Turbulent times in Machiavelli’s Florence

Property 174 – Historic centre of Florence

I recently read a book about the life of Niccolo Machiavelli, the renaissance Florentine diplomat and author, and it brought back memories of my several visits to Florence. Today it’s flooded with American tourists and their noisy observation of the conspicuous. But if you can tune out the whining for a few moments it’s easy to feel the spirit of a transformative period in European history.

Niccolo Machiavelli was an interesting character, and much maligned. The transformation of his name into a pejorative adjective probably owes a lot more to the sanctimonious attitudes of the Church of the time than it does to the content of his work. The Prince, written notionally as a handbook for leadership for Lorenzo De Medici, does not seem particularly daring to me. Fulminating churchmen of the 16th century declared that it was the work of the devil, but I’m not so sure. Perhaps this is because I have been raised in a world of realpolitik and political cynicism exposed as standard practice. Perhaps it was a cynical guide to governing a discordant principate through terror and bribery. Or perhaps, this book suggests, it was a cryptic attempt to promote good government by vigorously advocating the opposite. Five hundred years later, it is probably impossible to tell Machiavelli’s intentions, but as an individual he still holds the power to fascinate.

The reason I’m writing about a person rather than a place is that Machiavelli had the mixed fortune of living in Florence during a very interesting period in the city’s history. While I am very far from an expert on this topic, I think it’s fair to say that the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries were a cultural high-water mark. The Italian Renaissance was in full swing, and like many periods of cultural innovation it was also a period of political strife and discord. Florence existed as a city-state in northern Italy, locked in semi-constant war with nearby Pisa. The other northern Italian states of Venice and Milan played out their mercenary-fought wars with each other with no clear winners. Meanwhile the strategic location of northern Italy meant that the great power rivalries of Spain, France, the Empire and the Papal States turned Florence’s backyard into a military staging ground.

In the late medieval period Florence had been governed by a notionally democratic form of republican government. The council’s power gradually eroded under the influence of the rich Medici family, until they took formal control of the city in 1432. This was the period where Machiavelli grew up, and his extensive reading of Roman authors convinced him that the republican approach was the superior one.

He had the opportunity to apply his learning from 1494, when he served the restored Republican government as an ambassador of sorts. However he was in a difficult position – Florence was politically threatened and even his diplomatic skills and the advent of a citizen army were unable to prevent the reconquest of the city by the Medici and the dissolution of the republic for the second time in 1512. Machiavelli spent the remainder of his life, after being tortured and expelled from public life, writing The Prince and plaintively begging for restoration to a political office.

The life of Machiavelli, frustrated though it seems to be, is an illustration of what was happening in Florence during this period. Old attitudes towards the Church and social structures were changing, in light of the spread of ancient Greek and Roman learning and the heavy-handed interference of an increasingly corrupt papacy. This was also reflected in the new approaches to city planning and architecture of the time. Powerful families controlled much of Florentine public life, and they constructed impressive palazzi for themselves. The ancient feudal township had become rich from trade and banking, and increasing numbers of impressive religious and administrative buildings were erected.

There was a sea-change in artistic approaches led by Brunelleschi, who revived ancient Roman ideas of order and symmetry. This was in contrast to medieval Gothic styles which prioritised the uncomfortable aesthetic of a fungal growth. Florence hosts an amalgam of these two styles, the perfect illustration of the transition from the Medieval era to the Renaissance. The Duomo, Florence’s main cathedral, was constructed in an Italian gothic style in the 14th century but never roofed. Along came Brunelleschi, and taking cues from the Pantheon in Rome, slapped an impressive domed brick roof on it which then, as now, is visible from across the city.  This building and its adjoining piazza would have been the background to Machiavelli’s life and no doubt he met people and conducted business here, much as the ancient Romans used to do in the forum.

The famous Duomo

The city’s mercantile and administrative life had its own parallel piazza a few hundred metres away in the Piazza della Signoria. The Signoria, the government of republican Florence, was housed in the fortress-like Palazzo Vecchio. It was here, during the period of Machiavelli’s involvement in government, that the rogue cleric Savanarola was hanged after a failed coup against the government fell afoul of the pope. Immediately following his hanging his body was incinerated to prevent his followers from hunting for souvenirs. The charred remains were cast into the river Arno.

The Palazzo Vecchio

Crossing over the river on the elaborately festooned Ponte Vecchio, you find yourself in the area where I stayed on my most recent visit. In Machiavelli’s time this would have been rather more sparsely settled than it is today. The standout structure here is the Pitti Palace, which would have been erected in his lifetime as the residence of a wealthy banker. Much of the elaborate decoration dates from after Machiavelli’s death when it was taken over by the restored Medici.

The Ponte Vecchio

Most of the photos in this entry have been taken by my Dad, on one of his many trips. The reason for this is that the hostel where I stayed a few streets away from the Pitti Palace, was run by a bunch of thieving incompetent nuns. Two months worth of photos were lost and my heart was broken. For that reason, if nothing else, I’ll always remember Florence.

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