Our book today is Joseph Markulin‘s big fat new historical novel Machiavelli: A Renaissance Life, which seeks to do for the author of The Prince what Irving Stone did with such resounding sense for Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy half a century ago: dramatize the life of a famous figure in history from birth to death. Machiavelli – published in a bright, light paperback original by Prometheus Books, stages the entire life of its subject. Markulin is more than capable of writing a straight-up biography; maybe he chooses fiction for its approachability – and for the fact that ten times as many readers are willing to cast their lot with a work of fiction as with a work of history, in these decadent times.
Markulin has one of the richest historical eras at his dramatist’s fingertips, and he revels in it – this is, before anything else, an enormously enjoyable book, a warm-fire-and-deep-armchair book that refuses to hurry and is completely confident of its powers. The large cast of A-list historical guest-stars – those naughty Borgias (including Machiavelli’s charismatic pole-star Cesare), Leonardo da Vinci, Savonarola, even Michelangelo himself, and dozens more – are brought vividly to life, as is our hero himself, with a little help from the fact that by historical accident we happen to have a portrait of him by Santi di Tito:
His most salient feature, however, the one that most struck people upon meeting him for the first time, and the one that stayed in their minds afterward as characteristic of him, was the expression on his face. He could not easily rid himself of a sarcastic twist that played continually about his mouth, curling and uncurling his lips. The same sardonic signals flashed from his eyes, and it gave him the air of an extremely astute observer – and a very skeptical one as well. Even drunk, his powers of observation were constantly engaged, and little escaped his detection …
Tricky but permissible to generalize from what amounts to a snapshot, but Markulin always explores deeper, always expands his portraits to include the smells and sounds no painting can convey:
When he talked, Niccolo Machiavelli talked too fast – not a nervous or unsure kind of fast, but a breathless, excited fast. It was as if the rushing words were trying in vain to keep pace with the thoughts that were flying, one after another, through his head at tremendous speed.
The novel follows Machiavelli from his boyhood, through his education, his encounters with the gruntwork of statecraft, his tangles with a Church in turmoil, his political successes, his political downfall (and, harrowingly, torture), his hard-won wisdom – and Markulin fleshes out all of it with street color, spills of wine and more poisonous beverages, bellows at night, and a refreshing number of scenes set in bordellos, like the one in which our hero learns something very important and very disturbing about Cesare:
It was near the end of their conversation when Niccolo had leaned close to him, very close, that his suspicions were confirmed. In the subdued light of the brothel, they had been barely discernible, obscured and hidden among the curly growth of beard that wreathed Borgia’s mouth. But the yellow pustules were there. The disease had taken root. It’s inevitable, destructive rush to madness and death was underway.
Because Markulin is in no hurry (Prometheus has allowed his book to run to over 700 pages, and I’m betting his readers won’t want it to be any shorter – I certainly didn’t), you can be sure that a mention of something like those tell-tale pustules will occasion a factual digression. These would ordinarily be lethal to the narrative of any good historical novel, but our author is such a winning, genial host that in this case they’re included with buttery smoothness. I could listen to him natter on about STDs until the cows come home:
The Italians generally referred to it as the French Disease. The French preferred to call it the Neapolitan Disease. The Neapolitans, for their part, were inclined to label it the Spanish Disease. No one, it seems, wanted to accept responsibility. It went by many other names as well – bolle, the pox, even plague – but its effects were the same for all, no matter what it was called. It was a rapid, degenerative, and mortal illness.
The first cases of syphilis in Europe were diagnosed in Barcelona in 1493. An outbreak of the disease was discovered among the crew of the recently returned ships of the Genoese navigator Christoforo Columbo, who, sailing under the flag of Spain, claimed to have discovered a new world.
As passages like that one make clear, readers of Machiavelli: A Renaissance Life (once again, I offer my services to all publishers and all authors, anywhere in the world at any time, in coming up with good titles for their books) will come away from the book knowing a whole hell of a lot more about everything connected with the Italian Renaissance than they knew going in. But more importantly, they’ll feel like they’ve spent a long time with the people of Markulin’s grand story, especially with poor idealistic steadfast over-intelligent Niccolo himself. This big fat book is every bit as good as The Agony and the Ecstasy – or even, in its winking humor, a bit better. It’s a whale of a good time, and no hungry reader of historical fiction should miss it.