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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES - BIOGRAPHY
Living from 1469 to 1527, Niccolo Machiavelli saw what we now consider the height of the Italian Renaissance-a period that produced some of Italy's greatest achievements in the arts and sciences, but that also produced horrible scandals and the establishment of foreign domination over the peninsula. Brought up while members of the powerful Medici family were masters of Florence, he studied the classics and learned to read and write in Latin. He also showed a keen interest in, and the ability to learn from, the world around him. He was a diplomat, a student of history, and a writer of comedy-and his sharp and unique insights changed the face of political science forever.
Machiavelli was born in Florence on May 3, 1469. We first hear of him playing an active role in the affairs of his native city in 1498, when the government dominated by Girolamo Savonarola, the Dominican friar whose puritanical views had influenced Florence for the preceding four years, fell from power.
One of Savonarola's supporters who lost his position as a result was Alessandro Braccesi, head of the second chancery, an office responsible for all correspondence related to the administration of Florentine territories. At first the post was left unoccupied, but after a short delay the little known name of Niccolo Machiavelli was put forward as a possible replacement. He was only twenty-nine years old at the time and apparently had no previous administrative experience. His nomination was confirmed, however, and he was appointed second chancellor of the Florentine Republic. It was an enormous opportunity, and the experiences and insights he would gain in the post would be used later in writing The Prince.
At the time Machiavelli entered public service, there were already well-established standards for filling major administrative positions in Florentine government. In addition to exhibiting diplomatic skill, civil servants were expected to display competence in the "humane disciplines." These disciplines had been derived from ancient Roman sources especially from the orator and statesman Cicero, who had written about the need for formal study of Latin, rhetoric, history, moral philosophy, and politics to prepare a student for professional service to the community. Ultimately, they were the ancestor of the "humanities," or liberal arts curriculum in contemporary education.
The popularity of the humanistic ideals in Florentine government help explain how Machiavelli came to be appointed to a responsible government post at such an early age. His family, though neither rich nor aristocratic, were closely allied with the city's leading humanists.
Machiavelli's father, Bernardo, a lawyer, was friendly with several distinguished humanist scholars, including Bartolomeo Scala, who at one time served as first chancellor of Florence and whose treatise On Laws and Legal Judgments (1483) was dedicated to Bernardo.
We learn from Bernardo's diary that his son began formal education at the age of seven. Basically, this was the study of Latin, the language that was the passport to the world of humanistic learning. By the time Machiavelli was twelve he had graduated from primary school and was enrolled in private classes. Later, he was accepted at the University of Florence, where he received training in the humanities, literature, and sciences from Marcello Adriani, who succeeded Scala as first chancellor of Florence.
Do you think these contacts help explain why young Machiavelli suddenly was awarded the government post in 1498? Adriani had taken over as first chancellor earlier in the same year, and it's reasonable to assume that he remembered the talents of his brilliant student when he was filling vacancies in the chancery. It is also possible that Machiavelli's father exerted some influence.
Machiavelli's official position involved him in very important duties. The first and second chanceries both handled official correspondence dealing with Florence's domestic, foreign, and military affairs. As head of the second chancery, Machiavelli was also soon assigned the further job of secretary to the Ten of War, the committee responsible for Florence's diplomatic relations. This meant that in addition to his routine office duties, Machiavelli sometimes traveled abroad to act as spokesman for the Ten. In some respects, Machiavelli's government position resembles that of a modern diplomatic attache: a skilled and reliable official who sends to the home office detailed reports and observations on the affairs of foreign nations.
During the next fourteen years, Machiavelli was sent on numerous diplomatic missions to France, Switzerland, and Germany. His observations abroad resulted in many of the ideas that form the basis for the major statements found in his political works. In The Prince, for example, Machiavelli comments at length on Germany's well-fortified cities and evaluates the weak leadership of the French king, Louis XII.