Machiavelli’s thought in Renaissance Italy: Analysis and historical context


Niccolo’ Machiavelli’s thought is undoubtedly one of the most lucid and enlightening in the history of political thought. The Florentine writer and statesman managed to define, clearly and without any illusions, the nature of power and its ruthless implications. His analysis ignores the political idealism that was very popular during the 15th century in the political and geopolitical context of Renaissance Italy. Nor can politics be influenced by philosophical systems (as it was for example for Plato and Aristotle) which it should adhere to. Politics (and therefore power) has its own justification and its own laws. Neither religion nor morality can influence political action which has the sole purpose of preserving and expanding a state. The state has its reason for being in human nature and its substantial evil (a vision very similar to that of Hobbs’ homo homini lupus). Without the existence of the state there would be nothing but chaos (or, to put it like Hobbes, the bellum omnium contra omnes typical of the state of nature). The state is the coercive instrument that imposes, even by force, on every single individual to renounce, at least in part, their selfishness and their specific interest. Man is by nature selfish and his immoderate personal ambitions must be put at the service of the community through state impositions. In this framework, the state represents a sort of cure for the weaknesses and distortions of a human nature that is not inclined to put itself at the service of the common good. The action of the state is therefore, in Machiavelli’s political vision, different from that of Guicciardini. For the latter, in fact, the state must preserve personal interest (which the author of the History of Italy defines as the “particular”) as well as repressing the selfish inclinations inherent in human beings. In this sense, Guicciardini’s thought is similar to that of Locke for whom the citizen, despite the need to renounce a large part of his rights for the common good (delegating them to political power), cannot and must not renounce rights. own fundamental freedoms (which must be constitutionally guaranteed). In Machiavelli’s The Prince, the action and rights of the citizen are completely swallowed up by the interest and preponderant purposes of the state entity. In this political vision there is no place for the rights of the individual. There is no place for personal interest. Which places this work in formal antithesis with Machiavelli’s other literary masterpiece: The Discourses on the First Deca of Titus Livy. Where the Florentine author instead seems to exalt the political model of republican Rome and overshadow the imperial autocracy that took shape with Augustus (but which, de facto, had already been started by Julius Caesar even if the latter was wary of well, just like Octavian, from officially depriving the Senate of its authority and publicly destroying the old power structure which had its social base in the ordo senatorius). The dichotomy between Machiavelli’s two major works has been the subject of many studies. Which seem to lead to the conclusion that the Prince is a specific political treatise for the geopolitical context of sixteenth-century Italy. A shock therapy in a dramatic situation for the Italian peninsula. So dramatic as to make the Florentine author believe that only a strong, ruthless and unscrupulous figure could have freed the Italian geopolitical context from the yoke and oppression of the foreign barbarian. As if to say: Extreme evils, extreme remedies.


The Prince, as a literary work, originates from the complex Italian geopolitical situation of Renaissance Italy. The work presents itself as a tool to avoid what Machiavelli defines as the “ruin” of Italy, prey to foreign troops that the armies of the various Italian states are unable to stop and defeat. The Italian states of the 16th century were very rich and prosperous from an economic point of view but were too small to oppose the French and Spanish armies that were competing for the beautiful country. This military fragility brought the Italian region under the dominion of the two major powers of the time, France and Spain. The former had recently defeated (during the Hundred Years’ War) the attempts of the English crown to impose itself on the French crown and had also completed a long process of centralization of power which had brought the figure of the King back into vogue and restored its original prerogatives over all his subordinates (vassals), overcoming, de jure and de facto, the disorder, anarchy and political-administrative decentralization that had characterized France during the early Middle Ages. Spain, formed after the union between the kingdom of Castile and that of Aragon, which took place in 1469, following the marriage between Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, became inserted, also by virtue of the enormous riches that the discovery of the new world brought them into the ranks of the great European powers and began an active expansion throughout the Mediterranean. The accession to the throne of Charles V in 1516 gave further impetus to the hegemonic claims of the Spanish monarchy on the European continent. Since Charles not only “inherited” the crown of Spain (from his mother Giovanna the madwoman who, considered mentally ill, was forced to abandon the exercise of power in favor of her son) but also, from his father Philip the handsome emperor of Austria, vast territories of central Europe and the low countries (which at the time were under Austrian control). Which made the power of the Spanish sovereign truly exceptional in the European geopolitical context of the first half of the 16th century. In truth, from an economic point of view, Spain underwent a progressive weakening already at the moment of its birth as a nation. The religious fervor and fanaticism that characterized the process of liberation of the Iberian peninsula from the Saracens characterized the Spanish nation to the point of leading it to a confessional intransigence which led to an exasperated struggle against the infidels and every form of heresy. Hence the obsession with the fight against the enemies of the Catholic Church and the expulsion of the Jews from the territories subjected to the dominion of the Spanish crown. With disastrous consequences on the economic activity of the Iberian peninsula (since the Jews constituted the backbone of the Spanish bourgeoisie and their removal led to a crisis in commercial activity throughout Spain) which could only be addressed with the continuous influx of precious metals plundered from the American colonies. The religious fervor of the Spanish monarchy was the real driving force behind its geopolitical action. Which, not surprisingly, had Italy as its fulcrum. For the wealth and economic development of the latter, for its privileged geographical position in the center of the Mediterranean (at the time, still the busiest and most economically important sea in the world) and for its geopolitical situation which made it easy prey for the armies of the great European powers (a geopolitical situation which has among its main protagonists the state of the Church of which the Spanish monarchy acts as guarantor and protector). The rivalry and conflict of the various Italian states was so strong that it even justified the intervention of foreign armies to prevent the victory of local geopolitical rivals. In a geopolitical scenario very similar to that of ancient Greece. On the other hand, the descent of Charles VIII along the Italian peninsula (the military action with which the Italian campaigns of the 16th century were inaugurated) was determined by the request for military intervention by Ludovico il Moro against the French sovereign (following the protests from the Aragonese king of the kingdom of Naples, an ally of the Spanish monarchy, who opposed Ludovico’s seizure of power following the arrest of the legitimate heir to the leadership of the Milanese lordship, his nephew Gian Galeazzo, legitimate husband of the King’s daughter of Naples) unleashing a war on Italian territory which will last over half a century and which will devastate the beautiful country (something very similar had happened in Greece after the expulsion of Hippias, son of Pisistratus, from the political scene of Athens after having become its tyrant Hippias encouraged Darius,king of Persia, to wage war against his own city, to recover its power, giving rise to the Persian invasion of Greece). And which will make the Italian peninsula the main theater of war in a war to achieve hegemony on the European continent. The geopolitical Italy of the time appeared so different from the Italy of arts and culture that was so famous and praised. Demonstrating that the cultural and economic apogee of the Italian peninsula was not matched by a geopolitical apogee in the strict sense. All this due to the disunity and continuous internal wars between the various states of the Italian peninsula which continually attempted, in vain, to prevail over each other. This geopolitical weakness was recognized by Machiavelli who in The Prince addresses the question of the nature of power and reason of state as well as the essential requirements for making the action of a sovereign great and powerful. Emblematic is the fact that this vision is inspired by the “exploits” of Cesare Borgia (known as Valentino, son of Pope Borgia or Alexander VI, who with the support of his father managed to create, in an aggressive and unscrupulous way, a strong how ephemeral it was in central Italy) who managed to impose himself on his rivals with strength and unscrupulousness as well as with the palace maneuvers of his father who used every sort of political opportunism to favor his son in the creation of a reality state in central Italy placed under the aegis of the Holy See. However questionable and immoral the figure of Valentino was, it fascinated Machiavelli to the point of seeing Borgia as the example that the various Italian lords should have followed to make the peninsula not only rich and flourishing from an economic point of view but also geopolitically strong. . With its own armies capable of maintaining its independence and freeing it from the yoke of the Spanish and French crowns.


In The Prince Machiavelli analyzes the “nodal questions” of the sovereign’s action both in relation to the internal political dynamics and in relation to the dynamics of power and the clash with other geopolitical entities (whose interests may come into conflict with those of their own state up to to the point of leading to armed conflict). The analysis of the own militias (as opposed to the mercenary ones, completely unreliable for the Florentine author) and of the conception of religion seen as a mere instrumentum regni is admirable. That is, as a means to please and subjugate the people (hence the need for the imposition of a state religion). Machiavelli draws from his direct experience, as ambassador of the Florentine republic, the analyzes that lead him to address the question of power and reason of state. And of the various instruments through which the political summit exercises its faculties and pursues the maintenance, strengthening and territorial expansion of the state. By any means, legal or illicit, that he has at his disposal (“the end justifies the means”). Like it or not, the Florentine writer was able to impeccably define and outline the true nature of politics (as well as, by extension, geopolitics). In all its crudeness and cruelty. Revealing the monstrous nature that lies behind political interest (and human interest in general). For which he does not hesitate to resort to deception and carry out any type of crime.

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