cellini like five times… When one is banished, one is often banished to some spot in the countryside outside Florence, which is what happened in this case. The terms, generally, are that if you’re good and stay there then they’ll think about someday calling you back, but if you run off to some other city they make your banishment a bit more permanent. Machiavelli is expected to run off. He’s a talented and experienced political agent, a great scholar, author and playwright. He could get a job in Rome for the pope or a Cardinal, in Naples, in Paris, in a dozen Italian citystates, in the Empire. He doesn’t. He doesn’t even try.
Machiavelli only works for Florence. S.P.Q.F.
What he does do is everything in his power to get the Medici to hire him. “The Medici? Didn’t they destroy his precious republic? Didn’t they expel him? Didn’t they torture him?” Yes, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that they rule Florence, and whoever rules Florence must be strong. History shows that, when there is a regime change, there is civil war and people die. When Florence has a regime change, Florentines die, and non-Florentines have a good chance of stepping in for conquest. The Prince is a manual for staying in power. Machiavelli writes it for the Medici, hoping it will secure him a job so he can get back where he should be, working for Florence’s safety from the inside. But it also explains his conclusions from all this dark experience.
History should be studied, NOT as a series of moral maxims intended to rear good statesmen by simply saturating them with stories about past good rulers and hoping they become virtuous by osmosis. History should be studied for what it tells us about the background and origins of our present, and past events should be analyzed as a set of examples, to be compared to present circumstances to help plan actions and predict their consequences. Only this way can disasters like the Borgia papacy, the French invasion and the War of the League of Cambrai be anticipated and avoided. What worked? What didn’t? What special characteristics of different times and places have led to success and failure?
This is modern Political Science. It is how we all think about history now, and the way it is approached in every classroom. We are, in this sense, all Machiavellian.
Of course, that is not what the word Machiavellian means. The new system of ethics Machiavelli introduces in his manual to keep the Medici in power is deservedly recognized as one of the most radical, dangerous and potentially destructive moves in the history of philosophy, and one of the most far-reaching. We are used to the trite summary “the end justifies the means,” and all the terrible, villanous things which that phrase has justified. But Machiavelli’s formula is not in any way villanous, nor was he. I will need another day to fully explain what that phrase means, but in a micro-summary, yes, Machiavelli did argue that the end justifies the means, and yes, he did mean it, but in his formulation “the end” was limited to one and only one very specific thing: the survival of the people under a government’s protection. Or even more specifically, the survival of Florence. That cathedral, those lively alleyways, those sculptures, that poetry, that philosophy, that ambition. S.P.Q.F.
Do you ever play the game where you imagine sending a message back in time to some historical figure to tell him/her one thing you really, really wish they could have known? To tell Galileo everyone agrees that he was right; to tell Schwarzschild that we’ve found Black Holes; to tell Socrates we still have Socratic dialogs even after 2,300 years? I used to find it hard to figure out what to tell Machiavelli. That his name became a synonym for evil across the world? That the Florentine republic never returned? That children in unimagined continents read his works in order to understand the minds of tyrants? That his ideas are now central to the statecraft of a hundred nations which, to him, do not yet even exist?
But now I know what I would say:
“Florence is on the UNESCO international list of places so precious to all the human race that all the powers of the Earth have agreed never to attack or harm them, and to protect them with all the resources at our command.”
He would cry. I know he would. It’s the only thing he ever really wanted. When I think about that, how much it would mean to him, and pass his window in the Pallazzo Vecchio which he spent so many years desperate to return to, I cry too.
Machiavelli definitely loved Florence as much as the Romans loved Rome, and worked to protect it as much as Brutus or Cicero. Florence also deserved to be loved that much. It deserves its S.P.Q.F. I’ve had, not just this year, but several earlier opportunities to get to know Florence in person, and even more years to read deeply into Florentine history and really understand all the invaluable contributions this city has made to the world. I could never call myself a Florentine, but I do believe I am now someone who understands why Florence deserves to be loved that much by her people, why Florence deserved Machiavelli, and his efforts, and all the efforts of the other great figures—Dante, Petrarch, Ficino, Bruni, Brunelleschi, Cosimo and Lorenzo de Medici—who worked so hard to save it—through art, philosophy and guile—from the destruction that always loomed. I know why it deserves UNESCO’s recognition too. It makes it a hard home to leave.
A quick review of the architectural centerpieces of Florence. Prices and hours may change arbitrarily (this is Italy, after all).
Palazzo Vecchio (Palazzo della Signoria):
The old seat of government of the Florentine Republic, later taken over as the seat of the Medici Dukes. The different parts of the building are a micro-history of Renaissance Florence right before your eyes. Going to see the outside is a must. You can pay to go inside, to see the ducal decorations, the offices where all the great humanists used to work, and Dante’s death mask, which is kept there because why not. Among the decorations are some beautiful intarsia (inlaid wood) doors with portraits of Dante and Petrarch, plus the original of Donatello’s Judith. You can also see the enormous Hall of the 500, which Savonarola had built, and its over-the-top decorations. You can’t go up the tall tower where the prison was.
Cost: Seeing it from the outside, and entering the lower story, is free.
Time required: 20 minutes to just look at, 2 hours for the museum.
Hours: Changing all the time, but usually 9 am to 7 pm, but sometimes 2 pm to 7 pm, and sometimes open super late, often on Thurs or Tues.
The old heart and symbol of the city, sacred to its patron saint John the Baptist. The baptistery is right in front of the cathedral, and the oldest of the grand buildings erected to show off Florence’s affluence. The outside features the Gates of Paradise, with Ghiberti’s gilded bronze relief sculptures, one of the greatest moments in Renaissance sculpture. Seeing the outside is free, but it is worth paying to go in, because the entire interior is covered with gorgeous gold mosaics in stunning condition, including a fabulous depiction of Hell. Also Florence’s antipope is buried inside (closest thing they had to a pope before the Medici), and outside keep an eye out for the Column of St. Zenobius nearby.
Cost: 4 or 5 euros to go inside.
Time required: half an hour
Hours: 12 pm to 7 pm weekdays, open 8:30 am to 2 pm on the first Saturday of the month.
Notes: The tickets are sometimes sold at the entrance of the baptistery, but sometimes in a confusing archway to the right of it (if you stand facing the gates of paradise). People will usually point you the right way. You get a slight discount if you get the baptistery ticket along with a ticket to climb the Duomo and go to the Museo del Opera del Duomo.
Duomo (cathedral) and Belltower:
The grandest church in Christendom when it was built, and still so beautiful that, when you’re standing in front of it, it’s hard to believe it’s real. The outside is a must-see. The dome was the greatest engineering marvel of its day, and still astoundingly humongous. The inside is also worth seeing, with colored marble floors, high clean vaults, and the dome frescoed with a particularly excellent last judgment, with a great Hell-scape. On the right hand wall look for the tomb of Marsilio Ficino (who restored Plato the the world) and on the left the painting of Dante standing in front of Florence, Purgatory, Heaven and the gates of Hell.
You can, separately, pay to climb the dome. It is taaaaaaaaaaaaall. Climbing it lets you see the inside between the two layers of the double dome (which is how a dome that big stays up), and lets you see the fresco on the inside of the dome up close. The view on top is spectacular but a lot of people get major height fear and vertigo up there, even people who don’t usually, due to the dome’s dizzying slant. Also the cramped area between the domes is rather claustrophobic, giving you the world-class claustrophobia-acraphobia combo!
You can also pay to climb the belltower but it’s not hugely worth-it, unless you want to see the bells bells bells bells bells bells bells bells. In general, though, if you want to climb something, go for the Duomo.
Cost: Free to enter the cathedral. You have to pay to climb the dome.
Time required: Half an hour for seeing the cathedral, a couple hours for climbing the dome.
Hours: 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, with some complicated exceptions. Check the website with an Italian friend.
Notes: Climbing the dome has a long line a lot of the year, as does the cathedral itself even though you don’t pay; they only let a certain number of people in at a time. (Ex Urbe’s humble assistant Athan can confirm that the line is long and the climb cramped even in January.)
No photography allowed in the monastery, so I can’t offer decent photos. This is the major Dominican monastery and church (in contrast with the Franciscans at Santa Croce). The church itself is free, while you have to pay to go to the monastery museum, but it’s only 5 euros and very worth-it.
The church is mostly baroque at this point, but contains the tombs of the Renaissance scholars Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Poliziano. Also a byzantine mosaic Madonna, a nice annunciation, the tomb of St. Antoninus, and an angry bronze statue of Savonarola.
The monastery section is the real centerpiece. Every cell in the monks’ living area was frescoed by Fra Angelico, as were the refectory and other important spaces. This rare chance to see Renaissance paintings still in their original context lets you understand how they were used and interacted with in daily life. While almost every room has a crucifixion scene, each one is unique, highlighting some different emotional or theological aspect of the crucifixion, in a perfect example of how Renaissance artists moved on from the repetition of icon making to make each piece offer the viewer a unique new angle on the subject. You can also see Savonarola’s room and relics, and the room Cosimo de Medici had made for himself when he paid for the renovation of the monastery, so he could come there to have a break from public life sometimes.
Cost: Free for the church, 4 euros for the monastery section. It is on the Friends of the Uffizi pass.
Time required: 2+ hours
Hours: 8:15 to 1:20 pm weekdays, 6:15 to 4:50 weekends. Closed odd numbered Sundays and even numbered Mondays.
Notes: The priest will usually glare at anyone who comes into the church and makes straight for Pico’s tomb.
On the East end of town, Florence’s major Franciscan monastery church came to be the major burial place for famous Florentines. Includes the tombs of Machiavelli, Galileo, Michelangelo, Fermi, Marconi (who invented the radio), Bruni (who invented the Middle Ages), the cenotaph of Dante, and dozens and dozens of other tombs crammed into every surface. Also excellent Giotto and Giotesque frescoes, and other exciting art. The orphanage it used to house taught orphans leather working, and it still contains a leather working school. Also contains one of the surviving tunics of St. Francis of Assisi.
Cost: 5 euros! Expensive!
Time required: 2 hours
Hours: 9:30 AM to 5 PM except Sundays, when it opens at 2
The old bridge, covered with tiny jewelry shops. This has been the heart of Florence’s gold trade for a long time, and is incidentally one of the most valuable shopping strips on Earth. At night the tiny little shops lock themselves up in wooden shutters and look like giant treasure chests, which is really what they are. The view of this bridge from the next bridge down (Ponte Santa Trinita) is also worth seeing. Be sure, while on the bridge, to greet the statue monument of the incomparable Benvenuto Cellini, Florence’s great master goldsmith/ sculptor/ duelist/ engineer/ necromancer/ multiple-murderer, who wrote one of humanity’s truly great autobiographies.
Time required: half an hour, more if you want to shop
Hours: Shops shut around sunset.
My photos do not do this church justice, but they don’t let you take pictures inside. San Lorenzo is a little complicated because you have to pay separately to go in the different areas:
The main part of the church(which costs 3.5o euros) is a mathematically-harmonious, high Renaissance neoclassical church full of geometry and hints of neoPlatonism. I recommend going in it after Santa Croce and Orsanmichele, since the contrast of its lofty, light-filled spaces and rounded arches gives you a vivid sense of how much architecture has changed in so little time. Here you can see the excellent tomb of Cosimo de Medici (il vecchio), and some other early Medici tombs, as well as some Donatello reliefs and the remains of Saint Caesonius (no one knows who he is or how he got there, but he’s clearly labeled as a saint, so no one’s willing to move him). This ticket also gets you into the crypt below the church, where you can see the bottom of Cosimo’s tomb, and a collection of really gaudy reliquaries.
Separately, the library attached to the cloister courtyard at the left of the church (which also costs 3.50 euros, but you can get a combined ticket to it and the church for 6) contains the reading room with the desks where the great Laurenziana library was housed. It is very much a scholarly pilgrimage spot to see one of the first great houses of the return of ancient learning. The old reading desks are still there where the books were chained, and still labeled with the individual manuscripts. To get in you also get to (or rather have to) go up Michelangelo’s scary scary staircase. The library periodically has small exhibits of exciting manuscripts, most recently on surgery, and on the oldest surviving copy of Virgil. The library is only open in the morning! Its gift shop sells some fun things including a lenscloth decorated with a reproduction of the illuminated frontispiece of the Medici dedication copy of Ficino’s translation of Plato – ultimate history/philosophy nerd collectable.
Separately, the Medici Chapels in the back of San Lorenzo (under its big dome; costs 5 euros, but is on the Friends of the Uffizi card, unlike the other two [why?!]) contain the later Medici tombs, those of Lorenzo de Medici, his brother, the next generation of Medici, and the Medici dukes. The earlier Medici tombs here have some Michelangelo sculptures on them, while the later ones are in a ridiculously over-the-top baroque colored marble chapel which knocks you breathless with its unbridled and rather tasteless opulence. One friend I visited with subtitled the chapel: “Baroque: UR doin’ it WRONG!” An excellent excercise in trying to grapple with the evolution of taste, and why certain eras’ taste matches our own while others don’t. Also you get to see more over-the-top sparkly reliquaries.
Hours: Different for each bit.
The former grain market and grain storage building at the heart of the city was turned into a church when an icon of the Madonna there started working miracles. Because it was the official church of the merchant guilds of Florence, the different guilds competed to supply the most expensive decoration for it, so the outside is covered with fabulous statues, each with the symbols of its guild above and below. Seeing the outside is quick and easy. Seeing the inside is trickier and not always worth cramming into your schedule, but the inside is also beautiful, a very medieval feeling, with saints painted on every surface. A museum above (open rarely, mainly Mondays) holds the original sculptures, which have been replaced on the outside with copies for their own safety. But since the sculptures were designed to be seen in their niches, the copies in situ look better than the displaced originals in my opinion.
Time required: half an hour
Hours: 10 am to 5 pm. Closed on Monday.
Notes: Occasionally hosts concerts. On the outside is a booth where you can get tickets to the Uffizi without waiting in the Uffizi line.
Mercato Centrale & Mercato San Ambrosio:
Not historic, but the two great farmer’s markets of the city are definitely worth visiting, and great for both lunch and souvenir shopping. Cheese, salumi, spices, sauces, fruits, veggies, oil, vinegar, truffle products… The Mercato Centrale (near San Lorenzo) has more touristy things and things to take home, while San Ambrosio has more things to eat right now or cook at home, but both have both. At the Mercato Centrale I particularly recommend eating fresh pasta at Pork’s (order tagliatelle with asparagus, or all’ Amatriciana (with tomato, onion and bacon) or tortellini with cream and ham (prosciutto e panna)), and/or having a porchetta sandwich. You can also try tripe or lampredotto if you’re brave.
Kicking off my new Travel Reviews section, a quick review of some centerpieces among the many, many, many attractions Florence offers her visitors. Please keep in mind that times and prices change constantly, so always check before you plan:
The city’s great painting collection, housed in the offices built by Vasari for the Medici dukes. Arranged in mainly chronological order, the collection chronicles the progression of art out of the middle ages through the Renaissance. This is where you find the big names: Giotto, Filippo Lippi, Botticelli, Raphael, Titian, Michelangelo, all in halls decorated with Romanesque grotesque ceilings, covered with portraits of everyone who was anyone in the Renaissance, and crammed with classical sculpture, including the Medici copy of the Laocoon. Highlights include the three big Madonnas, the Botticelli room featuring the Madonna della Magnificat and the Birth of Venus, Raphael’s portraits of popes Leo X and Julius II, and Michelangelo’s Holy Family With Gratuitous Naked Men. Endless gift shop including a huge room of academic books. Fantastic venue for Spot the Saint.
Cost: 11 euros plus 3 or so extra for making a reservation.
Time required: 6+ hours if you can stand up that long.
Hours: 8:15 am to 6:50 pm Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Monday. Sometimes open late Tuesdays.
Notes: The Uffizi has an infinite (3+ hour) line during peak season, so it’s a very good idea to make a reservation. It also has very few places to sit, no water fountains (they scan your bag as you go in so you can’t bring water), and a very inconveniently-located bathroom. So enormous and exhausting is it that it’s very difficult to go through in one day. If you’re in Florence for a week, I highly recommend getting a Friends of the Uffizi pass, which costs 60 euros at present (40 for student-age) and gives you unlimited access plus line skipping at the Uffizi and the Pitti Palace. The card, which can be purchased at an office at the Uffizi, gives you the leisure to go to the Uffizi for half a day, then go do something else, then return. In my experience a typical visitor does not quite get 60 euros out of the pass in a single week, but it comes close, and the convenience makes up the difference.
The other most famous and frequently-visited museum in the city. The Accademia hosts the original Michelangelo David and Michelangelo Prisoners, plus a great collection of Renaissance paintings, and, in the upper floor, a great Saint Spotting area including a huge collection of icons of Saint Zenobius. Michelangelo’s fame means the Accademia is always extremely crowded, and there are always mobs around the David.
Cost: also 11-ish, 14-ish with an appointment.
Time required: 5+ hours
Hours: 8:15 am to 6:50 pm, Tuesday through Sunday.
Notes: The Accademia is great, but it’s also a lot of hassle and chaos, especially during peak season, and it’s not actually that much better than most of Florence’s other, less popular great museums. As with the Uffizi, make an appointment, but honestly, if you are only in Florence briefly and need to choose carefully, there are other things you can see that are just as fabulous and a lot less difficult.
Formerly the prison and seat of the city’s chief of police, the Bargello is a fabulous fortress, with battlements and hundreds of coats of arms of knights who served in it. Now it houses the city’s Renaissance sculpture collection, including Donatello’s David and Cellini’s Ganymede. Easy to reach and inexpensive, this little museum takes a comfortable half-day to see thoroughly, but is crammed with world-class pieces. Also contains collections of ceramics, a chapel whose fresco includes the oldest surviving portrait of Dante, and assorted “stuff” ranging from Roman cameos to an ivory and ebony medieval portable backgammon set.
Cost: 8 euros
Time required: 3-4 hours.
Hours: (sigh) 8:15 AM to 1:50 PM, closed the 2nd & 4th Monday and 1st, 3rd & 5th Sunday of each month and randomly selected holidays.
This enormous palace in the across-the-river (Altrarno) area is where the Medici dukes moved once the Palazzo Vecchio proved too cramped for their royal style. It contains seven museums in one, which are confusingly grouped into two separate tickets. They are constantly rearranging what is on what ticket, so this info may be out of date:
Ticket 1 is for the Palatine Gallery, which includes yet another collection of extraordinary paintings, including a lovely Raphael holy family, a great Filippino Lippi madonna, Titian’s extremely sensual Mary Magdalene, and elaborate baroque frescoed walls and ceilings. It also contains some of the finest examples of Pietra Dura, the Florentine art of making elaborate images out of inlaid semi-precious stone. It also includes the Royal Apartments, with all the fancy furniture.
Ticket 2 is for the Argenti Museum, or silver museum, which houses the ridiculous treasures which belonged to the Medici family. When I say ridiculous I mean it, and the endless cases of ivory vases, gilded cups, huge amber reliquaries and elaborate hand-carved rock crystal dishes leaves one completely overwhelmed by the opulence of wealth. Prepare to be stupefied by the sheer genius of human opulence. This collection is very different from anything you meet at a typical museum, and I recommend it highly as a break from too much art. The first few rooms also feature truly astounding fake-perspective frescoes, and one of my favorite fresco cycles of all time, depicting Lorenzo de Medici inventing the Renaissance. There are also frequently interesting temporary exhibits in the initial rooms.
Also on Ticket 2 are the Boboli Gardens, the large, meandering Italian gardens behind the palace. These are great for a quick stroll, or for getting really winded on the endless slopes and stairs. At the river end of the gardens is the grotto, an elaborate Renaissance fantasy of a fake excavated ancient Roman villa, covered with fake mud and fake ruins and rustic mosaics made of seashells. It is only open for brief intervals at unpredictable times of day, so if you go, ask an employee when it will be open that day, to make sure you don’t miss it.
Minor museums included in one ticket or another are the Modern Art gallery, the Costume Museum (disappointingly small and modern), the Porcelain Museum, and the Carriage Museum.
Cost: 8.5 euros for the Palatine, 7 for the Argenti. Or free with the Friends of the Uffizi xard.
Time required: 3-4 hours for the Argenti, another 3-4 for the Palatine, 1-2 each for the others.
A phenomenal collection of scientific instruments from the Renaissance through 19th century, though mostly 17th and 18th. Astrolabes, sextants, orreries, clocks, barometers, telescopes, electrostatic generators… These are pieces from the period when scientific demonstration models were designed to impress aristocratic patrons, so gold and engraving are the norm. Highlights include Galileo’s telescopes (and finger and thumb in a reliquary), apothecary’s work table, the Military Compass (dagger with built-in compass and other mathematical tools), and a gruesome collection of 18th century full color obstetric models showing dissected female torsos and the various ways babies can be laid wrong in them.
Cost: 8 euros.
Time required: 3-4 hours.
Hours: 9:30 AM – 6:00 PM, except on Tuesdays, when it closes at 1:00 PM.
Museo del Opera del Duomo (Museum of the Cathedral Corporation):
The construction of Florence’s massive cathedral, which was, at the time, the most spectacular church in Christendom, was an incredibly expensive undertaking, and the Renaissance corporation created to oversee it survives to this day. This museum showcases the art and artifacts which belong to that corporation, including numerous sculptures from the old early Renaissance facade which was later torn down in favor of a more modern one, the wooden models of different designs for the church, and many of the tools used for it. Highlights include Donatello’s stunning wooden sculpture if Mary Magdalene, the reliquary from the Baptistery containing the right index finger of John the Baptist, and the original Baptistery sculptures and (once they’re done cleaning them) the real Gates of Paradise.
Cost: 6 euros
Time required: 2-3 hours.
Hours: 9:00 AM – 7:00 PM, except on Sundays, when it closes at 1:45 PM.
An enormous city palace built by one of Florence’s leading merchant families, the Palazzo Strozzi hosts a circuit of temporary exhibits, usually pretty good, but each is unique, so check it each time you consider coming. The Strozzi family were never the most powerful, but generally the biggest wealthy merchant family, with the most individual households, so widely feared (and often exiled) by the Medici and other rivals. This palace was built after a return from exile, and celebrates their presence in the city.
Cost: Variable by exhibition and greed.
Time required: 2-4 hours depending on exhibit.
Hours: 9:00 AM – 8:00 PM, Thursdays 9:00 AM – 11:00 PM.
All major cities have natural history museums, but not ones founded by the Medici. La Specola hosts eighteenth-century specimen collections, including skeletons and dissection models, many many more elaborate wax surgical models than the science museum, and the Medici’s pet hippo (stuffed). Not for those with weak stomachs.
Cost: 6 euros, 10 euros for museum and exhibition.