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Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power by Ross King


From the reviews for 'Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling': 'King is a gifted, judicious, compelling narrator.' Alan Taylor, The Sunday Herald Ross King deftly stitches modern Michelangelo scholarship into his fluent and gripping narrative' Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

This is one of several volumes in the HarperCollins Eminent Lives series. Each offers a concise rather than comprehensive, much less definitive biography. However, just as Al Hirschfeld's illustrations of various celebrities capture their defining physical characteristics, the authors of books in this series focus on the defining influences and developments during the lives and careers of their respective subjects. In this instance, Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli (1469-1527).

Obviously, this is not a definitive biography nor did Ross King intend it to be. However, for most readers, it provides about all of the information they need to understand the meaning and significance of this excerpt from the final chapter in King's biography: "The key to some of the ambiguities may lie in the nature of the man himself. Machiavelli's numerous undertakings - diplomat, playwright, poet, historian, political theorist, farmer, military engineer, militia captain - make him, like his friend Leonardo, a true Renaissance man. Yet, like Leonardo, who denounced the 'beastly madness' of war while devising ingenious and deadly weapons, Machiavelli is awash in paradoxes and inconsistencies...Probably his greatest contradiction was that he understood better than anyone else in the sixteenth century how to seize and maintain political power - and yet, deprived of power himself in 1512, he spent many long years in the political wilderness, making a series of bungling and fruitless attempts to regain his position."

With remarkable precision, concision, and eloquence, King examines not only Machiavelli's life and career but also the cultural, political, and religious environment in which he was so actively involved more than 500 years ago. The Prince (or The Ruler) is Machiavelli's most famous work but was not published until four years after his death, in 1531, when Pope Clement VII granted that permission to Antonio Blado. It was published together with Machiavelli's Discourses on Livy and The History of Florence. The Art of War (1520) was the only one of Machiavelli's works to be published in his lifetime. King notes that The Prince circulated in manuscript and earned for Machiavelli a certain notoriety. "'Everyone hated him because of The Prince,' one commentator observed around the time of Machiavelli's death. 'The good thought him sinful, the wicked thought him even more wicked or more capable than themselves, so that all hated him.' This was no doubt an exaggeration: Machiavelli was far better known as a popular dramatist and controversial state functionary than as the author of a tract on statecraft. Still, in the decades that followed, the hatred did indeed begin to curdle."

King points out that a well-worn edition accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte to the Battle of Waterloo and Adolph Hitler kept a copy on his bedside table. Today, many people who have never read The Prince and know little (if anything) about its author do not hesitate to invoke his name - or at least apply it as an adjective - to describe or repudiate any political maneuvering they perceive to be devious. However, King asserts, rather than having been uniformly demonized or unfairly misunderstood "as a preacher of the straightforward message of evil," Machiavelli has been "conscripted into service" by adherents of all manner of political causes because his thought is strangely malleable to any number of diametrically opposing ideologies and approaches."

As I hope these brief remarks indicate, I learned a great deal about Machiavelli, a man of "numerous antimonies," that I did not know before. I am grateful to Ross King for that but also for all that I learned about the extraordinarily interesting age in which Machiavelli lived, more than 500 years ago. It would be an exaggeration to suggest that King "brings it to life." No one could. But he does present material with the skills and eloquence of a storyteller...and in seamless combination with the skills of a cultural anthropologist.

The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli's handbook on power - how to get it and how to keep it-has been enormously influential in the centuries since it was written, garnering a heady mixture of admiration, fear, and contempt. Its author, born to an established middle-class family, was no prince himself. Machiavelli (1469-1527) worked as a courtier and diplomat for the Republic of Florence and enjoyed some small fame in his time as the author of bawdy plays and poems. Upon the Medici's return to power, however, he found himself summarily dismissed from the government he had served for decades and exiled from the city where he was born.

In this discerning new biography, Ross King rescues Machiavelli's legacy from caricature, detailing the vibrant political and social context that influenced his thought and underscoring the humanity of one of history's finest political thinkers. Ross King's Machiavelli visits fortune-tellers, produces wine on his Tuscan estate, travels Europe tirelessly on horseback as a diplomatic envoy, and is a passionate scholar of antiquity—but above all, a keen observer of human nature.

From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. It was easy to find oneself on the wrong side of the ruler-du-jour in 16th-century Italy, which was controlled by corrupt families and defended by contract soldiers whose loyalties were readily purchased. Machiavelli ventured into this world with his diplomatic acumen, then, when he fell out of favor, turned his ambitious mind to brutal political writings, satirical plays and the occasional courtesan. A theoretician of conspiracy and duplicity, he was also a brilliant observer of his times. Sympathizing with Machiavelli, King provides a convincing portrait of one of the most misunderstood thinkers of all time. Machiavelli's writings shed a dark light on the man, but less so when set against the tapestry of Florence's Palazzo della Signoria. King's book is everything a short biography should be and more, due to King's sharp wit and zesty anecdotes: As the document was being signed, a dove came through the window and flew over the heads of the Ten. The dove then crashed into a wall and fell dead at the feet of the Ten, but its appearance was still considered a good omen. It provides a strong sense of the history of both the man and his times and a nice introduction to Machiavelli's writings. Moreover, like one of Machiavelli's bawdy plays, it is a riveting and exhilarating read, full of salacious details and brisk prose. (June)

From Booklist
Popular art historian King (Brunelleschi's Dome, 2000) here puts the ace diplomat of the Republic of Florence through the short-biography paces. Machiavelli was in office from 1498 to 1512, which forms the chronological backbone for King's profile. It supports the author's development of Machiavelli's personality, which will enlighten readers for whom his name is only the byword for political cynicism. He was certainly a Florentine patriot with imaginative ideas for the republic's foreign policy in the predatory arena of Renaissance Italy. But King's apt quotations from Machiavelli's correspondents indicate he possessed a tactlessness that created personal enemies, an indifference toward his wife but concern for his sons, and a zest for life and intellectual discussion that attracted many friends. King brings out these aspects of Machiavelli's character through discussion of his missions to heavy hitters such as the French king and the papacy, and through Machiavelli's life after the Medici pitched him into a torturer's dungeon. He survived to reflect about his experience of political power, and his historical footprints become a fascinating story in their own right in King's highly readable portrait. Taylor, Gilbert.


The Prince (Il Principe) by Niccolo Machiavelli from by arcadius can be found at

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Tags: their, series, defining, during, lives