The Day Old Nick Became Old Nick

Come the 10th of December half a millennium will have passed since Niccolò Machiavelli — the fellow who gave the devil his moniker “Old Nick” — announced to his friend Francesco Vettori that he had finished drafting a little treatise that he proposed to call De principatibus On Principalities. You and I know it as Il principeThe Prince – but that was merely the name that it was given in 1532, when it was first ushered into print in Rome and Florence: some seventeen years after the last revisions had been made. By that time, however, it had circulated throughout Europe – Thomas Cromwell had reportedly made Henry VIII read it, and he had tried to seduce Reginald Pole (who would be the last Catholic archbishop of Canterbury) with the temptations it proffered.

NiccoloMachiavelli2.jpgYou should buy a copy and read it with our would-be tinpot dictator in mind. As I hope to spell out in a later post, Barack Obama aspires to be “a prophet armed.” But, in the meantime, you should be satisfied to read the letter that Vettori, the Florentine ambassador in Rome, wrote to his friend Niccolò on 23 November 1513 and the letter that Machiavelli wrote back on the 10th of December of that year. To make sense of the former you need only know, that, after being fired from his post in the Florentine chancery, Machiavelli had been confined to the territory of the Florentine dominion for a year and that he was now finally free to come and go as he pleased:

To the Notable Niccolò di Messer Bernardo Machiavelli.

In Florence.

My dear compadre. As Cristofano Sernigi 

says, I have treated you so sparingly with my pen that I cannot recollect where I was. I do seem to recall that the last letter I had from you began with the story of the lion and the fox; I have looked around for it among my letters, and not finding it right away, I decided not to search any more. For in truth I did not reply back then because I was afraid that what has sometimes happened to me and Panzano would happen to you and me: we would begin playing with dirty old cards and send for new ones, and when the messenger came back with them, one of the two of us had already lost money. And so we were talking about bringing the princes together, and they went right on playing, so I was afraid that while we were wasting our letters bringing them together, some of them would have lost money. And since we last wrote, several events have occurred. Even though the party is not over, still it seems to have quieted down somewhat; and I believe it is a good idea not to talk of it until it has started up again.So in this letter I have decided to describe to you what my life in Rome is like. It seems fitting for me to let you know, first of all, where I am living, since I have moved and I am no longer near as many courtesans as I was last summer. My residence is called San Michele in Borgo, and it is quite near the palace and Saint Peter’s square; but it is in a somewhat secluded place, because it is toward the hill the ancients called the Janiculum. The house is very nice and has many rooms, though small ones; and it faces toward the north wind, so that the air is just right.

From the house you enter the church, which, what with my being as religious as you know, comes in very handy for me. It is true that the church is used more for walking in than it is for anything else, since neither mass nor any other holy service is ever said there, except once in an entire year. From the church you enter a garden, which formerly was clean and pretty but is now largely abandoned; still, it gets tidied up regularly. From the garden you go up the Janiculum, where you can walk at leisure through lanes and vineyards without being seen by anyone; according to the ancients, this was the site of Nero’s gardens, vestiges of which are still visible. I am staying in this house with nine servants and, in addition to them, Brancacci, a chaplain, a scribe, and seven horses; I easily spend all the salary I get. When I first came here, I began by trying to live lavishly and elegantly, inviting out-of-town guests, serving three or four courses, eating out of silver dishes, and so forth. Then I realized that I was spending too much and that I was not at all better off for it; so I decided to stop inviting people and to live at a good, normal level. I returned the silver plates to those who had lent them to me, both so that I would not have to watch over them and also because they would often request me to speak to O[ur] L[ordship] about some need of theirs. I would do it and they would not be helped; so I determined to rid myself of this chore and not to annoy or to burden anyone else, so that I would not be annoyed or burdened by them.

Mornings, these days, I get up at ten o’clock, and after dressing, I go over to the palace; not every morning, however, but once out of every two or three. There, on occasion, I speak twenty words with the pope, ten with Cardinal de’ Medici, six with Giuliano the Magnificent [de Medici]; and if I cannot speak with him, I speak with Piero Ardinghelli, then with whatever ambassadors happen to be in those chambers; and I hear a thing or two, though little of any moment. Having done that, I go back home; except that sometimes I dine with Cardinal de’ Medici. When I get home, I eat with my household and sometimes a guest or two who come to see them, such as Ser Sano and that Ser Tommaso who was in Trent, Giovanni Rucellai, or Giovanni Girolami. After eating, I would play cards if I had someone to do it with; but since I do not, I walk through the church and the garden. Then, when the weather is fine, I go for a short horseback ride outside of Rome. At nightfall I return home; and I have arranged to get quite a few histories, especially of the Ron1ans: for instance, Livy with the epitome of Lucius Florus, Sallust, Plutarch, Appianus Alexandrinus, Cornelius Tacitus, Suetonius, Lampridius, and Spartianus, and those others who write about the emperors—Herodian, Ammianus Marcellinus, and Procopius. And with them I pass the time; and I consider the emperors that this poor Rome, which once made the world tremble, has put up with, and so it is no wonder if it has also put up with two pontiffs of the kind that the last have been. Once every four days, I write a letter to Their Lordships of the Ten, and I relate some tired and irrelevant news, since I have nothing else to write for reasons that you yourself can understand. Then I go off to sleep, after I have had supper and exchanged some bits of news with Brancacci and with M. Giovan Battista Nasi, who often stays with me. On holidays I hear mass; I do not do as you, who sometimes do not bother. If you asked me whether or not I have any courtesans, I would tell you that when I first came here I did have a few, as I wrote you; then, frightened by the summer air, I abstained. Nevertheless, I had accustomed one so that she often comes here on her own; she is reasonably pretty and pleasant in speech. Even though this place is secluded, I also have a neighbor whom you would not find unattractive; and although she is of noble family, she does carry on some business.

Niccolò my friend, this is the life I invite you to; and if you come, you will give me pleasure, and then we shall go back up there together. Here you will have no other business than seeing the sights and then coming back home to joke and to laugh. And I do not want you to think that I live like an ambassador, because I have always insisted on being free. Sometimes I dress up, and sometimes I do not; I go riding by myself, with my servants on foot, and sometimes with them on horseback. I never go to the cardinals’, because I have no one to visit except Medici and sometimes Bibbiena, when he is well. And let anyone say what he will, if I do not satisfy them, let them recall me. For in conclusion, I intend to go home at the end of a year and to have held on to my capital, once my clothes and horses have been sold off I would prefer not to be out of pocket if I can help it. I want you to believe one thing, which I say without any flattery: although I have gone to no great trouble, nonetheless the throng is so great that one cannot help meeting a great number of people. In point of fact, few of them satisfy me, and I have not found any man of better judgment than you.Sed fatis trahimur. [“but we are drawn along by the Fates”] For when I speak at length to some, when I read their letters, I find myself astonished that they have attained any rank whatsoever, since they are nothing but ceremony, lies, and tales, and there are very few of them who are at all out of the ordinary. Bernardo da Bibbiena, who is now a cardinal, has a well-bred mind, in truth, and he is a witty and discerning man and has done his share of labor in his day. Nonetheless, he is ill now, and he has been so for three months; I do not know if he will ever again be as he was wont to be. And thus we often labor to find rest, and it does not turn out. So let us be merry, come what may. And remember that I am at your service and that I send my regards to you, to Filippo and Giovanni Machiavelli, to Donato, and to Messer Ciaio. Nothing more. Christ watch over you.

Francesco Vettori ambassador

23 November 1513, in Rome.

Machiavelli, being Machiavelli, responded to this letter in kind, explaining in comic fashion how he spent his days; pointing to the fact that, if he came to Rome, he might well have to hobknob with the Soderini clan – under whom he had served as second secretary of the Florentine Chancery, in the days before the restoration of the Medici; noting that this would finish him with the Medici for sure; and describing the little treatise that he had just finished drafting and that he hoped to use as a job application.

Magnificent ambassador:

“Never were divine favors late.” 

I say this because I appear to have lost, no, mislaid your favor, since you have gone a long time without writing me, and I was doubtful whence the cause could arise. And of all those that came to my mind I took little account except for one, when I feared you had stopped writing to me because someone had written to you that I was not a good warden of your letters; and I knew that, apart from Filippo and Pagolo, no one else had seen them on account of me. I regained your favor by your last letter of the 23rd of last month, where I was very pleased to see how orderly and quietly you exercise this public of­fice; and I urge you to continue so, for whoever lets go of his own convenience for the convenience of others, only loses his own and gets no thanks from them. And because For­tune wants to do everything, she wants us to allow her to do it, to remain quiet and not give trouble, and to await the time at which she allows men something to do; and then it will be right for you to give more effort, to watch things more, and for me to leave my villa and say: “Here I am.” Therefore, wishing to return equal favors, I cannot tell you in this letter of mine anything other than what my life is like, and if you judge that it should be bartered for yours, I will be content to exchange it.I stay in my villa, and since these last chance events occurred [the fall of the Florentine republic: Machiavelli’s dismissal from his post; his arrest on a charge of conspiracy, torture, and release], I have not spent, to add them all up, twenty days in Florence. Until now I have been catching thrushes with my own hands. I would get up before day, prepare traps, and go out with a bundle of cages on my back, so that I looked like Geta when he returned from the harbor with Amphitryon’s books; I caught at least two, at most six thrushes. And so passed all November; then this pastime, though annoying and strange, gave out, to my displeasure. And what my life is like, I will tell you. I get up in the morning with the sun and go to a wood of mine that I am having cut down, where I stay for two hours to look over the work of the past day, and to pass time with the wood­cutters, who always have some disaster on their hands either among themselves or with their neighbors. And regarding this wood I would have a thousand beautiful things to tell you of what happened to me with Frosino da Panzano and others who want wood from it. And Frosino in particular sent for a number of loads without telling me anything, and on payment wanted to hold back ten lire from me, which he said he should have had from me four years ago when he beat me at cricca at Antonio Guicciar­dini’s. I began to raise the devil and was on the point of ac­cusing the driver who had gone for it of theft; but Giovanni Machiavelli came between us and brought us to agree. Batista Guicciardini, Filippo Ginori, Tommaso del Bene, and some other citizens, when that north wind was blowing ordered a load each from me. I promised to all, and sent one to Tommaso which in Florence turned into a half-load because to stack it up there were himself, his wife, his servant, and his children, so that they looked like Gabbura with his boys when he bludgeons an ox on Thursday So when I saw whose profit it was, I told the others I had no more wood; and all have made a big point of it, especially Batista, who counts this among the other disasters of Prato.

When I leave the wood, I go to a spring, and from there to an aviary of mine. I have a book under my arm, Dante or Petrarch, or one of the minor poets like Tibullus, Ovid, and such. I read of their amorous passions and their loves; I remember my own and enjoy myself for a while in this thinking. Then I move on along the road to the inn; I speak with those passing by; I ask them news of their places; I learn various things; and I note the various tastes and different fancies of men. In the meantime conies the hour to dine, when I eat with my company what food this poor villa and tiny patrimony allow Having eaten, I return to the inn; there is the host, ordinarily a butcher, a miller, two bakers. With them I become a rascal for the whole day, playing at cricca and tric-trac, from which arise a thousand quarrels and countless abuses with insulting words, and most times we are fighting over a penny and yet we can be heard shouting from San Casciano. Thus involved with these vermin I scrape the mold off my brain and I satisfy the malignity of this fate of mine, as I am content to be trampled on this path so as to see if she will be ashamed of it.

When evening has come, I return to my house and go into my study. At the door I take off my clothes of the day, covered with mud and mire, and I put on my regal and courtly garments; and decently reclothed, I enter the an­cient courts of ancient men, where, received by them lovingly, I feed on the food that alone is mine and that I was born for. There I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their humanity reply to me. And for the space of four hours I feel no boredom, I forget every pain, I do not fear poverty, death does not frighten me. I deliver myself entirely to them. And because Dante says that to have understood with­out retaining does not make knowledge, I have noted what capital I have made from their conversation and have composed a little work De principatibus [On Principalities], where I delve as deeply as I can into reflections on this subject, debating what a principality is, of what kinds they are, how they are acquired, how they are maintained, why they are lost. And if you have ever been pleased by any of my whimsies, this one should not displease you; and to a prince, and especially to a new prince, it should be welcome. So I am addressing it to his Magnificence, Giuliano [de Medici]. Filippo Casavecchia has seen it; he can give you an account in part both of the thing in itself and of the discussions I had with him, although I am all the time fattening and polishing it.

You wish, magnificent ambassador, that I leave this life and come to enjoy your life with you. I will do it in any case, but what tempts me now is certain dealings of mine which I will have done in six weeks. What makes me be doubtful is that the Soderini are there, whom I would be forced, if I came, to visit and speak with. I should fear that at my return I would not expect to get off at my house, but I would get off at the Bargello, for although this state has very great foundations and great security, yet it is new, and because of this suspicious; nor does it lack wiseacres who, to appear like Pagolo Bertii, would let others run up a bill and leave me to think of paying. I beg you to relieve me of this fear, and then I will come in the time stated to meet you anyway.

I have discussed with Filippo this little work of mine, whether to give it to him or not; and if it is good to give it, whether it would be good for me to take it or send it to you. Not giving it would make me fear that at the least it would not be read by Giuliano and that this Ardinghelli would take for himself the honor of this latest effort of mine. The ne­cessity that chases me makes me give it, because I am becoming worn out, and I cannot remain as I am for a long time without becoming despised because of poverty, besides the desire I have that these Medici lords begin to make use of me even if they should begin by making me roll a stone. For if I should not then win them over to me, I should complain of myself; and through this thing, if it were read, one would see that I have neither slept through nor played away the fifteen years I have been at the study of the art of the state. And anyone should be glad to have the service of one who is full of experience at the expense of another. And one should not doubt my faith, because having always observed faith, I ought not now be learning to break it. Whoever has been faithful and good for forty-three years, as I have, ought not to be able to change his nature, and of my faith and goodness my poverty is witness.

I should like, then, for you to write me again on how this matter appears to you, and I commend myself to you.

Be prosperous.

10 December 1513

Niccolò Machiavelli, in Florence.

Largely because of the vision projected in the last few paragraphs, this letter, which I quote in the translation of Harvey Mansfield, is the most famous letter ever written. As I hope to spell out in due course, the consequences of what Machiavelli did when he composed and circulated De principatibus we still live with.