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And because Dante says that no one understands anything unless he retains what he has understood, I have jotted down what I have profited from in their conversation and composed a short study, De principatibus [ The Prince ], in which I delve as deeply as I can into the ideas concerning this topic, discussing the definition of a princedom, the categories of princedoms, how they are acquired, how they are retained, and why they are lost.
During the years from to , as an envoy of the Florentine republic, Machiavelli had put on formal robes in meeting and negotiating with a large range of rulers. And according to this letter, in talking to the ancients he again dons his robes of state. If, following Sebastian de Grazia, we combine the deathbed story and the letter, we could argue that The Prince is the product of a series of congenial political conversations with the ancients — with the great and the good of hell. The author of The Prince has long been the subject of biographical interest.
To say that Machiavelli has an unsavoury reputation is an understatement. As can be seen in derogatory terms such as Machiavellianism, both Machiavelli and The Prince are notoriously infamous. Needless to say, Machiavelli himself would not subscribe to this evaluation, and both Capponi and Unger insist that he himself was not at all Machiavellian.
Machiavelli lived during a fascinating period of Italian history. He was the close friend of the great Renaissance historian and statesman Francesco Guicciardini He knew both Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo He was the author of The Mandrake , the greatest theatrical work of the Italian Renaissance, and was arguably the greatest Italian prose writer of his day.
All three biographies attempt to do just that. All emphasise the brutal and violent nature of the world in which he lived. And all attempt to shed light on the central Machiavellian problem, his beliefs. Many have puzzled over the seeming contradiction between the robust republicanism of The Discourses on Livy and the brutal advice to tyrants given in The Prince , between the idealism of the former and the ruthlessness of the latter.
Machiavelli is a notoriously difficult thinker to come to grips with, and a wide divergence of opinion exists today about even his most fundamental beliefs. The three biographical accounts of Machiavelli cover very similar ground. His life can best be understood as falling into three distinct periods.