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The History of History

Machiavelli and Guicciardini

by Felix Gilbert
Princeton, 349 pp., $6.50

Maxims and Reflections of a Renaissance Statesman

by Francesco Guicciardini, translated by Mario Domandi, with an Introduction by Nicholai Rubenstein
Harper Torchbooks, 150 pp., $1.35

What is true history? Why do we write or read history? The humanists of the Renaissance had a firm answer to these questions. “True history” was history written in imitation of the classical historians, particularly Caesar, Sallust, and Livy, with carefully constructed battle scenes, long imaginary speeches put into the mouths of the historical characters. Its object was ethical: to learn from the “examples” of historical characters how to avoid vice and follow virtue, how to lead a moral life. Factual accuracy, the use of documentary sources, the analysis of causal connections between events, all these things were subsidiary to the main aim of a “true history,” to teach ethics by “examples.” When Sanudo wrote a fairly factual history of Venice he felt that he had to apologize for not following the humanist pattern; and when Bembo completed Sanudo’s work it became a “true history” in the humanist sense, a rhetorical exercise with moral intention. Sanudo’s part of the history is now a valuable historical source, whereas Bembo’s has little factual value. Nevertheless, the historical writing of the humanists, lifeless and empty though it may often seem as compared with the lively chronicles of the Middle Ages, with Froissart or with Joinville, marked a stage in the emerence of history, as we know it today.

It is precisely with the emergence of history as we know it today that Professor Gilbert’s important book is concerned. It is centered on Machiavelli and Guicciardini and is divided into two parts, the first concerned with politics, the second with history. It is Professor Gilbert’s theme that the two were inseparable in the period. He analyzes the intense thinking about politics and political institutions which accompanied the brief life of the Florentine republic, established after the fall of the Medici in 1494, and shows how the discussions of democrats and aristocrats under this regime passed into the political thinking of Machiavelli and Guicciardini. He shows too how, under the impact of this new thought about practical politics, the humanist type of history turned into political history, into the analysis of historical examples, drawing from them not general ethical teaching for the conduct of life, but practical advice for the conduct of politics. Machiavelli and Guicciardini were both humanists, both imbued with the importance of classical antiquity as the prime source of significant political and historical examples. But each in his way evolved entirely new types of political and historical thinking from the humanist tradition.

Instead of treating these two great figures in isolation, Professor Gilbert puts them into the context of their times, into the stream of political thinking and historical writing of which they were a part. He need not apologize for adding one more book to the vast literature on Machiavelli and less vast but certainly considerable literature on Guicciardini. His study is different in kind from those conventional biographies or analyses of the ideas of great writers which not infrequently do no more than reflect the “images” of those writers built up by the vast literature about them. His book is the fruit of years of original research among Florentine archives and of careful thought about the problems of Renaissance politics and historiography. It should be widely read and used as the authoritative treatment of the subject by an expert.

Machiavelli and Guicciardini emerge in all their originality and power out of the carefully reconstructed context of their times. If, as Professor Gilbert shows, the typically Machiavellian themes, such as that of virtù—the active power in man which must inform a living society, and which can enable him to stand against the blind forces of Fortune—were already commonplaces in the discussions of Florentine republicans, Machiavelli, with imaginative genius, welded them into an original synthesis. The theories of mixed government entertained by the aristocratic party under the republican regime may underlie Guicciardini’s historical work, yet that work is the creation of a powerful mind. And the humanist insistence on history as a literary genre, demanding close imitation of classical forms, gave polish and style to a history writing that, far from being slavish imitation in content, was moving in entirely new and original directions—in fact towards the emergence of modern history. In his interesting analyses of Guicciardini’s two histories of Florence, Professor Gilbert suggests that in the second work Guicciardini aimed to write a “true history” in the humanist sense, but in fact produced something very different. He was writing as a historian aware of the importance of factual accuracy and the use of original documents, and seeking to trace causal connections between events. Professor Gilbert characterizes Guicciardini’s masterpiece, The History of Italy, as the last great classical and the first great modern history.

The emergence of modern history writing was definitely a humanist achievement, arising out of that re-organization of rhetoric to include moral philosophy and history, as Professor Kristeller has pointed out. It belongs to Renaissance humanism in the true sense, as distinct from Renaissance philosophy and science. It is concerned with man in society, with the creative power of man to organize his social and political environment. Even when the hopes of the Florentine republicans were blighted by the Hapsburg subjugation of Italy, and Guicciardini, writing after the dread events of 1527, now sees man in history as the plaything of blind and inscrutable forces and the history of Italy as a tragedy, he can yet say that the lesson to be learned from history is that of the “dignity of man” in the face of the disasters which overwhelm him.

Like all good books, Professor Gilbert’s book sets trains of thought in motion in the reader’s mind. The history of historical exemplarism might be pursued both backwards and forwards from the point, in the histories of the humanists, at which Professor Gilbert examines it. The use of exempla for moral teaching was, of course, a medieval practice, and collections of historical examples were compiled for the use of preachers. There is a sense in which Dante’s Hell, populated with historical examples of the vices, might be seen as a medieval precursor of humanist “true history.” Petrarch’s imaginative cult of antiquity is infused with moral exemplarism, and such currents naturally passed from the earlier humanism into humanist history as a literary genre allied to moral philosophy. The fiercely realist approaches to politics and history of Machiavelli and Guicciardini are perhaps not entirely emancipated from these traditions. After all, the Florentine republic had the blessing of Savonarola and its most zealous supporters were his disciples, and thus something of his fervor and austerity, of the passionate zeal of his preaching, may have passed into the new political and historical thinking, but turned in new directions. It is a weakness in Machiavelli’s thought from a modern point of view that he excludes economics as a political and historical factor, and this is because he considers money an evil, and the pursuit of wealth a sin. One is reminded of the bonfire of worldly vanities made by the followers of Savonarola. Guicciardini thinks that ambition in the upper classes is a virtue—a reversal of old values but one which shows that he still has in mind the old virtue-vice schemes. In his penetrating discussion of Guicciardini’s History of Italy, Professor Gilbert suggests that Guicciardini here sees the personalities of men, not as a definite sum of good and bad qualities, but as revealed in the sequence of events. There is surely something Shakespearean in such a view of man in history, a view in which the ethical overtones of humanist history are not entirely effaced but in which history becomes a tragedy, with man as the protagonist maintaining his dignity against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Florence was suited to be the home of history owing to the fact that the Florentine chancellery was particularly associated with the humanist movement and its interest in history, and owing also to the habit of her citizens of writing ricordi, diaries and facts of family history and reflections for the instruction of their descendants. Guicciardini was a practitioner of this Florentine private habit. It is therefore opportune that an English translation of Guicciardini’s Ricordi (translated as Maxims), with an excellent Introduction by Dr. N. Rubinstein, has been made available. Dr. Rubinstein is well-known as an expert in the field of Florentine political history, and his Introduction is of the greatest interest. It is complementary in manner to Professor Gilbert’s book, for Dr. Rubinstein deals with Machiavelli and Guicciardini together and draws comparisons between them. He emphasizes that Guicciardini owes more to the Florentine political tradition than to classical thought, that his history writing is strongly influenced by the factual character of Florentine ricordi, that he is, in general, less theoretical than Machiavelli and inclined to be critical of the latter’s abstractions. He was also more pessimistic than Machiavelli, less of a believer in the power of virtù to counteract Fortune, and though always rational in his approach to problems, not overconfident in the efficacy of reason.

The Maxims, translated by Mario Domandi in a style both incisive and lively, introduce us to the private thoughts of the Florentine statesman and historian. The intricacies of states-craftsmanship appear in the discussions as to whether it is better not to let an ambassador know the real intentions of his master, since if he does not know the truth he may more convincingly expound the lie which he has been told. Or the reflection that it is useful to seem good, but if one is not really good this tends to be found out; therefore it is perhaps advisable to be really good. A curiously circuitous way of arriving at honesty is best policy. One cannot say that a frank or exactly lovable character emerges from these maxims. Their author regards the acquisition of friends solely from a utilitarian point of view; one never knows what a friend may do for one, therefore no opportunity of making a friend should be missed. At other times, the Florentine aristocrat, so well versed in the ways of the wicked world, will suddenly drop his cynicism and exclaim that good deeds done with no thought of self-interest are “almost divine.” The historical pessimism which overtook Guicciardini after 1527, when the brief period of the application of Florentine genius to constructive political thinking had disastrously ended, was certainly the result of a profoundly felt experience.

All cities, all states, all regions are mortal. Everything, either by nature or by accident, ends at some time. And so a citizen who is living in the final stage of his country’s existence should not feel as sorry for his country as he should for himself; but to be born at a time when such a disaster had to happen was his misfortune.

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