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…

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