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May 3, 1469 - June 22, 1527
Part 5 of 11: Principe, Discorsi & Arte della guerra
Cast in the form of comments on the history of Livy, the Discorsi are really an inquiry into the genesis and maintenance of states. The Principe is an offshoot from the main theme of the Discorsi, setting forth Machiavelli's views at large and in detail upon the nature of principalities, the method of cementing them, and the qualities of a successful autocrat. Being more limited in subject and more independent as a work of literary art, this essay detaches itself from the main body of the Discorsi, and has attracted far more attention. We feel that the Principe is inspired with greater fervency, as though its author had more than a speculative aim in view, and brought it forth to serve a special crisis. The moment of its composition was indeed decisive. Machiavelli judged the case of Italy so desperate that salvation could only be expected from the intervention of a powerful despot. The unification of Italy in a state protected by a national army was the cherished dream of his life; and the peroration of the Principe shows that he meant this treatise to have a direct bearing on the problem. We must be careful, however, not to fall into the error of supposing that he wrote it with the sole object of meeting an occasional emergency. Together with the Discorsi, the Principe contains the speculative fruits of his experience and observation combined with his deductions from Roman history. The two works form one coherent body of opinion, not systematically expressed, it is true, but based on the same principles, involving the same conclusions, and directed to the same philosophical end. That end is the analysis of the conception of the state, studied under two main types, republican and monarchical. Up to the date of Machiavelli, modern political philosophy had always presupposed an ideal. Medieval speculation took the Church and the Empire for granted, as divinely appointed institutions, under which the nations of the earth must flourish for the space of man's probation on this planet. Thinkers differed only as Guelfs and Ghibellines, as leaning on the one side to papal, on the other to imperial supremacy. In the revival of learning, scholarship supplanted scholasticism, and the old ways of medieval thinking were forgotten. But no substantial philosophy of any kind emerged from humanism; the political lucubrations of the scholars were, like their ethical treatises, for the most part rhetorical. Still the humanists effected a delivery of the intellect from what had become the bondage of obsolete ideas, and created a new medium for the speculative faculty. Simultaneously with the revival, Italy had passed into that stage of her existence which has been called the age of despots. The yoke of the Empire had been shaken off. The Church had taken rank among Italian tyrannies. The peninsula was, roughly speaking, divided into principalities and sovereign cities, each of which claimed autocratic j urisdiction. These separate despotisms owned no common social tie, were founded on no common j us or right, but were connected in a network of conflicting interests and changeful diplomatic combinations. A keen and positive political intelligence emerged in the Italian race. The reports of Venetian and Florentine ambassadors at this epoch contain the first germs of an attempt to study politics from the point of view of science.
This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
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