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  • Niccolò Machiavelli

    May 3, 1469 - June 22, 1527
    Part 9 of 11: Mandragola & Clizia

    It would seem that from the date of Machiavelli's discourse to Leo on the government of Florence the Medici had taken him into consideration. Writing to Vettori in 1513, he had expressed his eager wish to "roll stones" in their service; and this desire was now gratified. In 1521 he was sent to Carpi to transact a petty matter with the chapter of the Franciscans, the chief known result of the embassy being a burlesque correspondence with Francesco Guicciardini. Four years later, in 1525, he received a rather more important mission to Venice. But Machiavelli's public career was virtually closed; and the interest of his biography still centres in his literary work. We have seen that already, in 1504, he had been engaged upon a comedy in the manner of Aristophanes, which is now unfortunately lost. A translation of the Andria and three original comedies from his pen are extant, the precise dates of which are uncertain, though the greatest of them was first printed at Rome in 1524. This is the Mandragola, which may be justly called the ripest and most powerful play in the Italian language.

    The plot is both improbable and unpleasing. But literary criticism is merged in admiration of the wit, the humour, the vivacity, the satire of a piece which brings before us the old life of Florence in a succession of brilliant scenes. If Machiavelli had any moral object when he composed the Mandragola, it was to paint in glaring colours the corruption of Italian society. It shows how a bold and p lausible adventurer, aided by the profligacy of a parasite, the avarice and hypocrisy of a confessor, and a mother's complaisant familiarity with vice, achieves the triumph of making a gulled husband bring his own unwilling but too yielding wife to shame. The whole comedy is a study of stupidity and baseness acted on by roguery. About the power with which this picture of domestic immorality is presented there can be no question. But the perusal of the piece obliges us to ask ourselves whether the author's radical conception of human nature was not false. The same suspicion is forced upon us by the Principe. Did not Machiavelli leave good habit, as an essential ingredient of character, out of account? Men are not such absolute fools as Nicia, nor such compliant catspaws as Ligurio and Timoteo; women are not such weak instruments as Sostrata and Lucrezia. Somewhere, in actual life, the stress of craft and courage acting on the springs of human vice and weakness fails, unless the hero of the comedy or tragedy, Callimaco or Cesare, allows for the revolt of healthier instincts. Machiavelli does not seem to have calculated the force of this recoil. He speculates a world in which virtic, unscrupulous strength of character, shall deal successfully with frailty. This, we submit, was a deep-seated error in his theory of life, an error to which may be ascribed the numerous stumbling-blocks and rocks of offence in his more serious writings.

    Some time after the Mandragola, he composed a second comedy, entitled Clizia, which is even homelier and closer to the life of Florence than its predecessor. It contains incomparable studies of the Florentine housewife and her husband, a grave business-like citizen, who falls into the senile folly of a base intrigue. There remains a short piece without title, the Commedia in prosa, which, if it be Machiavelli's, as internal evidence of style sufficiently argues, might be accepted as a study for both the Clizia and the Mandragola. It seems written to expose the corruption of domestic life in Florence, and especially to satirize the friars in their familar part of gobetweens, tame cats, confessors and adulterers.

    Of Machiavelli's minor poems, sonnets, capitoli and carnival songs there is not much to say. Powerful as a comic playwright, he was not a poet in the proper sense of the term. The little novel of Belfagor claims a passing word, if only because of its celebrity. It is a good-humoured satire upon marriage, the devil being forced to admit that hell itself is preferable to his wife's company. That Machiavelli invented it to express the irritation of his own domestic life is a myth without foundation. The story has a medieval origin, and it was almost simultaneously treated in Italian by Machiavelli, Straparola and Giovanni Brevio.

    Part 10: Final Years

    In this biography:
    Part 1: Early Years
    Part 2: Marietta Corsini & Cesare Borgia
    Part 3: Outlines for a New Military Organization
    Part 4: New Militia
    Part 5: Principe, Discorsi & Arte della guerra
    Part 6: Machiavelli's Study of Man
    Part 7: Medicean Princes
    Part 8: History of Florence
    Part 9: Mandragola & Clizia
    Part 10: Final Years
    Part 11: Related Articles, Sites, etc.

    This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.


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