Back to previous post: How to have a problem with fannish things

Go to Making Light's front page.

Forward to next post: The Official Olympics Watching-and-Kibbitzing Thread

Subscribe (via RSS) to this post's comment thread. (What does this mean? Here's a quick introduction.)

July 29, 2012

One of the best pieces of historical writing I have ever read on a blog
Posted by Patrick at 04:45 PM *

Ex Urbe. Via Jo Walton, who said “It’s about Machiavelli and leaving Florence, but it’s actually about what’s important.”

I loaded it into a browser tab and left it there for over a week, unread. Don’t make the same mistake.

Comments on One of the best pieces of historical writing I have ever read on a blog:
#1 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: July 29, 2012, 05:43 PM:

Man, that is a beautiful piece of writing.

#2 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: July 29, 2012, 06:07 PM:

I skipped that piece when Jo Walton pointed to it. You're right; that was a mistake.


The bit about what message he would send back in time to Machiavelli brought tears to my eyes.

#3 ::: Herewiss13 ::: (view all by) ::: July 29, 2012, 06:38 PM:

I'm glad to see some more signal amplification for this. It really shed new light on the whole period for me...and the end was amazing.

#4 ::: Sherwood Smith ::: (view all by) ::: July 29, 2012, 06:50 PM:

It's worth it to tab back to earlier posts--this blog is full of great stuff.

#5 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: July 29, 2012, 06:51 PM:

It's a lovely piece, and has a very useful insight: his comment (I paraphrase here) that the place where most people who are trying to talk about Machiavelli's importance fall down is that they start with Machiavelli. I think this is a generic flaw in people writing about a person in history: they start with the person, rather than the context.

#6 ::: Chaomancer ::: (view all by) ::: July 29, 2012, 06:55 PM:

Wow! Thanks very much for posting this, it's a beautiful article and very, very educational. I'm going to go on and dive into the rest of the blog now.

I'm looking forward to seeing what else is in there.

#7 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: July 29, 2012, 09:05 PM:

#2 Mary Aileen: "he" Um: she.

#5 Tom Whitmore: "his" Um: her.


#8 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: July 29, 2012, 09:08 PM:

And yes, the entire site is full of great stuff. Which makes me want to go to Florence, no kidding.

(TNH has been to Florence _and_ Rome. I have been to Rome with TNH, and it was one of the great experiences of my life. I have not been to Florence. It's good to have cool things in waiting.)

#9 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: July 29, 2012, 09:14 PM:

Patrick (7): Oops. Thank you for the correction.

#10 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: July 29, 2012, 09:15 PM:

A couple of years ago, I got to see Lisa Goldstein's photos from her trip to that part of Italy. 'Gorgeous' doesn't even *begin* to describe it.

#11 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: July 29, 2012, 10:40 PM:

Yes, thank you! I forwarded it to Karen, who lived in Italy for a year, and I'm waiting for her response.

#12 ::: Richard Gadsden ::: (view all by) ::: July 30, 2012, 03:40 AM:

In my experience, Florence ranks equal-first (with Prague) as city most likely to make your jaw drop from the sheer beauty of a building as you turn a random corner.

#13 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: July 30, 2012, 04:07 AM:

All history is glass, a window or
A mirror. There are times it goes astray,
Pelts reckless back and forth, a child at play,
And times when it’s as sharp as harpy’s claw,
And cuts but once. He used it thus. He saw
That it could be a scalpel, used to lay
As bare as iron what a State is for:
To still be there tomorrow, come what may –

And must be done. Like gunpowder - that’s made
By boiling shit – but fired, it will broach
A wall, so is the politician’s trade
All heat and stink and death. Was he dismayed
Whose very name is bitterest reproach?
He knew the price. He knew. And still he paid.

#14 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: July 30, 2012, 04:19 AM:

Patrick@7: I just spent 5-10 minutes looking around the site, and if there's anything there revealing her sex (and I was actively looking for it) it eluded me. We can perhaps chalk it up to cultural sexism that we assume someone who studies Machiavelli is more likely male.

#15 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: July 30, 2012, 04:46 AM:

Thanks for the prod-- I'd seen recommendations to read that article (and had read some earlier good stuff at the site), but not gotten around to it.

#16 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: July 30, 2012, 08:20 AM:

I have been an admirer of Machiavelli ever since I first read La Mandragola 42 years ago (it has been that long).

I teach both the Prince and the Discourses on Livy, and my version of Machiavelli is that he's the founder of civic republicanism (a political ideology to which I happen to adhere) and nationalism. He's particularly important to me, and my own research, because he addresses a fundamental question: How do you found a free state that will last?

#17 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: July 30, 2012, 11:09 AM:

Anybody else remembers Machiavelli's appearance in "Time Tunnel" episode "The Death Merchant", which is set during the American Civil War?
(I know, this really should go in the 'geek' thread.)

#18 ::: Rob Thornton ::: (view all by) ::: July 30, 2012, 11:11 AM:

Even though I am still in the middle of the article, I had to stop and join the crowd of appreciators. Muchas gracias!

#19 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: July 30, 2012, 11:18 AM:

Serge @ #17:

I once read a novel set in an alternate history where Leonardo da Vinci was a major political figure and Machiavelli was a crusading journalist.

That's pretty much all I remember about it. Plot? Search me.

(I'm fairly sure there's a scene with a flying machine, and Lisa del Giocondo puts in an appearance - but that might just be educated guesswork, because who ever wrote an alternate history featuring Leonardo that didn't include those?)

#20 ::: Howard Bannister ::: (view all by) ::: July 30, 2012, 11:23 AM:



#21 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: July 30, 2012, 11:28 AM:

Dave at 13 - nice. And thanks, Patrick, for the link. A pleasure to read.

#22 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: July 30, 2012, 11:38 AM:

Dave Luckett: Lovely. You should post that in the Ex Urbe comments as well.

The whole blog is wonderful, but that piece is just amazing.

#23 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: July 30, 2012, 11:48 AM:

Paul A @ 19... In the case of the Time Tunnel, Machiavelli wound up being a Consultant to the South due to the Tunnel having malfunctionned. Again.

#24 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: July 30, 2012, 12:38 PM:

Dave Luckett #13: Magnificent.

#25 ::: Neil W ::: (view all by) ::: July 30, 2012, 01:18 PM:

Paul A #19

Pasquale's Angel, Paul McAuley. I mean, unless there are two such novels.

#26 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: July 30, 2012, 03:14 PM:

That's amazingly good. While I knew that Machiavelli was the father of descriptive political science, I didn't understand him all that well. Now I really feel that I do.

#27 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2012, 02:04 AM:

Neil W @ #25:

That's the one.

#28 ::: Sherwood Smith ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2012, 12:42 PM:

I hope that anyone who loved this post has at least looked at Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts. It's a travel memoir the same way that Ex Urbis is a travel blogger.

#30 ::: Dan Nexon ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2012, 02:45 AM:

#29. On the link: meh.

It has been a long time since I've read or taught Machiavelli, but, IIRC, I've always found it helpful to think of the Prince within the broader context of Machiavelli's more intellectually important later work: the Discourses on Livy.

1. Machiavelli was, first and foremost, a republican political theorist.

2. The Prince deals with a very special set of circumstances, a prince who has acquired a "new territory" and thus rules under conditions of dubious legitimacy. Much of the broader arguments, about virtú, dealing with contingency (personified in rather, uh, masculinist terms as Fortuna), and so forth receive better contextualization in the Discourses.

Both works are ultimately concerned with preserving a polity's autonomy. In the Prince the immediate problem is, as the original post discusses, the subordination of Florence--and Italy--after 1494 (see also Guicciardini's History of Italy).

Will Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici follow Machiavelli's advice and secure Florence's independence, as well as liberating Italy from French and Spanish domination?* Perhaps more importantly, will he be so taken with the book that he reinstates Machiavelli to a position of influence?

3. In the Discourses the problem of autonomy and self-rule is treated in more general terms. The Roman experience demonstrates two options: maintaining a small, well-armed republic (along the lines of early-modern German free cities) or a territorially expansive empire. Rome proves that you can't have both. After all, the Romans had (according to Machiavelli) the best republic, like, ever (!!) and they lost it due to their imperial turn. Note that Machiavelli's argument here has troubled small r-republicans living in empires ever since.

The fact that Machiavelli got fundamental things wrong about his environment -- whether the ability of citizen militias to stand against Swiss mercenaries or the significance of the new military technologies and tactics that were transforming warfare, faced a particularly dire political situation, or even that he failed when he ran Florence -- says nothing about the value of the Prince or the Discourses. It is also not really correct to say that he invented consequentialist ethics or modern political science. But he's a crucially important thinker for a wide range of reasons, let alone his influence (even as he was demonized) on thinking about European statecraft from the sixteenth century onward.

PS: The Discourses also contains a wonderful statement of Machiavelli's attitude toward those who reject the relevance of the past to present circumstances (see

*Since this is Making Light, I might mention Guy Gavriel Kay's historical-fantasy account of all this in Tigana.

#31 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2012, 08:54 AM:

Nancy Lebovitz #29: You have to look at Machiavelli's political writings (The Prince and The Discourses on The First Ten Books of Titus Livy) as a whole, not as separate works. Most people who have read anything of Machiavelli's have read only The Prince. That book looks at first glance like a handbook for tyrants. Until, that is, you come to chapter 26. That's the "Exhortation to Liberate Italy from the Barbarians" and it makes clear that Machiavelli had some other fish to fry:

"This opportunity, then, must not be allowed to pass by, in order that Italy, after so long a time, may behold its redeemer. I cannot express with what love he will be greeted in all those provinces which have suffered through these foreign inundations, with what thirst for vengeance, with what loyalty, with what devotion, with what tears. What doors would be closed to him? What people would deny him obedience? What envy could oppose him? What Italian would not pay homage to him? This barbarian domination stinks to everyone!"

The Medici, however, were not interested in the task of national liberation and unification. That had to wait a few centuries.

The Discourses indicate the kind of state (a term coined by Machiavelli) that the prince he was advising was expected to found. That was a republic. A republic balanced between the poor many and the rich few, with institutions, like those of the Roman Republic, intended to hold that balance. By ensuring that the poor did not overwhelm the rich, nor the rich crush the poor, Machiavelli believed that the republic could be made to last indefinitely.

#32 ::: Dan Nexon ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2012, 02:22 PM:

#31. Nit: I don't think Machiavelli coined the use of the term "state" (or stato) to refer to the political community. Skinner argues that it was well established by the 14th century (see

[Dan, please don't use URL shorteners here. People need to know where they're going before they go there. Also, spammers use 'em, so including one gets you a visit to the gnomes. — Idumea Mear Cobb, Duty Gnome]

#33 ::: Stephen Frug ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2012, 10:49 AM:

Patrick, I just wanted to add my amen to the chorus thanking you for the link, and for phrasing it in such a way that we actually got around to *reading* it.

If you happen to notice when the second part goes up, I hope you'll link it as a sidelight or something.

Oh, and Florence is amazing. I got to spend a week there four years or so ago. If you can, try to spend more than a few days there: a few days get you to the standard headline sights, but the second-tier sights in Florence are best than most museums/churches/what have you in most cities, and are well worth seeing too.

#34 ::: Stephen Frug ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2012, 10:55 AM:

Oh, and #13 Dave Luckett: that's terrific.

#35 ::: Cadbury Moose spots kindle spam at #35 ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2012, 06:05 AM:

Could the gnome with the axe reduce it to kindling, please.

#36 ::: David Wald ::: (view all by) ::: August 16, 2012, 08:25 AM:

I'd like to drop a late note in this short thread (which sounds like a long walk off a short pier, but isn't) to offer thanks for the link.

There's some historical writing about other places I've visited that needs to move up in my reading list. Context is good.

#37 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2012, 01:20 AM:

Ex Urbe has Part II of her Machiavelli essay out!

#38 ::: Howard Bannister ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2012, 09:13 AM:

...this part is aptly titled, "Machiavelli, Part the Second: in which terms are defined, moral codes collided, teachers betrayed, a hypothetical man executed, Batman and Sherlock Holmes placed before the reader’s judgment, and Machiavelli never actually appears."

And, in fact, he does not, but it's just as compelling as the first part. Thanks for the reminder, Bill.

#39 ::: Howard Bannister ::: (view all by) ::: October 31, 2012, 10:31 AM:

For those who enjoyed Parts 1 and 2, Part 3 has been up for most of this month and I just now noticed it.

Part 3: Rise of the Borgias.

#40 ::: Howard Bannister has been gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: October 31, 2012, 10:41 AM:

...I have just cooked a bit pot of chili for the nice folks at work, but I'd be happy to save out a bowl for the gnomes.

#41 ::: Howard Bannister ::: (view all by) ::: October 31, 2012, 11:22 AM:

The third chapter is entitled Rise of the Borgias.

I have just finished reading it, and it should be sub-titled: At Last, a Villain, wearing a mask, all black, killing people in the streets, but probably not cackling madly.

#42 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 02:25 AM:

The fourth chapter is now up: Julius II, the Warrior Pope

(Which calls for an "X: The Legendary Journeys" joke, but an appropriate value of X is not coming immediately to mind.)

#43 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2013, 11:30 AM:

And finally, part five.

Smaller type (our default)
Larger type
Even larger type, with serifs

Dire legal notice
Making Light copyright 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.