During the years I lived in Florence, it was hard to escape the shadow of Niccolò Machiavelli. His presence is not as immediately obvious as that of his near contemporaries: Brunelleschi, Donatello, Leonardo, and Michelangelo. These artists represent the sunny side of the Renaissance, the chamber-of-commerce approved representatives of the city. Their brilliant creations have made Florence synonymous with the highest achievements of civilization.
But if you look closer you can feel just as strongly the imprint of the cynical Second Chancellor of the Republic. It can be experienced most directly in the massive Palazzo della Signoria, his workplace for the decade-and-a-half he was employed in government service. The fortress-like structure, with its crenellations and defensive tower, embodies the violent side of medieval and Renaissance Florence and goes a long way toward explaining Machiavelli’s dark view of politics. This same paranoia is visible in most of the city’s Renaissance palaces, from the Medici to the Pitti to the Pazzi – these last rivals of the Medici who murdered the brother of the city’s unofficial ruler and were almost destroyed in turn.
Machiavelli’s city house near the Ponte Vecchio no longer stands, but it is still possible to visit his country farmhouse, ten miles west of Florence in the village of Sant’ Andrea in Percussina, where, looking down on the rooftops of his beloved hometown, he wrote The Prince. Here, communing with the ghosts of the great political heroes of the past and contemplating the violent folly of his own contemporaries, Machiavelli gave birth to a revolution in human thought, contemplating the frightening prospect that men and women were doomed to live with no guidance from a benevolent God.
About the author: Miles Unger is a writer and historian based in Massachusetts. He is the author of Magnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de’ Medici and Machiavelli: A Biography.