Machiavelli Re-visited

On May 26–28, over the course of three afternoons, CEU’s Center for Hellenic Traditions (CHT) hosted Professor Robert Black for a special, so called “preview” lecture series entitled “Machiavelli in Florence: His Culture, His Career and His Early Writings”, which offered exciting glimpses of his forthcoming biography on the Florentine Renaissance politician and writer Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527). Highly popular not only with CEU students and faculty from various departments but also members of the public, the lecture series were co-hosted by the Department of Medieval Studies, the Department of History and the Department of Philosophy, together with the Religious Studies Program (RSP).

Starting with a magisterial survey of late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Florence under the changing Medici, Savonarolan and Soderini regimes and Machiavelli’s early life, education and – arguably amorous – involvement with Giuliano de’ Medici (1479–1516), Professor Black carefully mapped the cultural context from which Machiavelli’s two most famous and, posthumously, most influential writings arose: The Prince and the Discourses.
Interpreting The Prince, famous for its conscious break with traditional medieval and humanist political theory, as an attempt to regain favour with the Medici by teaching them how to establish new absolute states in papal territories – it was dedicated first to Machiavelli’s old friend Giuliano de’ Medici (pictured below, left), later his nephew Lorenzo – Black proceeded to offer, in contrast to The Prince, which had rejected the Platonic idealism and Ciceronian morality favoured by many humanists, a reading of the Discourses (formally a commentary on Livy’s First Decade) as a “return to humanism”: a political treatise arguing for guidance by the ancients, for republican traditions and for the predominance of Machiavelli’s own, i.e. the middle, class (popolo in Italian) in communal politics in preference to the absolute, i.e., tyrannical rule envisaged in The Prince; although Machiavelli’s attitude to humanism had moved on in the Discourses, the political aims of both works are complementary, not contradictory, since Machiavelli regarded republican rule as appropriate for Tuscany, with its peculiar egalitarian social traditions, in contrast to almost all the rest of Italy, enmeshed in a feudal hierarchy in which only princely governments – including the putative new Medici states – were possible. Black paid due attention to the fact that neither treatise was intended for the press by Machiavelli; both were meant for circulation in manuscript among his circle of friends and patrons – a circumstance which nourished their highly controversial content (which included a virulent rejection of Christianity). The books began to fascinate and scandalize the public only when they were printed soon after the death of Machiavelli, who, without such notoriety, would arguably have remained in obscurity as just one more pedantic pundit.

Robert Black is Professor of Renaissance History at the University of Leeds, UK, with research interests in Florentine history, fifteenth-century Italian historiography, and Renaissance education. His numerous monographs include Benedetto Accolti and the Florentine Renaissance (Cambridge University Press, 1985), Studio e scuola in Arezzo durante il medioevo e il Rinascimento (Accademia Petrarca di lettere arti e scienze, 1996), Boethius’s “Consolation of Philosophy” in Italian Medieval and Renaissance Education (with Gabriella Pomaro, SISMEL edizioni del Galluzzo, 2000), Humanism and Education in Medieval and Renaissance Italy (Cambridge University Press, 2001) and, most recently, Education and Society in Florentine Tuscany: Teachers, Pupils and Schools, c.1250 to 1500 (Brill, 2007); he is also the editor of Renaissance Thought (2001) and The Renaissance (2006, both for Routledge).
He is currently finishing a monograph entitled Machiavelli and Renaissance Florence for Longman (forthcoming in 2011).