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Cat's Cradle Blog

Power and Art: Machiavelli and the Italian Renaissance

Il Principe (The Prince) by Niccolò Machiavelli. "La Nuova Italia" Editrice, 1941.

Born on May 3, 1469, Machiavelli remains, if not a household word, then one of the most recognizable names of the Italian Renaissance.  “Machiavellian” has earned a permanent place in the English language.  The Prince, one of his most important treatises, continues to be standard reading in university classrooms and a roadmap for political behavior in our time.  Whether he meant The Prince as satire or as a serious tribute to the Medici and other power brokers of the 15th and 16th centuries, his work has left a mark on our culture that continues to this, the 543rd anniversary of his birth in Florence, Italy.

The Florentine Renaissance, within which Machiavelli lived (1469-1527), was a study in paradox and contrast.  Florence rose from the bleak ashes of the Black Death (as depicted in Boccaccio’s Decameron), during which 70% of the city’s population either died or went elsewhere, to become a booming center of textiles (first wool, then silk) and finance (the banking enterprises of families like the Medici).  It was a city where money talked and power rested in the hands of the Medici family during most of the period.

The money that ruled Florence, rather than addressing the needs of the impoverished, went to displays of status.  The Medici, the Pitti, and the other wealthy and powerful families outdid one another with investment in private and public artworks.   Michelangelo’s “David,” now housed in the Accademia, was once a sculpture on public view in the Piazza della Signoria; a replica stands there now. Architects such as Brunelleschi thrived, and thus resulted a city of extraordinary beauty.  Botticelli, Da Vinci, Donatello, Fra Angelico, and many others found patrons in wealthy families, in the Florentine government, and in the Church itself.   Without the rise of families like the Medici, it’s doubtful whether Florentine art would have thrived as it did.

The art of the Renaissance, on the surface, provides a striking contrast to Machiavelli’s emphasis on “doing what is necessary” to build and keep power.  Nevertheless, his writing and the great art of the period shared many things.  They rested on a foundation of rational humanism.  They evoked the past, especially the past of classical Greece and Rome.  They also had a deep interest in contemporary subjects:  Machiavelli’s analysis of politics, Da Vinci’s portraiture, the Brancacci chapel’s frescoes with the faces of Florentines who lived during the time artist was working.

The Italian Renaissance was a time of contrast and conflict.  Bloody political upheaval marked the period.  Popes sired illegitimate children and kept mistresses in the Vatican.  Families warred with each other over who controlled cities.  Yet the Renaissance in Florence and other Italian cities was also a time of immeasurable beauty, of artistic innovation, and of enormous creativity.

Machiavelli’s work must certainly be counted among some of the most significant of this fascinating time.

Ci vediamo, mei amici!

Kathy Carter
Cat’s Cradle Books

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