“In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love. They had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
– Orson Welles, as Harry Lime, in The Third Man
Welles’s famous speech atop the Ferris wheel is a brilliantly concise picture of the Italy of Niccolò Machiavelli, simultaneously a patchwork of warring city-states and the stage for a rebirth of western culture. Niccolò Machiavelli: An Intellectual Biography, by Conrad Vivanti, analyses the life and work of the man whose name has become a watchword for unscrupulous power politics. As a young man in Florence Machiavelli witnessed the expulsion of the ruling Medici family and the establishment of the short-lived republic which he was to serve as diplomat and organizer of the citizen militia. He traveled on missions to the royal courts of Spain and France, and to the papal court of the Borgia Pope Alexander VI. Machiavelli’s first-hand knowledge of the attempts of Alexander’s illegitimate son and general Cesare Borgia to assert power over central Italy provided the basis for his best-known work, The Prince. Still controversial today, The Prince argues that rulers must be prepared to use deceit and brute force to preserve their power and build a stable state. Unpublished until five years after Machiavelli’s death, The Prince was placed on the Index of banned books by Pope Paul IV in 1559, but survived to become one of the founding works of modern political science.
The works of Desiderius Erasmus also enjoyed the back-handed honor of Paul’s ban, but this was, perhaps, a case of closing the stable door after the horse had bolted. In the 1530s his books accounted for more than 10% of all books sold in Europe; in addition his edition of the New Testament was the basis for Luther’s German translation and the King James Version in English. Lisa Jardine’s Erasmus, Man of Letters is a portrait of a man who was the center of the intellectual life of his age, corresponding with as many as five hundred of his fellow scholars. Keen to maintain his independence, he moved between a dozen European cities, from Paris to Turin, from Cambridge to Basel. He even worked briefly as a proofreader for the Venetian pioneer of print Aldus Manutius. Equally independent in mind, Erasmus mocked superstition in The Praise of Folly, while challenging the established theology of the church and leading the return to the original texts of the New Testament and the early fathers. Like Machiavelli, Erasmus sought to offer advice to the prospective rulers of his day but his Education of a Christian Prince recommended that the Prince gain the love of his people through just and benevolent rule. Fittingly, it was written in Switzerland.