The Original Spin Doctor

Niccolo’s Smile

A Biography of Machiavelli.

By Maurizio Viroli.

Translated by Antony Shugaar.

271 pp. New York:

Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $25.

Although Niccolo Rated R Machiavelli was largely ignored during his own lifetime and vilified after his death, his time appears to have come (or to have come again). Now that the cold war has ended and political ideologies have been replaced by pollsters and spin doctors, Machiavelli’s cleareyed assessments of power dynamics and pragmatic advantage are suddenly in vogue. Dick Morris, the manipulative inventor of President Clinton’s strategy of triangulation, has written his own version of ”The Prince,” and the scheming winner of the television show ”Survivor” has been hailed by editorialists as a follower of Machiavelli.

The publication of a biography of the real Machiavelli, ”Niccolo’s Smile,” by Maurizio Viroli, a professor of politics at Princeton, may serve as a welcome antidote to the cliched image of self-interested knavery for which he has become known. In the 14 years he served the Florentine Republic as a high-level political adviser and ambassador, Machiavelli (1469-1527) appears to have been scrupulously honest, loyal to his superiors, kind to his subordinates and averse to the kind of toadying and flattery that might have advanced his career. Although he was not beyond lobbying for a job — The Prince” was written to impress Lorenzo de’ Medici — he spent most of his final years in dignified poverty on his family farm.

Machiavelli’s disillusioned vision of power politics was a direct reflection of the brutal reality of political life in Renaissance Italy. Machiavelli was appointed to office on May 28, 1498, just days after the reforming monk Girolamo Savonarola was executed for challenging the power of the mighty Medici family and the pope. The execution occurred just outside Machiavelli’s office, and lingering thoughts of burned flesh may have accompanied him on his first days at work.

”When he climbed the steps of the Palazzo Vecchio to take office,” Viroli writes, ”he was already familiar with the harsh side of politics.” Savonarola became a model for Machiavelli’s discussion of ”the unarmed prophet”: a man who took on powerful foes without having the political strength to defend himself.

Italy, in Machiavelli’s time, was carved up into numerous principalities, duchies and city-states, making it vulnerable to frequent foreign invasions. Although Machiavelli was proud of Florence’s republican form of government, he was often impatient with his city’s temporizing and indecision, as well as with its reluctance to train and maintain a standing army. This made him more ready to appreciate the qualities of the ruthless Cesare Borgia: it is better to be feared than to be loved, Machiavelli concluded. His ideal — on which he spent his last years in office — was a republican militia that would give citizens a stake in the city’s defense. But Florence’s aristocratic leaders were afraid of putting too much power in the hands of the people, and kept him from developing the project fully. In any event, the Florentine Republic collapsed when it lost territory to Spanish troops in 1512, effectively ending Machiavelli’s career.

Along with tracing the biographical background to Machiavelli’s political philosophy, Viroli is interested in Machiavelli the individual. This is a potentially fruitful approach because Machiavelli is among the first generations of early modern people about whom we have a rich trove of personal information — thousands of pages of letters and government documents. Viroli, strangely, does not appear to have done any original research and acknowledges relying heavily on the classic 1959 biography by Roberto Ridolfi, which used almost all the same documents and, generally, to better effect. Viroli’s overuse of NiccolRated R’s smile as his controlling metaphor and his jarring authorial asides lead to some embarrassing patches of writing, such as: ”But then we already knew what a rascal Machiavelli was.” But the Ridolfi book is out of print in English and Viroli succeeds (sometimes despite himself) in offering a fascinating portrait of Machiavelli.

If Machiavelli was refreshingly free from conventional thinking in his published writing, he was even more iconoclastic, funny, self-deprecating and ironic in his private conversation and correspondence. When he learned, at the time of his father’s burial, that others had been surreptitiously using the family tomb, he replied, ”Well, let them be, for my father was a great lover of conversation, and the more there are to keep him company, the more pleased he will be.” Machiavelli loved conversation, friendship, womanizing, joking around and elegant wordplay. ”When your amusing, witty and pleasant conversation echoes about our ears, it relieves, cheers and refreshes us,” one of his colleagues writes.

Even later in life, when he had lost all power and encountered every manner of misfortune, Machiavelli kept up the same brave and seemingly frivolous front. ”Now that you are not here,” one of his friends writes in 1525, ”nothing is heard of either gambling or taverns or any other trivia.” Machiavelli even tossed off some humorous verses after being jailed and tortured following his fall from power.

The personal Machiavelli, Viroli argues convincingly, is related to the political Machiavelli. In ”The Prince,” he wrote that ”Fortune is a woman and likes the young and audacious,” and in the personal sphere Machiavelli endorsed a similar carpe diem spirit. When one of his friends, a middle-aged married Florentine diplomat, writes asking him whether he should pursue a relationship with an attractive young woman, Machiavelli has no doubts: ”I have no response to your letter, except that you should give your love full rein and that whatever pleasure you seize today may not be there for you to seize tomorrow.”

What unites Machiavelli’s personal and political sides is his desire that one’s beliefs reflect life as it is actually lived rather than as we think it should be lived. In a letter to his friend and fellow diplomat Francesco Vettori about the curious mix of serious and ribald matters in their correspondence, Machiavelli writes: ”Anyone who might see our letters . . . and see their variety, would be greatly astonished, because at first it would seem that we were serious men completely directed toward weighty matters. . . . But later, upon turning the page, it would seem to the reader that we — still the very same selves — were petty, fickle, lascivious and directed toward chimerical matters. If to some this behavior seems contemptible, to me it seems laudable because we are imitating nature, which is changeable; whoever imitates nature cannot be censured.”

– December 3, 2000

Published at The New York Times


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