TLS – Machiavelli’s Utopia


Sculpture of Machiavelli for the Uffizi
© Adam Eastland/Alamy

TLS – Machiavelli’s Utopia

About thirty-five years ago, in separate studies, the scholars Silvana Seidel Menchi and Carlo Dionisotti noticed that the “Florentine” Utopia of 1519 appeared in the third volume of a curious set of five volumes of Erasmian works all published by the Giunti Press; and each of the books was a knock-off of a previous Aldine volume. The first contained Erasmus’s translations of Hecuba and Iphigenia at Aulis by Euripides; the second was The Praise of Folly; the third was the Lucian-Utopia volume; the fourth was a previously published grammatical collection with William Lily’s treatise “On the Eight Parts of Speech” appended but attributed to Erasmus; and the fifth was a collection of Erasmus’s writings on princes and politics, including “The Complaint of Peace” and “The Education of a Christian Prince”, along with several of his translations from Isocrates and Plutarch on princes, and with his adage, “The Sileni of Alcibiades”, and his “Oration on Virtue” appended to the works in the Aldine original. Dionisotti noted that the Lucian-Utopia volume appeared to have been printed under special circumstances and was perhaps pulled from the market, since a press inventory of 1604 reveals unsold copies eighty-five years later. Both Seidel Menchi and Dionisotti stressed that the works in this Erasmian series that included Utopia were slanted towards political and secular themes. Missing were Erasmus’s religious and devotional writings and his substantial works on rhetoric. The Florentines behind the publication appear to have been reading Erasmus and More with particular attention to their politics.

To piece together the story behind the Giunti publications we have to start with a visit that Erasmus made to Florence thirteen years earlier. Erasmus’s Italian journey, which would result in a stay that lasted until 1509, has often been recounted. In 1506 he accepted an appointment as travelling tutor to the two sons of Henry VII’s royal physician, a Genoese. Erasmus was supposed to accompany the boys in their university studies at Bologna in exchange for expenses and a stipend. In June of that year the three of them crossed the Channel, and in Paris Erasmus left two books to be published with the printer Badius. One of the books comprised his translations of Hecuba and Iphigenia at Aulis; the other was a volume of Lucian translations that he and More had prepared. The Euripides was published in Paris in September 1506; the Lucian would not appear until November; and in the meantime Erasmus would send from Florence some additional translations that were added to it. From Paris the small party travelled south and crossed the Alps. When they arrived at Bologna, to his alarm Erasmus learned that the city would soon be under attack. Pope Julius II was leading an army against it, so Erasmus escaped to Florence with the two boys. Scholars have frequently lamented that we know next to nothing about Erasmus’s stay in what had been, and in some respects still was, the capital of the European Renaissance. All that has been known is that he was translating additional works by Lucian while waiting for the publication of his Euripides back in Paris. By November 11, Erasmus was back in Bologna for Julius’s triumphal entry.

There is, however, a letter of Erasmus’s, written twenty years later from Basle, which offers fresh clues about the stay in Florence. The very funny epistle describes for Erasmus’s correspondent the explosion of a gunpowder magazine in Basle. Erasmus tells how, since the gunpowder was stored next to a brothel, the blast sent prostitutes and their clients scurrying half-naked through the streets. But most interesting, Erasmus writes, is how the tremendous noise of the explosion reminded him of a thunderclap he heard long ago when he was in Florence waiting for news of Julius and Bologna. Erasmus relates that he was studying with friends when he left them to relieve his bowels. It was while he was tending to nature that there was a thunderclap that sent him rushing back to his friends. Soon a physician hurried by, who told them that three nuns had been struck by lightning and that two of them had died.

The mention of Pope Julius while describing a bowel movement alludes perhaps to Erasmus’s dialogue, Julius Exclusus, while the deaths of the nuns may indicate doubt concerning the value of the religious life. But, most importantly, the letter tells us that Erasmus made some friends while in Florence, though they are not identified. A diary kept by the shopkeeper Luca Landucci dates the lightning strike to November 4, 1506, and tells us that the Dominican convent of Santa Caterina was struck. Since the convent stood close to the famous Library of San Marco, we can assume that that was where Erasmus was studying. Although we don’t know the identity of Erasmus’s friends, someone in Florence seems to have remembered him long afterwards. For, if we look again at the Erasmian series published by Giunti, the first and the third volumes – the Euripides and the Lucian – comprised the very works that Erasmus was worrying over when he was there in 1506.

Although the books of the Erasmian series offer no obvious clues as to who may have selected them for publication, Dionisotti was able to follow up an earlier notice by Roberto Weiss, a longtime Professor of Italian at University College, London, and an authority on the ties between Italian and British humanists. In 1521 the Giunti press published a Greek vocabulary by the second-century grammarian Julius Pollux. It contains a dedicatory letter from Antonio Francini, who directed the press’s publications in Latin and Greek, addressed to none other than Thomas Linacre, the Royal Physician to Henry VIII, who was also the teacher and reading companion of More and Erasmus. Francini, in his letter, praises the achievements of the English humanists, Linacre, More, Grocyn, Pace and Tunstall, and he boasts that it was he personally who had seen More’s Utopia through the press. Linacre had studied in Florence in the 1490s, and, although Francini regrets that he did not meet Linacre back then, he indicates as a friend they had in common, and as the man who made possible these publications by the Giunti, his former teacher, one “Giampiero Machiavelli”. The mention of a “Machiavelli” in connection with Linacre and More is of course fascinating, but although Weiss and Dionisotti looked high and low for a connection with the famous Niccolò, neither was able to identify this Giampiero. Indeed, Giampiero Machiavelli does not appear in the ordinary Florentine fiscal and baptismal records; nor does he appear in family genealogies.

Recently, however, thanks to a string of archival finds, it has been possible to identify Giampiero Machiavelli. Most importantly he was a priest, which explains why he is missing from many of the usual archival records. In fact Giampiero held the benefice in the church at Sant’Andrea in Percussina, outside Florence, which abutted the farm where, in the evening, “dressed in regal and courtly clothes”, his relative Niccolò wrote The Prince.

Giampiero turns out to have been rather close to Niccolò. It was Niccolò who arranged for Giampiero to circumvent several prohibitions under canon law so he could take the benefice at the family homestead. In the same years in which Niccolò rose to importance in Florence’s chancery, Giampiero was elected to the city’s most prestigious religious confraternity, the Misericordia, and he became director of Florence’s cathedral school. The two Machiavelli cousins can be documented sharing an interest in the Epicurean philosophy of Lucretius. It was probably in 1497 that Niccolò made a full transcription (sometimes described as an “edition”) of the De rerum natura; while a prose paraphrase of the first three books of Lucretius’ poem was published in 1504 with a prefatory letter by Giampiero. Both Niccolò and Giampiero were at times hounded by followers of the late Dominican preacher, Girolamo Savonarola. And we know from the Dialogues of Antonio Brucioli that both cousins participated in the literary and philosophical discussions that were held in Florence’s Rucellai Gardens.

There is no reason to suppose that Niccolò met Erasmus while the latter was in Florence, although it was possible. Erasmus was waiting for news concerning Julius, and on October 28, seven days before the thunderclap that Erasmus remembered so well, Niccolò returned to Florence from an embassy to Julius bearing the latest news of the papal army’s progress. Giampiero, however, as an old friend of Linacre’s, is more likely to have met Erasmus in 1506, and, given the role attributed to him by Francini, to have prompted the publication of the Euripides and Lucian volumes.

But there is an even more complex story concerning this Florentine connection to the world of Northern humanism that remains to be told. In 1510, the Savonarolans in Florence blocked Giampiero’s election to a chaplaincy in the cathedral. In the aftermath he resigned his position at the cathedral school and, following Erasmus’s example, accepted an appointment as the travelling preceptor to an intellectually promising and extremely wealthy young cleric who was about to pursue university studies. So began Giampiero Machiavelli’s close ten-year relationship with Lorenzo Bartolini.

Bartolini, who was a cousin by marriage of Niccolò Machiavelli, belonged to a family that occupied leading roles in the Florentine Republic while at the same time, through its bank, managing the financial affairs of the exiled Medici family. The sharp distinction between “republicans” and “Mediceans” that historians have used when charting Florentine allegiances in this period simply won’t work. The young Lorenzo Bartolini was much beholden to the exiled Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici, who resigned to him several extraordinarily lucrative benefices, the most prominent being a position as commendatory abbot of the richly endowed Augustinian Abbey of Sainte-Marie d’Entremont in Upper Savoy.

Bartolini’s travels for university study, with Giampiero as his preceptor, began in 1511 with a stint at Pavia, although the two were forced to return to Florence in 1512 when Swiss troops invaded the town. In October 1513, at a time when Giampiero’s cousin Niccolò was already well advanced with The Prince, they left Florence again, this time to study in France, first at Valence along the Rhône, and then, from 1514 to 1519, at the University of Paris.

An account book preserved today in a private archive outside Florence records the expenses of the young Lorenzo Bartolini during these travels. By matching these accounting entries, which offer firm dates, with notarial contracts in Florence and snippets of information from a great many other sources, it has been possible to compile an impressive list of the individuals with whom these two Florentines, Lorenzo Bartolini and Giampiero Machiavelli, came into contact. When studying first at Pavia and then at Valence, they were following the jurist Filippo Decio, who had taught canon law at Florence when Giampiero was a pupil. It was Decio who had provided legal justification for Louis XII’s Council of Pisa in 1512 that aimed to dethrone Pope Julius II, and who would later be sought out by Henry VIII for arguments in support of the latter’s divorce. At Valence the pair came into contact with the humanist Christophe de Longueil, whose expenses they supported for several years. In Paris they subsidized the anti-Arabist physician Pierre Brissot in the period before he decided to travel to the New World in search of new medicinal plants. Bartolini was welcomed into the circle around Lefèvre d’Étaples, who was then studying Aristotle, and he is mentioned in books by Josse Clichtove and Gérard Roussel. It is possible that Linacre met the two Florentines in France in 1514, when he accompanied Mary Tudor to her wedding with Louis XII. The connection must have remained firm, at any rate, since one of Linacre’s few surviving letters is addressed to Giampiero and dates from December 1513.

The account book, while providing much information concerning the relationships of the Florentines, also provides insight into their intellectual interests. In Paris they received many shipments of books in Latin and Greek (“più libri e volumi latini e greci”) from Venice and Florence. Only a few are named, but they include a Sallust and an edition of the works of Plutarch that were purchased specifically for Giampiero, as well as a Lucian in Greek, the De rebus gestis Francorum of Paolo Emili, a Ptolemy, a Dioscorides, and John Lascaris’s translation from Greek of a treatise On the Illnesses of Horses. The dimension of the book purchases is indicated by an entry that states that when Giampiero’s preceptorship came to an end in 1521, Lorenzo allowed him to keep 200 of the books for himself.

Another of the French scholars with whom the two Florentines became familiar was Guillaume Budé. Towards the end of their stay in Paris, as Bartolini was completing his studies, the pupil and preceptor planned a trip to pay homage to More in England and to Erasmus in Flanders, and it was Budé who sent introductions ahead of them. On their return to Paris in the autumn of 1519 Bartolini received his baccalaureate, and then the two of them went home to Florence.

Given this back story, a more detailed account of the Giunti Erasmian series is possible. Both Giampiero and Lorenzo enjoyed close relations with the Giunti Press, which even dedicated its 1519 Iliad to Lorenzo. The publication dates of the first three books in the Erasmian series – Euripides, Praise of Folly, and Lucian-Utopia – suggests they were timed in advance of the visits to Erasmus and More, so that they could be presented as testimony to the esteem in which these Northerners were held in Florence. The fourth and fifth books in the series were instead published soon after the return of the preceptor and his pupil to Florence. The fourth simply updated an existing grammatical textbook by including the new (and soon to become very influential) grammar, “On the Eight Parts of Speech”, that they must have picked up in England or Flanders. But the fifth and last volume, which has to do with princes, is best explained by returning to Giampiero’s cousin, Niccolò.

Niccolò Machiavelli had been unemployed since 1512, when he was fired from the chancery. Even worse, in 1513, he was arrested, tortured and briefly imprisoned on a false charge of conspiracy. There had been attempts to rehabilitate him, but after 1515 he came in for savage criticism on account of the harsh lessons and alleged impiety of The Prince. Still, he had important friends who hoped eventually to secure him employment with the Medici. A number of these friends were associated with the Giunti Press, which in 1521 would publish his Art of War. All the most “Machiavellian” of Erasmus’s writings seem to be gathered in this fifth Giunti volume. Indeed, there is reason to believe they were selected with a view to easing Machiavelli’s situation. If Machiavelli’s Prince could be seen simply as one voice, along with those of Erasmus, Isocrates and Plutarch, addressing problems inherent in princeship and statecraft, its sharper messages would be seen in a broader context and therefore blunted.

There are a number of passages in Machiavelli’s writings that owe something to Erasmus, and of special interest is a letter that has gone unnoticed. From the period 1515–20, when Machiavelli completed The Prince, The Discourses and Mandragola, only a few letters survive, but there is a passage in one of them that suggests a deep appreciation of Erasmus. In December 1517 Machiavelli mentioned that he and a group of friends from the Rucellai Gardens had been planning a trip to Flanders. The early editions of the letter misread the word Flanders (Fiandre) as “Francia”; the Allan Gilbert translation that is still in print reads the word as “France”. The group never made the journey. But since, in addition to Machiavelli, it can be shown that several of these friends were readers of Erasmus, it seems likely that in 1517 – soon after the publication of Erasmus’s Education of a Christian Prince and of More’s Utopia (which Erasmus saw through the press) – Niccolò and his Florentine friends’ plan was to visit Erasmus, much as Giampiero Machiavelli and Lorenzo Bartolini would do in 1519.

When in February 1520 the Giunti published the fifth of the Erasmian volumes, Giampiero Machiavelli and Lorenzo Bartolini had been back in Florence for several months. We know from correspondence between two other friends of Niccolò’s, Filippo and Lorenzo Strozzi, who were also involved with the Giunti Press, that they were arranging to introduce Machiavelli to Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici with a view to restoring him to favour. Niccolò’s meeting with the Cardinal took place in March 1520, only a few weeks after the publication of the fifth Giunti volume. Given the context, it seems reasonable to hypothesize that the Erasmian book on princes was published by Niccolò’s friends in an effort to mollify critics of The Prince. And, if so, it worked. Machiavelli was restored to favour; soon after, he was appointed official historiographer of Florence; and in 1521 he published his Art of War – with the Giunti Press.

There remains a further possibility that deserves mention. It has now become at least possible to imagine that, when Thomas More wrote Utopia in 1515 and 1516, he had some knowledge of Machiavelli’s Prince. More, to be sure, was sufficiently brilliant to have written Utopia without The Prince. Ideas concerning princes and statecraft were very much in the air, as we know not only from the writings of Erasmus, More and Machiavelli, but also from Budé’s work on princes (begun in 1515), and from the circulation of Plutarch (whose works Giampiero purchased). Given the dating of The Prince and Utopia, given Giampiero’s friendship with Linacre, and given More’s liking for the Italian language, we can’t rule out the possibility that More may have read Machiavelli’s Prince in some form, or that he had at least heard about it from Linacre or another intermediary. Machiavelli was almost certainly immersed in writing The Prince when Giampiero left Florence for France in October 1513; by December 10, 1513, we know that Machiavelli had shown the work to his friend Filippo Casavecchia; a few weeks later he sent some part of it by post to Francesco Vettori in Rome. By early 1514 Machiavelli seems to have completed a preliminary version; and in the spring of 1515 he retouched the work in the final form that we now have. More, for his part, began writing Utopia shortly afterwards, in the summer of 1515. If More did see The Prince, one imagines he received as a challenge Machiavelli’s famous declaration in Chapter 15, that “Many have imagined republics and principalities that have never been seen or known to exist in reality”. The “Dialogue of Counsel” section of Utopia’s Book I discusses the strategic position of the King of France in a manner that sounds like an Englishman’s response to Chapter 3 of The Prince (a discussion of France that omits England). And More’s description of the military in Utopia reads like a parody of Machiavelli.

These are, necessarily, speculations. The solid discoveries here are that Machiavelli was not the lonely writer he is so often imagined as being; that he belonged to a network of writers who were contributing to a shared discussion of princes and statecraft; and that Erasmus and More, in the years before the Lutheran break, were being read in ways that were more radical than is generally thought – and than they themselves would wish to be thought after the Reformation took off.


The author is grateful for discussions of this research in seminars held in London, at the Legatum Institute and the Institute for Historical Research, and in New York, at the Grolier Club.

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