Machiavelli: A Life Beyond Ideology by Paul Oppenheimer
|Machiavelli: A Life Beyond Ideology by Paul Oppenheimer|
|Reviewer: John Van der Kiste|
|Summary: A vivid and detailed look at the instability of medieval Florence and the man whose name is still a by-word for intrigue.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 337||Date: October 2011|
Machiavelli, 'the first philosopher to define politics as treachery', has probably been better known as an adjective, Machiavellian being a synonym for duplicity in statecraft, than as a historical person. Interestingly, the term 'Machiavel' became common in English usage as an adjective and noun around 1570, although none of his works were translated into the language for another seventy years or so after that.
Yet he appears to have been an ultimate Renaissance man in more ways than one – diplomat, civil servant, political philosopher, playwright and poet. Born in Florence, he lived through a particularly unstable era, the age of the Borgias and the Medicis constantly fighting for power, of popes waging territorial wars against Italian states, governments and factions perpetually rising and falling, statesmen and officials in power one moment, facing imprisonment and even execution the next. After the expulsion of the Medici family from Florence and the ascendancy of the Borgias he enjoyed a successful career and occupied several responsible positions in the city as well as being entrusted with major diplomatic missions to major European powers. When the Medicis once again regained power he was arrested and accused of conspiracy. Tortured in captivity, he proved more fortunate than most in surviving his torment, on release he retired to his estate where he spent most of his time writing and participating in intellectual groups. Despite remaining connected with political friends, he never returned to public life, dying in 1527 at the age of 58.
Much of Machiavelli’s life was intertwined with the turbulent age, and to some extent this book is a history of Florence during his life, rise and fall. The politics, chicanery and cruelty of the age are well documented, and as is often the case with biographies of figures of the time, there is generally less to say about their personality than about the events in their life.
Glimpses of his character and his turn of phrase come through in some extracts from his writing, as when he talks about being tortured - 'I've got a set of shackles on my legs and six yanks of the cord across my shoulders' – and his views on politics in general - 'Everyone lives according to his rank...No money leaves their country, as the people are content with what their country produces, and thus they enjoy their rough and free life, and will not enlist to go to war, unless they are overpaid'. There is a good analysis of his writings, especially his major work 'The Prince', which the author describes as exploring 'a fenced-in realm of political power while offering a manual on how to acquire and keep it'. Attention is also paid to his other writings as a historian, particularly his first work, 'Discourses on the First Decade of Livy', an account of the surviving volumes of the early Roman historian.
Yet as befits such a subject, this is a very scholarly volume in which the character and personality of the subject do not really come alive. This is certainly not to suggest any shortcomings on the part of the author; it is almost impossible to convey the personality of anybody who lived at such a time, without a good deal of semi-fictionalised speculation, with which it is so easy to cheapen the tone of a biography. Oppenheimer has painted a vivid portrait of the instability of medieval Florence, which had its parallels in the upheavals of England under the reigns of Henry VIII and his children. The eight pages of black and white plates, mostly of contemporary images and documents, are well chosen. Yet this really is one for the specialist rather than the general reader.
Our thanks to Continuum for sending Bookbag a review copy.
For more reading on the Renaissance and its leading characters, you might also enjoy The Artist, The Philosopher and The Warrior by Paul Strathern.
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