Machiavelli: His Life and Times by Alexander Lee - review by John Guy

John Guy

When in Florence

Machiavelli: His Life and Times


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On the second floor of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence is the Cancelleria, where Niccolò Machiavelli worked as a secretary. Although now shorn of its original height, shape and much of its natural light thanks to Vasari’s design for the adjacent Guardaroba, with its celebrated cycle of painted maps affixed to wooden cabinets, the room still gives goose pimples to those able to conjure up visions of its most illustrious former occupant.

Well aware of the confusing variety of perspectives emerging from an explosion in Machiavelli studies in recent years, Alexander Lee aims to provide as detailed, accessible and authoritative a portrait of the man as possible. His concerns are integration, synthesis and totality: he seeks to position Machiavelli securely in the culture, society and politics of his time and to consider the full range of his writings, rather than concentrating narrowly on Il principe. He’s keenly aware of the need to read Machiavelli’s life forwards – to avoid seeing his past through his later life or ascribing to him a foresight that he never possessed. What we get is what it says on the tin: an utterly absorbing month-by-month, often day-by-day account of Machiavelli’s life and career, contextualised through a near-epic history of Florence’s involvement in the Italian Wars, from the city’s expulsion of the Medici in 1494 to the sack of Rome in 1527.

The son of a public debtor and almost invisible to us before the age of twenty-nine apart from through a few entries in his father’s diaries, Machiavelli secured appointments as the Florentine Republic’s second chancellor and as secretary of the Dieci di Balìa – the committee responsible for military and

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