Jul 31, 2007

Book Review: Machiavelli and Guicciardini: Politics and History in Sixteenth-Century Florence

Francesco Guicciardini Gilbert, Felix
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965, 349 pages

Left: Francesco Guicciardini

Gilbert’s work examined the writings of Niccolò Machiavelli and Francesco Guicciardini from several interrelated perspectives. Both men held important positions in the government of Florence, but more importantly, the views of both men reflected to some extent the people with whom they associated. In addition, Gilbert considered the interplay between politics and history, both as subjects of inquiry and as tools by which a state could be effectively governed; he believed that “history moved closer to politics” in post-Laurentian Florence. The author argued that the Machiavelli and Guicciardini should be best understood as being products of, as well as participants in, the turbulent state of affairs of the late 15th and early 16th commune of Florence, rather than by the traditional method of exegesis-through-biography.

While the author split the book into sections entitled, simply enough, “Politics” and “History,” the text does not reflect this one-dimensional outline. Nor does the assignment of Machiavelli to “Politics” or Guicciardini to “History” imply that Gilbert believed that the two men could be squeezed into narrowly-defined categories; one gets the sense that this structure was an act of editorial appeasement. Instead, Gilbert used the arbitrary divisions to set up the respective milieu of each thinker as a means of separating what was innovative theory from what was conventional belief in the writings of Machiavelli and Guicciardini.

Gilbert argued that Machiavelli should not be viewed as an abstract theorist whose writings on politics somehow spontaneously burst onto the scene. Instead, the author believed that Machiavelli combined classical knowledge with contemporary wisdom born from experience in the war-torn Italian peninsula:
Machiavelli intended to do for politics what others had done for art, jurisprudence, and medicine: to clarify and to codify the principles which the ancients had followed. Machiavelli only wanted to state that he was applying to politics those methods which had been successful in other areas.
Gilbert was also successful in reconciling the autocratic leader of Machiavelli’s The Prince with the ideal republic of his Discourses, arguing that Machiavelli believed that both forms of government could be successful if they possessed the important characteristic of virtù.

Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli Left: Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli

The author argued that the genius of Guicciardini, like Machiavelli, was to be found in the pioneering manner in which he critically examined the works of classical writers. While he lived in a period when the antiquities were venerated, Guicciardini nonetheless did not assume that everything ancient was ideal:
The existence of particular laws or institutions in classical times was not in itself a proof of their exemplary value; the question which concerned Guicciardini was how they had functioned and what effects they had had.
Moreover, Gilbert argued that Guicciardini did not ascribe to the humanist belief that general principles about human behavior could be derived from history, but rather that “history appeals to man to become conscious of his own intrinsic value.”

Gilbert’s book introduced new archival material, but one of its strongest features is the way in which he reexamined previously-critiqued material. Records of the various Florentine government organs were scoured to demonstrate that Machiavelli and Guicciardini incorporated many ideas into their respective works that were held by the patricians. The author also included several bibliographic essays at the end of the book that scholars new to the field will find informative. The result is a book that informs, piques, and challenges the reader on a level that few authors can successfully reach.

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