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Book Review: Machiavelli

By (February 15, 2015) No Comment

Machiavelli: A Portraitcelenza machiavelli cover

by Christopher S. Celenza

Harvard University Press, 2015

Toward the end of his brief and diverting new book on the life and times of Niccolo Machiavelli, Johns Hopkins professor Christopher Celenza mentions a “delightful” Italian expression: anche se non e vero, e ben trovato – “even if it’s not true, it makes for a good story.” That this expression has often been applied to Machiavelli’s life by his popular biographers is something many thousands of readers would have discovered half a century ago while enjoying Ralph Roeder’s The Man of the Renaissance, and the temptations are as strong today as they were back in 1961. Machiavelli lived an energetic and varied life – trusted public servant, reviled public servant, road-weary emissary, home-bound private scholar, advisor to power and, most famously, aspiring advisor to power – a picturesque and interesting life in a world very different in some ways from our own. The good stories that have accumulated around that life in the centuries since his death in 1527 have guaranteed a steady flow of readable Machiavelli books that can’t be trusted and a much smaller trickle of trustworthy Machiavelli books that can’t be read.

Celenza’s book, Machiavelli: A Portrait, is both readable and trustworthy, and he manages that combination mainly by reminding his readers of those differences between Machiavelli’s time and our own – a note he strikes in a vivid if slightly problematic way right at the beginning of the book:

If you are reading this book, you have probably never witnessed a public execution or been close to someone who has. Most likely, you have not been physically tortured during legal proceedings. And in all probability you don’t live in a world where war is on your doorstep, literally, not outsourced and far away.

(A bookish old friend of mine in Aleppo is eagerly awaiting his copy of this book and will very likely wince when he reads that opening.)

As he takes readers through a fairly standard but smoothly-done chronology of Machiavelli’s life, Celenza stresses this point of time’s alienating distance. “Machiavelli’s letters reveal the nature of the world in which he lived: no habeas corpus, no sense of individual human rights, no guarantees,” he writes, “Personal connections mattered most in staying safe and finding work.” Readers familiar with Machiavelli only through his famous (and famously misunderstood) political treatise The Prince reflexively think of him mainly as a writer, and Celenza fleshes out how different that writing world was from the one writers and political pundits know today:

Despite all the work Machiavelli did alone, the way authorship and “publishing” worked was different then. Machiavelli’s creative process was more social than the romantic image implies. The goal was not to publish widely in the way we understand that term today, where one can imagine a unitary work, finished, with the possibility of publishing thousands of exactly identical copies, if not more. Printing with moveable type then was still new enough that it functioned in people’s imaginations as a kind of accelerated way of producing manuscripts (hand-written texts). Also, because printing was an art that still operated by hand (rather than with the steam-powered presses of the early nineteenth century), one simply could not imagine, in the way an aspiring author can do today, what it might mean to have massive numbers of copies circulating worldwide.

These interesting discussions of Machiavelli’s writing world are overlaid in Celenza’s book on top of some very good examinations of Machiavelli’s writings themselves, from an excellent look at his famous play Mandragola to some invigoratingly informal passages about Machiavelli’s political tracts (about his treatise Cagione dell’Ordinanza Celenza writes that it’s “not without Machiavelli’s habitual bluntness”).

There isn’t anything in Machiavelli: A Portrait that readers haven’t seen in large part in other recent books on the subject, like Mark Jurdjevic’s A Great & Wretched City or Niccolo Capponi’s An Unlikely Prince, although Celenza’s personal shadings keep his book easily accessible as he follows his subject into his bitterly disappointed middle age – again stressing the value of the idiosyncratic, the intrinsic imaginative hook of unguarded moments:

As Machiavelli aged, he never lost his taste for comedy, and he certainly practiced it well, since he was sought after as a comic writer. Still, he would have been the first to say that his comedies held far less importance than his historical and political work. For us, his bawdy letters, his friends’ knowing replies, and his farcical plays tell us about the world in which he lived day to day; how he and his cohort related to women, what they considered amusing, how they spent their off hours.

Celenza rightly reminds us that Machiavelli’s is a life that each generation finds relevant in its own ways, and if his own Machiavelli, cultured, urbane, caught off-guard by a political process he hoped to improve, seeks to find a basically hopeful figure in our own politically fraught times, well, that’s not a bad thing.