Dr. William Connell, Seton Hall University – Niccolo Machiavelli

Apr 24, 2012

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. William Connell of Seton Hall University shares a recent discovery that is shedding light on the ups and downs of Niccolo Machiavelli’s political life.

William Connell is Professor and La Motta Chair of History at Seton Hall University where he specializes in medieval and Renaissance intellectual history, humanism, and social history.  His current research is focused on interactions between 16th century Florence and northern Europe, and the political thought of Niccolo Machiavelli.

About Dr. Connell

Dr. William Connell – Niccolo Machiavelli

Machiavelli’s little book, The Prince, famously argues that good rulers need to know how NOT to be good.  Several years ago, in the private archive of an Italian noble family on an island in the middle of a beautiful lake, I discovered a letter that gives new information about the circumstances of its composition.  The Prince was written in 1513, in the months after Machiavelli’s release from prison in Florence, where he had been arrested and tortured on a false charge of conspiracy.  Throughout Italy it was a time of sudden regime change, not unlike today’s Arab Spring.   Unemployed, barely able to make ends meet, forbidden by government decree from leaving Florentine territory for one year, Machiavelli despaired of his circumstances.  His best chance was a close friend, Francesco Vettori, who was serving as ambassador to the Pope.   Then, in August, Vettori stopped answering Machiavelli’s letters.  No doubt there are many among today’s unemployed who know how Machiavelli must have felt. 

Yet the relationship with would be patched up.  Three months later, in November,seemingly out of the blue, Vettori  reached out to his old friend.  He invited him to Rome.  On 10 December 1513, in a very famous letter, Machiavelli replied that it was not yet time for a visit, but since August, while he was out of work, he had written a little treatise-- a “fantasy of mine”-- “On Principalities.” 

It has been a mystery why Vettori wrote to his friend after three months of silence.  The letter I discovered in an archive-on-an island-in-a-lake-in-Italy solves it.  It is a bureaucratic letter sent to Vettori from the chancery where Machiavelli previously worked.  A friend inserted an unexpected name at the bottom of the page.  Abbreviated, it read “N. Mach,” for “Niccolò Machiavelli.”  It tipped off Vettori that Machiavelli’s parole had expired and he was now free and clear.   So Vettori picked up his pen and invited his old friend to Rome.  Moral for jobseekers:  Friends from your old job, like Machiavelli’s friend in the chancery, are crucial.

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