On 2 and 3 March 1498, the 29-year-old aspirant civil servant Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) was among a crowd that gathered at the Convent of San Marco in Florence to hear a fiery sermon given by the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola (1452–98), recently excommunicated by Pope Alexander VI. Machiavelli described Savonarola’s apocalyptic preaching in a letter to a friend in Rome, concluding coolly that the friar, whose voice Machiavelli never forgot, said ‘things that you might say of the wickedest man there is. And so he goes, in my judgment, adjusting to the times and colouring his lies.’ The moment captures the two apparently incompatible dimensions of Florentine civic life in the 1490s: the visionary religious rhetoric of Savonarola and the sceptical, pragmatic realpolitik of Machiavelli. Within just three months Savonarola was dead, having been tortured and then hanged and burned by the republican Florentine government he had done so much to create; Machiavelli was appointed its Second Chancellor.
The virtue of reading Donald Weinstein’s towering Savonarola: The Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Prophet alongside Paul Oppenheimer’s absorbing Machiavelli: A Life Beyond Ideology is that they offer an insight into how the archetypal Renaissance city of Florence managed to produce two such seemingly irreconcilable individuals who also rubbed