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Machiavelli, the New World and the Republic

by Robert Ingraham
May 2013

“I love the republic more than my own soul.”

Niccolo Machiavelli, in a letter to Francesco Vettori

Niccolo Machiavelli.


It is May of 1469, in Florence, Italy. At the Battistero di San Giovanni, standing opposite the great Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, a young infant is Christened at the baptismal font. His parents name him Niccolo.

Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore.

It is a mere twenty-three years since Brunelleschi’s completion of the cupola atop that Cathedral, the greatest scientific and engineering feat in more than 1,000 years. It is only thirty years since the ecumenical Council of Florence completed its work, under the influence of the greatest scientific genius of the age, Nicholas of Cusa. And in the very year of Niccolo’s baptism, the great Florentine astronomer and cosmographer, Paolo Toscanelli, is in communication with the Portuguese monarchy, concerning his proposal for a westward voyage of discovery across the Atlantic. This is a time of the profoundest hope and of unparalleled breakthroughs in science, art and music. It is, in short, the Renaissance.

But Brunelleschi dies in 1446; then Cusa dies in 1464. In 1453 the Venetian Empire orchestrates the downfall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks, an event which begets fear and pessimism throughout Italy. The medieval empire of Venice, nearly destroyed after the banking collapses, plagues, and mass deaths of the fourteenth century, is again on the ascendant. And in Florence, the previous virtues of the earlier Florentine republic are being extinguished by the growing power of the aristocracy under the rule of the Medici Family.

This is the environment within which the young Niccolo grows to maturity. And this is the city where the mature Machiavelli – together with Leonardo da Vinci – fights for the creation of a republic, a fight whose reverberations are with us even to this day.

So we begin...


I.  Whence America?

I sing of the Republic!  Perhaps of all of the inventions to spring forth from the genius of man’s mind – the art, the music, the scientific achievements  – it is the republic that is mankind’s greatest creation. 

It is in the creation of the republic, that humanity has discovered a form of social organization and philosophical outlook which is fully coherent with those qualities which distinguish our species from the beasts.

And it is also in the republic, that there exists the economic, scientific, military, and cultural power to eliminate the evil of empire and oligarchical rule, forever.

This is the gift that Niccolo Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci have bequeathed to us.

* * * * *

How is it, in a world which has been dominated by empires for the past two thousand years, that the American republic was able to burst on the world stage between 1775 and 1789?

The recorded history of humanity is primarily a chronicle of empires, oligarchies, and their imperial monetarist systems;  some perhaps more benevolent than others, but all based on an oligarchical principle.  Beginning with the Roman Empire – and its evil bastard Byzantium – and then progressing through the Venetian Empire, and the Anglo-Dutch Empire, consolidated by William of Orange in 1688,  we see evolutionary stages in the development of what is increasingly an empire of global domination.

How did America, at least up to the present day, escape this fate?

The republican idea came to our shores in 1620, with those courageous emigrants seeking to establish a Commonwealth in the land of the New World.  Its genesis came earlier, in the idea of a "commonwealth," grounded in a commitment to the Public Good, defined in the works of Nicholas of Cusa at the time of the Council of Florence.  It was the radiating effects of that Council, and Cusa's work, that led into the creation of modern nation-states under Louis XI in France and Henry VII in England.

Machiavelli’s vision took yet a further step. The difficulty, as Machiavelli saw it, is that even in the best of monarchies – e.g., the France of Louis XI and his son, the patrician rulers are incapable of defending the general good in perpetuity, and worse still, it is impossible for any hereditary oligarchy, despite its occasional good acts, to eliminate the threat from oligarchical empire.

To defeat the forces of empire, a greater power is needed, and that power can only be found in a republic.  That is why the British Empire has always recognized the United States as the greatest threat to its continued existence.  It is only the United States, together with allies it recruits to its side, which has the power to defeat the London-based monetary interests of today.

The challenge is how to create, preserve, and utilize the power of such a republic.  This is the issue that Machiavelli devoted his life to.  So we ask ourselves:  what is the method by which a commonwealth, capable of defeating the oligarchy, can be brought into existence;  what is the nature of such a commonwealth;  and how can its continued existence be secured?

Florence:  1494

By the 1480s the mighty generation of Cusa and Brunelleschi was dead or dying.  The scientific genius which had sparked the Renaissance was in decay, and everywhere in Italy the forces of oligarchism were growing more powerful. In Florence,  there were unmistakable signs of a cultural and moral degeneration.  As Machiavelli put it, the young people cared for nothing but “to appear splendid in their dress and to be clever and smart in their speech."

Then in 1494, following the ruinous invasion of Italy by France, a political revolution in Florence drove the Medicis into exile, and a republic was formed.  This republic would go through two profound changes – in 1498 and 1502 – before Machiavelli and his allies were able to take center stage, but then, from 1502 to 1512, Machiavelli, together with his partner Leonardo da Vinci, set into motion a series of events which threatened the very existence of the Venetian Empire, and perhaps even more importantly, they demonstrated for future generations exactly the method by which mankind could at long last free itself from empire.

The particular quandary facing both Machiavelli and Leonardo was that neither of them were of noble birth, and, hence, their access to direct power was almost completely blocked.  They needed patrons.  This was a difficulty that Leonardo suffered with throughout his life.  Machiavelli, in La Mandragola, even writes about this problem, when he says that for those without powerful friends or influence in Florence, “there isn’t even a dog who will bark in your face.”

But in 1502, the pro-republican Florentine aristocrat Piero Soderini was elected as Gonfalonier-for-life, [1] a new post created to bring increased stability to the government of Florence;  and for the next ten years Soderini forged a partnership with Machiavelli which elevated him far beyond both his station in life and his modest position in the Florentine government.  Soderini bypassed the official channels of government and deployed Machiavelli, repeatedly, to deal with many critical matters.  As a result, Machiavelli was able to exert far-reaching influence over Florentine diplomatic and military affairs.  Between 1502 and 1512, all of the key initiatives to defend the Florentine Republic – the overtures to Cesare Borgia, the Arno River diversion project, and the creation of the civilian militia – were carried through by these three men, Machiavelli, Leonardo, Soderini.


II.  The Republic is Established

When Lorenzo de’ Medici died in 1492, there were four primary political factions in Florence:  the Medici party, the anti-Medici aristocrats, the republican faction (which also included many aristocrats), and the followers of the priest Savonarola.  After two years of corrupt, abusive and inept rule by Lorenzo’s son, and taking advantage of the crisis created by the French invasion, the last three of these four parties came together and drove the Medicis from Florence in November of 1494.

Among the leaders of this revolution was Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici, a cousin of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and the head of the cadet branch of the Medici family.  This Lorenzo had become associated with the republican opposition to Il Magnifico’s rule as early as 1486.

Lorenzo di’ Pierfrancesco, although closer to the aristocratic then the republican group, is of import because he played a singular role in sponsoring the careers of two men – Niccolo Machiavelli and Amerigo Vespucci.  It was through the backing by Lorenzo that Machiavelli was brought into the government in 1498, and it was Lorenzo’s deployment of Amerigo Vespucci to Spain in 1492 which led to the latter's voyages of discovery. [2]

Shortly after the establishment of the republic, political power began to pass into the hands of the priest Savonarola, a demagogic character, who moved to establish a “popular democracy,” with all power vested in the newly created Great Council of the People (the Consiglio Grande).  Initially, many of the republican faction supported, or at least tolerated, Savonarola, both because they upheld many of his political reforms, and also stemming from their fears that Florentine aristocrats intended to establish an oligarchical government modeled on Venice.

Savonarola’s rule, however, became increasingly violent and unstable, and in 1498 he was overthrown and a new republic proclaimed.

In the first post-Savonarola government  Guido Antonio Vespucci, an uncle of the explorer Amerigo, is named Gonfalonier, and he, together with Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, sponsor the election of Machiavelli to two positions in the new government – Second Chancellor of the Republic and Secretary to the Committee of the Ten of War.  Agostino Vespucci (Amerigo’s cousin) is elected as the chief assistant to Machiavelli, and later he would become Machiavelli’s liaison with Leonardo da Vinci.

Within days of Savonarola’s overthrow, the Venetian Army invades Florentine territory.  The war lasts for almost a year, creating severe economic dislocation, and forcing the government of Florence to withdraw troops from the siege of Pisa, Venice’s ally.

Then, in 1499, the army of France invades Italy, for the second time in five years, and, in the ensuing chaos, Florence suffers food shortages, famine, and economic collapse.

In 1502, to deal with this crisis, major constitutional changes are pushed through.  Some of Savonarola’s reforms, such as the Grand Council, are kept, but power is concentrated more in the executive council (Signoria), and the position of Gonfalonier is made a lifetime appointment.  At a meeting of the Grand Council, the aristocrat Piero Soderini is elected to fill this new post.  Within months Machiavelli becomes his chief agent.


III.  Machiavelli and Da Vinci

Leonardo was the older of the two, by almost a generation.  This places him much closer to the era of Cusa and Brunelleschi.  While Machiavelli was still a youth, Leonardo had already become the greatest scientist and artist of his age.

After 1502, it is Machiavelli, as Second Chancellor of Florence, who becomes Leonardo’s political superior, and who deploys him on numerous government missions. The true relationship between the two men will likely never be known; however, the manifestation of Machiavelli’s true genius only appears beginning with his association with Leonardo. In reality, it is the younger Machiavelli who is the protégé.

Leonardo da Vinci's self-portrait in old age.

It is certainly possible that the two met prior to the year 1500, but there is no evidence of such a meeting. In 1482, when Leonardo left Florence for Milan, where would spend the next 17 years, Machiavelli was only thirteen years old, and during those 17 years there is no record of Machiavelli having visited Milan.

What is certain is that they must have known each other prior to 1502, because in June of that year, at Urbino, it is Machiavelli, in a meeting with Cesare Borgia, who arranges for Leonardo to be appointed Borgia’s chief military engineer.

By the autumn of 1502 Machiavelli and Leonardo were together at the court of Cesare Borgia at Imola, in the Romagna.  There, for one month, they were in regular contact with each other, and each, individually, with Borgia.  Then they spent the next two months traveling with Borgia’s army.  Upon returning to Florence in 1503, and continuing for the next ten years, they collaborated as partners in a fight to defend and secure the Florentine Republic.

Earlier, prior to 1482, Leonardo had emerged out of the same Florentine scientific and republican circles that later sponsored Machiavelli’s rise to a position of political prominence.

Sometime in the 1470s Leonardo developed a friendship with the scientist Paolo Toscanelli, and Toscanelli allowed Leonardo to examine many of his scientific papers, including his 1474 globe of the world.  At about this time Leonardo also became friends with Amerigo Vespucci, and it was Vespucci who provided him with books on geometry and access to Toscanelli’s library at the monastery of San Marco.

With Borgia, and afterwards

Da Vinci first met Cesare Borgia – the Duke Valentino – in 1499.  During that year, Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI, invaded the Romagna, the area in Italy east of the Apennines Mountains, bordering Venice on the north and Florence on the west.

Leonardo was with Borgia from August, 1502 to March, 1503, employed primarily as his chief military engineer.

Machiavelli, as Florence’s envoy , was with Borgia from October, 1502 to January, 1503.

No record exists of the discussions that took place between Machiavelli and Leonardo during those months; nevertheless, based on subsequent events, it seems certain that it was during that span of time that Leonardo recruited Machiavelli to the project for diverting the flow of the Arno River, an idea Leonardo had been working on for several years. Immediately upon Leonardo’s return from Borgia’s army, the Arno project was begun, and Machiavelli and Leonardo, working together, initiated a series of projects intended to strengthen and transform the military and strategic position of the Republic.

Two months after Leonardo’s return to Florence Machiavelli officially presented Leonardo’s plan to divert the Arno River to the Florentine government.

During the same month Machiavelli designed the successful military plan for the capture of the Pisan stronghold of La Verucca. After its capture, Machiavelli sent Leonardo to redesign that city’s fortifications. The capture of La Verruca was an essential pre-condition to provide defense for the Arno diversion project to go forward.

In July of the same year it was also Machiavelli who secured the commission for Leonardo to paint the fresco of the Battle of Anghiari, and he assigned Agostino Vespucci to aid him.

Additionally, in the autumn of 1504 Machiavelli sent Leonardo to Florence’s ally, Jacopo d’Appiani, at Piombino, to help strengthen the fortifications of that city.

During the next two years Leonardo was engaged on several scientific projects, including those related to military and civilian technology. At the same time he and Machiavelli worked together on the Arno project, the strengthening of military fortifications, and the creation of a citizen’s militia.

The Duke Valentino

Cesare Borgia.

Much has been said and written about the supposed brutality and cruelty of Cesare Borgia, but this is what Machiavelli says:

“If I summed all the actions of the Duke, I would not know how to reproach him;  on the contrary, it seems to me he should be put forward, as I have done, to be imitated by all...  For with his great spirit and high intention, he could not have conducted himself otherwise.” [3]

In 1499 Borgia began his invasion of the Romagna. This went into an even more aggressive phase in 1502, exactly the time that both Leonardo and Machiavelli were with Borgia’s army. During this period Cesare captured almost all the major cities in the region, including Bologna, Ravenna, Imola, Ceri, Faenza, Rimini, Pesaro, Urbino, Camerino and Sinigaglia. Many of these cities were captured after sieges which utilized new machines designed by Leonardo.

In 1502 Borgia appointed Sansavino as the new Governor of the Romagna. Under Sansavino, sweeping political and tax reforms were instituted, along with economic development projects such as swamp drainage, creation of new industries, and water development.

In his letters to the Florentine government from Borgia’s court at Imola, Machiavelli wrote that for the first time in his life he has seen a Prince who builds roads, safeguards and improves ports, and supervises public works, not in the interest of the aristocracy, but the people; a ruler who fosters commerce, develops industry, and institutes sound methods of political administration.

Machiavelli did not disagree with anything Borgia did; his sole dispute was that it were better for these things to be done by a republic, than by a Prince. In later years, in retrospect, Machiavelli’s only harsh criticism of Borgia was the latter’s failure to hold on to power after the death of his father, Pope Alexander, in 1503. Machiavelli also emphasized that by 1502, at the latest, Valentino’s goals had diverged markedly from those of both the Pope and the other oligarchical families grouped around the Vatican.

What Cesare intended was the creation of an economic and technologically progressive civilian state in central Italy.  He also harbored plans for  annexing the Kingdom of Naples, which would have put much of Italy under his control.

His primary strategic enemy was the Venetian Empire which financed and armed most of his local opponents in the Romagna.  In 1502 representatives from the Venetian government, together with oligarchical families from both Rome and the Romagna, as well as local mercenary condotieri, organized the Magione conspiracy to carry out the assassination of Borgia and the dismemberment of his state.

After crushing this conspiracy Borgia enacted a revolutionary reform to abolish all mercenary armies in his jurisdiction. To defend his new state he issued a call for the creation of a new 6,000 man “Citizens Army,” to be achieved by conscripting one man from each household in his domain.

In the midst of these events, Machiavelli wrote to the Florentine government, urging that they form an alliance with Borgia against the condotieri. In the letter, Machiavelli states, “The Duke (Borgia) has so much artillery and in such good order that he alone possesses almost as much as the rest of Italy put together.” The Florentine Signoria rejects Machiavelli’s proposal.

Borgia’s artillery came from Alfonso d’Este’s foundry at Brescia, and the organization and deployment of this artillery was done under the supervision of Leonardo da Vinci.

Earlier, in December of 1501, Cesare’s sister Lucretia had married Alfonso d’Este, the ruler of Ferrara. Ferrara was a bitter enemy of Venice, and Alfonso, later, was to play a leading role in the war against Venice by the League of Cambrai.[3A] Ferrara had the most advanced foundries and artillery in all of Italy, and it is clear that a unified Romagna under Borgia, allied with d’Este’s Ferrara and (if Machiavelli’s views had prevailed) Florence), would have had the potential means to destroy Venice’s power.


IV.  The Arno Project

The Arno River, at 241 kilometers, is the largest river in Tuscany, and serves as the basis for the water system of the entire region.  It flows through Florence and reaches the sea at Pisa.

Study of a Tuscan landscape (the Arno valley), by Leondardo Da Vinci.
Leonardo’s study of the Arno was a life-long project. His first painting of the Arno was in 1473.  After his move to Milan in 1482, he continued these studies, and his notebooks from this period contain numerous sketches of the Arno. [4]

In the 1490s Leonardo began to explore the economic benefits to be achieved by controlling the flow of the Arno.  The maps which Leonardo later drew in 1503 and 1504 clearly show the design for a number of locks, enabling the water flow of the Arno to be utilized for mills, flood control, irrigation, and increased food production.

In his notebooks, from that period, Leonardo writes:  “By guiding the Arno above and below Florence a treasure will be found in each acre of ground by whomsoever will.”

Between June of 1502 and March of 1503, while in the employ of Cesare Borgia, Leonardo traveled extensively along the route of the Arno, examining alternate routes, and mapping the headwaters in the Apennines Mountains.

As soon as Leonardo returned to Florence from Borgia’s army he began drawing up engineering plans for the diversion of the Arno.

At this time Florence faced a desperate military and economic situation. The city of Pisa, allied with Venice, sat at the mouth of the Arno River, blocking Florence’s access to the Mediterranean Sea and cutting off its economic lifeline. Simultaneously, the Venetian army threatened Florence from the north and the east. It was believed that by diverting the Arno past Pisa, this would not only give Florence access to the sea, but force Pisa to surrender.

In June of 1503 Machiavelli made his first proposal to the Signoria for building the Arno project, emphasizing these military objectives. His proposal was rejected.

During the next month, in his capacity as chief hydraulic engineer, Leonardo visited the Florentine military camp outside of Pisa. During the remainder of the summer he conducted extensive topographical studies, mapping out the preliminary engineering details for the Arno project.

Later in 1503, and into 1504, Leonardo prepared a series of maps and sketches to be used in public presentations on the Arno project. These presentations focused not on the military aspects, but rather on the economic benefits of the project. It is not known if it was Machiavelli or Leonardo, or both, who delivered the presentations, but at least one of these lectures was given before the members of the Signoria.

In August of 1504, at the urging of both Machiavelli and Piero Soderini, the government finally gave the go ahead to begin the undertaking.

This official 1504 Arno project was entirely designed by Leonardo da Vinci, and it contained three phases: 1) divert water from Pisa, forcing its surrender; 2) construct a series of tributary irrigation canals to increase Florence’s strategic food supply; 3) build a second canal through Prato and under Mount Serravalle, transforming Florence into a deep-water seaport.

It is clear from his later drawings and maps, that this third objective became increasingly important to Leonardo as he developed the project.

The Signoria immediately blundered by appointing an engineer named Colombino to oversee all of the construction. Colombino considered Leonardo’s plans too ambitious and too expensive, and he began to cut costs and to drastically alter Leonardo’s engineering designs.

The Florentine government was only too happy to follow the advice of Colombino, who stated that he could “build it cheaper.” More significant was that the Signoria – controlled by aristocratic families – contained many oligarchical enemies of Machiavelli, and their desire was to see the plan fail.

The first change Colombino made was to abandon Leonardo’s design for one very deep diversion canal and to replace it with two very shallow canals. This ultimately proved ruinous.

On September 3, 1504 Machiavelli wrote a letter to the Signoria, warning that Colombino’s plan incorporated disastrous design defects, and insisting that Leonardo’s original specifications be followed. During the next four weeks Machiavelli bombarded government officials with a series of letters and memos, warning against Colombino’s engineering changes. On Sept 29th Machiavelli deployed Marcantonio Colonna, a friend of Leonardo da Vinci, to the construction site in an attempt to convince Colombino to return to Leonardo’s original plan. During all of this, the government continued to back Colombino.

On October 3rd, a violent storm flooded and destroyed all of Colombino’s works, eliminating everything built in the previous two months.

On October 12, 1504 the Government of Florence announced two actions: they lifted the siege of Pisa, admitting defeat in the war; and, secondly, they shut down all construction at Colombino’s site, officially abandoning the Arno project,. On the very next day, the Signoria dismissed Machiavelli from all of his government positions.


V.  The Militia

Throughout 1503, many of the same Florentine aristocratic families who had been active in overthrowing Savonarola, began to turn against both Gonfalonier Soderini and his ally Machiavelli. This included a number of Machiavelli’s sponsors from 1498. Some were merely unhappy that Soderini had retained many of Savonarola’s democratic reforms, but others were conspiring openly for a return of the Medicis, and/or were in league with the new Pope Julius II and his ally Venice.

During this time, Machiavelli’s energies were focused on three objectives: the Arno project; the attempt to rescue Cesare Borgia from the clutches of Julius II; and the idea of creating an armed militia of Florentine citizens, such that the practice of hiring mercenary armies might be abolished.

Following the death of Pope Alexander in August, 1503, Cesare Borgia was removed from the command of the army in the Romagna (which was still technically in the jurisdiction of the papacy). Within days, Venetian troops invaded the Romagna and began gobbling up many of Borgia’s cities, including those bordering Florentine territory.

On August 20th Machiavelli wrote a circular on behalf of the Committee of the Ten, calling for the immediate reinstitution of Borgia to the command of the Romagna army in order to combat the Venetian advance. This demand is ignored in both Florence and Rome.

Then, during the month of October, following the scant 26 day reign of the sickly Pope Pius III, the Venetian Ambassador Giustinian engineered the election of Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, a sworn enemy of Cesare Borgia, as Pope Julius II. In a last ditch effort to prevent della Rovere’s election, Soderini had sent Machiavelli to Rome, as his personal representative, to intervene against the Venetian ambassador, but the attempted intervention failed.

After the selection of Julius II, Machiavelli transmitted a memo to the Florentine government, stating that Venice is attempting “to turn the Pope to her purposes, in order to rule over all the others.”

Within days of his election, Pope Julius took steps to destroy Cesare Borgia. In response, Cesare appealed to the government of Florence for safe conduct through their territory so that he might escape. Both Machiavelli and Cardinal Soderini (brother of the Gonfalonier) urged the government to grant this petition, but their request was voted down by the Council of 80 (roughly, Florence’s equivalent of the U.S. Senate).

On November 23rd Borgia was seized and imprisoned on orders from Julius II, as Venice continued its military offensive, capturing the city of Faenza.

Now out of the government, Machiavelli wrote yet another letter to the Signoria, advising that they must take action against their primary enemy, Venice, because “they hate you and seek to obtain money from you for the purpose of attacking you; it is better that you should spend it making war on them.”

Recruiting the Troops

In November of 1504 Machiavelli authored a long poem, written in the terza rima style of Dante’s Commedia. It is called Decennale Primo (The First Decade). The poem is written as a celebration of the first ten years of the Florentine Republic, but, in reality, it is principally a critique of all the mistakes – particularly military mistakes – made by the government during those ten years. It is remembered today, because it is in the closing lines of this poem that Machiavelli calls for abandoning mercenary armies, and, for the first time, proposes the creation of a citizen’s army to defend the republic. [5]

It is indisputable that Machiavelli’s 1504 proposal for creating a Florentine citizen’s militia was greatly influenced by what he witnessed Valentino accomplish in the Romagna in 1502, but Machiavelli’s understanding of the issue was far more profound, with far greater strategic implications, than the military reforms of Cesare.

Much later, writing in his Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, Machiavelli returns to this idea of a citizens army repeatedly. One of the most powerful passages from that work is the in-depth discussion of the Roman citizen-soldier Cincinnatus, and Machiavelli forcefully makes the point that one of the leading causes for the destruction of the Roman Republic was the gradual replacement of citizen-soldiers with hired mercenaries.

But Machiavelli goes even further. It is not simply that he sees a citizen’s army as the key to the defense of Florence. He extends this military proposal to a more thoughtful discussion centered on the idea of creating a republican citizenry, of breaking the aristocratic power both outside and inside Florence, and establishing a new republican culture.

Needless to say, Machiavelli’s 1504 trial balloon was not acted on, but events soon forced the hand of the Signoria.

In March of 1505 Florence’s mercenary army at Pisa suffers almost total defeat; then, in the following months, a combined Papal-Venetian military force, this time joined by the Spanish, make several military incursions into Florentine territory, capturing towns that were official parts of the Florentine State.

Shortly thereafter Machiavelli is recalled into the government and restored to all of his previous posts.

In early August a second Florentine mercenary army at Pisa is defeated, and later that month, a Venetian-Papal invasion force is stopped by Florence only 60 miles from the city.

Weeks later, in September of 1505, Machiavelli, backed by Piero Soderini, again proposes the creation of a citizen’s militia, modeled on what Valentino had created in the Romagna. This time, facing imminent military collapse, the Signoria accepts Machiavelli’s proposal.

In January of 1506 Machiavelli takes personal charge of organizing the militia. His goal, never fully realized, is to create a militia of 10,000 men. Formed into 30 companies, each company is to meet, exercise, and train 16 times per year. The uniforms for the new militia are designed by Leonardo da Vinci.

In April Machiavelli appoints Don Michetto, Cesare Borgia’s former chief-of-staff, as the Commander of the Militia.

Machiavelli spends most of the next year personally overseeing the recruiting and training of the Militia. The military results are positive, but by the end of 1506 there is mounting political opposition to the project, coming from the aristocratic party of the Ottimati, objecting to the “democratizing” influence of the militia.

In December of 1507 Machiavelli is sent by Soderini to the Court of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I to negotiate an alliance against Venice.

In February of 1508 the army of the Emperor Maximilian attacks Venice.

In December of 1508 the League of Cambrai is formed to destroy Venice. Florence is not an official member, but it finances the war with cash payments to both Louis XII of France and Maximilian.

In February of 1509 Machiavelli personally leads 1,000 soldiers of the Florentine Militia to begin a siege of Venice’s ally Pisa.

On April 15th the army of French King Louis XII invades Venetian territory, and causes the near annihilation of Venice.

On June 4th, 1509 the Florentine Militia of Niccolo Machiavelli captures Pisa, a feat which Florence’s mercenary armies had repeatedly failed to do over the previous 20 years. The capture of the city is preceded by a successful effort, designed by Leonardo da Vinci, to blow-up sections of the walls of Pisa.


VI.  The New World  

At the end of his life, Nicholas of Cusa, recognizing that the resurgent forces of empire were once again becoming too powerful, urged that the fight to establish commonwealths be taken across the oceans to foreign shores. Attending Cusa at his deathbed in 1464 were the Florentine scientist Paolo Toscanelli and the Canon of the Cathedral of Lisbon Fernāo Martins.

After Cusa’s death the leadership for this perspective – of exploration and discovery – would be based in Florence. Toscanelli was the mainstay, but this fifty year project also involved several leading individuals in the Florentine Republic who were close to Machiavelli, a direct role played by Leonardo Da Vinci, and key initiatives coming from members of the Vespucci family.


Toscanelli’s lifelong friendship and partnership with Nicholas of Cusa began when they were both students at the University of Padua, about the year 1420. Later, in Florence, Toscanelli became renowned as the greatest scientist, mathematician, astronomer and cosmographer of his era.

On June 25, 1474, in response to a letter from Fernāo Martins, the Canon of the Cathedral of Lisbon, Toscanelli sent Martins a map, together with his proposal for a westward voyage across the Atlantic. At that time Martins was acting as the agent of King Alfonso V of Portugal, with whom Toscanelli had already corresponded on the subject of an Atlantic voyage. Later, between 1480 and 1482, when he learned of Toscanelli’s proposal, Christopher Columbus initiated a correspondence with Toscanelli and received from him copies of both the 1474 map and the letter sent earlier to Martins.

Toscanelli’s map would then become the guidepost for Columbus’ heroic 1492 voyage of discovery.

The Vespuccis

After the death of Nicholas of Cusa, it was Georgio Antonio Vespucci, an uncle of the famous explorer, who became Toscanelli’s closest scientific collaborator.

Earlier, Georgio Antonio had been taught Greek by Filippo Ser Ugolino Pieruzzi, Toscanelli’s partner in the intellectual study group at the Santa Maria degli Angeli (Convent of the Angels).

Later, Toscanelli would reorganize this group at the Abbey of Settimo, in Florence, this time with Georgio Antonio Vespucci as his partner.

In 1453 Georgio Antonio established a school for hand-selected pupils at the monastery of San Marco, with a curriculum grounded in astronomy, cosmography, and mathematics, along with the works of Dante, Petrarch, Plato, Cicero, Heraclitus, and Livy. Many of his young pupils – including his nephew Amerigo, the future Gonfalonier Piero Soderini, the future Duke of Lorraine Rene II, and Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici – were to become either allies of Machiavelli in the Florentine Republic or key players in the pursuit of the Cusa discovery project, or both.

From among Georgio Antonio’s pupils, Toscanelli selected a smaller number to personally tutor. These included Amerigo Vespucci, who ended up studying under Toscanelli for twenty years. Following Toscanelli’s death in 1482, Amerigo was considered the greatest cosmographer and map-maker in Florence, and the recognized successor to Toscanelli in those fields.

In 1481the Chiesa Ognissanti (All Saints Church) in Florence commissioned Sandro Botticelli to paint a portrait of St. Augustine. It was said at the time that this painting could rightfully be called “St. Augustine in Toscanelli’s Study.” It portrays St. Augustine, sitting amidst scientific, navigational, and mathematical objects, including an astrolabe, an armillary sphere, and a book on geometry. In the corner of the canvass Botticelli painted in the Vespucci family coat-of-arms.

In 1474, when Toscanelli began his correspondence with Christopher Columbus on the possibility of a “western voyage,” he was simultaneously training the young Amerigo, and it seems very unlikely that Amerigo did not read that correspondence, particularly since he had full access to Toscanelli’s scientific papers and maps.

It is,also, a telling point that all of the letters which Vespucci later wrote, describing his voyages to the “new world,” were addressed to only two men, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici and Piero Soderini, his former schoolmates with Toscanelli and Georgio Antonio Vespucci.

The Vespuccis and Machiavelli

The Vespucci family were minor Florentine nobility, associated since the mid-15th century with the cadet (Pierfrancesco) branch of the Medici family. They were involved in banking, navigation, and commercial trading.

Among the closest friends of Amerigo’s parents was Bernardo Machiavelli, the father of Niccolo. Amerigo was fifteen years older than Niccolo, but given the intimacy of their families, and the close geographical proximity of the two households, it seems apodictical that they they must have known each other, at least on some level.

In 1479 another of Amerigo’s uncles, Guido Antonio Vespucci, was sent as Florence’s Ambassador to France, and the young Amerigo accompanied him. Amerigo would spend the next two years at the Court of Louis XI, precisely at the time that monarch was creating the first sovereign nation-state in the wake of the Council of Florence

Later, in 1498, this same Guido Antonio Vespucci – together with Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco – played the key role in elevating the previously obscure Niccolo Machiavelli to the post of Second Chancellor of the Republic.


In 1483 Amerigo Vespucci took up residence in Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco’s household, and shortly thereafter he was appointed the general manager of all of Lorenzo’s business and commercial interests.

In 1488 Lorenzo sends Amerigo to Spain. It is there, in Seville, that he first meets Christopher Columbus.

After spending another two years in Florence, in 1492 Amerigo returned to Seville where he and Gianetto Berardi formed a business partnership to run the affairs of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco in Spain, including the general management of the Seville branch of Lorenzo’s bank.

Earlier, while Amerigo was still in Florence, Berardi had helped fund Christopher Columbus’ first voyage. After 1493, Vespucci and Berardi became the primary financial backers for Columbus’ second and third voyages. Berardi and Vespucci handled all of Columbus’ business affairs in Seville and equipped and outfitted his ships.

Vespucci lived in Berardi’s home, and this residence became the headquarters for Columbus during the periods when he was in Seville. The second and third voyages of Columbus were mapped out in Berardi ‘s parlor; yet one is left to speculate as to the discussions which took place between Columbus and Vespucci during those years.

In the years since Vespucci’s death he has been routinely defamed;  perhaps only Machiavelli has had to bear more calumny.  The dean of the American “transcendentalists,” Ralph Waldo Emerson, had this to say: 

“Strange that broad America must wear the name of a thief.  Amerigo Vespucci, the pickle-dealer at Seville, whose highest navel rank was boatswain’s mate in an expedition that never sailed, managed in this lying world to... baptize half the world with his own dishonest name.”

To set the record straight, perhaps the best witness is Christopher Columbus, himself, who after his return from his fourth voyage met with Vespucci and gave him a letter to deliver to his son, Diego.  The letter says, in part:

“I talked with the bearer of this letter, Amerigo Vespucci who is going to court where he has been summoned by King Ferdinand in connection with matters of navigation.  It has always been his desire to give me pleasure;  he is a man of good will;  fortune has proved contrary to him;  he has not profited from his labors as justice would demand.  He is acting in my behalf moved by a great desire to do something which shall be to my benefit if it lies within his power.”

In fact, from Vespucci’s first meeting with Columbus in 1488, up until the time of Columbus’ death, they remained, always, collaborators and friends.

Vespucci’s Voyages

Berardi died in 1495, and for a time Vespucci continued to manage the business, but in 1497 he set out on discoveries of his own.

Amerigo Vespucci

Between 1497 and 1503 Vespucci made four voyages.  One of the charges made against him is that, unlike Columbus, he did not command any of those voyages, and, in fact, only piloted a single ship on one occasion.  Vespucci was not, by training or inclination, a sea captain.  He was a navigator, cosmographer, astronomer, and map-maker... in short, he was a scientist.

Vespucci’s voyages explored the coast of Venezuela, the entire coast of Brazil, and sailed down the length of Argentina almost 2,500 miles, to 53 degrees south latitude, eighteen years before Magellan reached that spot. Vespucci’s ships were the first to explore the Amazon River, and the first to discover the Rio de la Plata. Vespucci was the chief navigator and directed the course of all of these voyages.

Navigation: a willful act of discovery

In the letters which Amerigo writes to both Piero Soderini and Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, [6] he describes in great detail his astronomical and scientific observations.

On his second voyage Vespucci makes an intensive study of how to determine longitudinal position at sea. Previously, navigation was based on using the phases of the moon to determine tides, using the meridian altitude of the sun to steer by day, and the positions of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor to steer by night.  Vespucci became the first European to determine longitude at sea, by making precise measurements of the conjunction of the moon with the planets and constellations.

During Vespucci’s third voyage [7] his ship spent 10 months below the equator, and he conducted extensive studies of the southern constellations.  In his letter to Lorenzo di’ Pierfrancesco he recounts the many sleepless nights he devoted to the examination of the Southern Cross, and the many laborious calculations which he entered into, quoting from his favorite poet,

Each star of the other pole, night now beheld
And oars so low, that from the ocean floor
It rose not;

   (Dante, Purgatorio, Canto xxvi)

It is in this voyage, utilizing precise measurements of longitude, that Vespucci determines that the sphere of the earth is much larger than previously thought, and that they have discovered a new continent.

As he says in his letter to Lorenzo:  “We reached a new land which we discovered to be the mainland... I reached the region of the antipodes, which according to my navigation is the fourth part of the world.” [8]

Based on this voyage, Vespucci is recognized as the greatest navigator of his time.  By the end of his voyages in 1504 Vespucci’s explorations were more extensive than any other mariner up to that time, and his scientific readings were more accurate.

Mundus Novus

In December of 1502 a manuscript was circulated in Florence, which, although not written by Vespucci, was based on a (now lost) letter to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco about the Third Voyage into the southern hemisphere.  A Frenchman, Giovanni Giocondo, translated the manuscript from the Italian into Latin, elaborating and expanding it, and published it in 1503, under Vespucci’s name, giving it the title of Mundus Novus (The New World).  It created a sensation, and was rapidly republished in Lisbon, Cologne, Strasbourg, Antwerp, Venice, Augsburg, and other cities.

It begins with these words:

“In days past I have written to you (Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco) at some length concerning my return from those new regions which we discovered and explored with the fleet..., and which we can rightly call the New World since our ancestors had no knowledge of them, and it will be a matter wholly new to all those who hear about them.  We learned that this land is not an island  but a continent...  Most of our ancient authorities assert that there is no continent south of the equator, but merely the sea... but this last voyage of mine has demonstrated that this opinion is false and contradicts all truth, since I have discovered a continent in those southern regions.” [9]

Following this, in 1504, six letters which Vespucci had written to Florence’s Gonfalonier Piero Soderini, describing all four of his voyages, were published in Florence, and then translated into Latin and republished elsewhere throughout Europe.

Waldseemüller Map. The word "America" appears in the piece of the map occupying the bottom row of the left column, in what is now northern Argentina.
In April of 1507, at Saint-Dié , France, a group under the sponsorship of Rene II, the Duke of Lorraine – the former schoolmate of both Vespucci and Soderini – published a work titled Cosmographiae Introductio, which included a Latin translation of Vespucci’s 1504 letters to Piero Soderini, as well as the famous Waldseemüller Map, where, for the first time, the new world is named America.

The Arno Project and the New World

Had Leonardo’s original design for the Arno River project been realized, the Arno would have become navigable, and Florence would have been able to engage, not just in Mediterranean traffic, but, potentially, also in trans-oceanic activity.  Consider the following:

In 1502 Vespucci’s letter to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, announcing that he had discovered a new continent in the southern hemisphere, reaches Florence, is immediately circulated in manuscript form and communicated to the government.  The Signoria declares a national holiday to celebrate the news, and for three days festivities are conducted in front of the Vespucci home.

At this time, Leonardo da Vinci, working as Valentino’s engineer, makes several trips to explore the headwaters of the Arno River.

In the winter and spring of 1503, manuscripts of the Mundus Novus circulate widely in Florence, just as both Machiavelli and Leonardo return to Florence from Borgia’s court.  Their very first initiative is to begin work on the Arno project.

Throughout 1503 and into 1504, Leonardo continues to improve his designs.  Several of his mature sketches, from that period, are now in the Codex Madrid and the Windsor Royal Library, and show detailed plans that would have made the Arno navigable and transformed Florence into a seaport.

In 1504 Machiavelli begins a correspondence with Bartolomeo Vespucci, nephew of Amerigo and a professor of Astronomy at the University of Padua, on the subject of astronomy.  About this time Leonardo’s notebooks contain references to writings and maps on astronomy and cosmography.  Also in Leonardo’s notebooks from this period are studies in measuring longitude, so as to enable navigators to make accurate astronomical readings of a ship’s location.  This is the exact problem that Amerigo Vespucci worked on during his voyages to South America.

In 1504 Gonfalonier Piero Soderini receives six letters from his lifelong friend Vespucci, describing his four voyages.  These letters are immediately published and widely circulated.

In August of 1504, Machiavelli, this time with the strong backing of Soderini, succeeds in obtaining the approval of the Signoria for the Arno Project.

For myself, the conclusion, if speculative, is clear.  In addition to the military  and economic benefits of the Arno project, is it not the case – at a time when the New World was everywhere being discussed in Florence, particularly among some of their closest political associates – that Machiavelli and Leonardo must have envisioned a vital role for republican Florence in this trans-Atlantic enterprise? [10]


VII.  The Empire’s Nemesis

Now we come to the most important issue of this whole study, which is the question of why the oligarchy, for 500 years, has heaped such hatred and opprobrium on Machiavelli.

The answer is found in what Machiavelli wrote.  If one examines Machiavelli’s major works, as a totality, a very clear unity of purpose and vision is self-evident.  For Machiavelli the Republic is everything.  His discovery is that, in the development of the republic, a new type of power has been created, a power with the capability to destroy empire and oligarchy.

This is not Machiavelli’s mere opinion.  This is Machiavelli’s discovery, a means whereby the power of empire can be defeated!

Most of Machiavelli’s major writings were written in exile, after the destruction of the Republic in 1512.  It is impossible, without succumbing to prolixity, to do justice to all of them, so this article will focus on The Prince and the Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, which were both written in the years 1513 to 1515.

For brevity’s sake, this can not be helped, but it does leave out a lot, including The Art of War, and his comedies Clizia and La Mandragola – both of which are not only hilarious, but hilarious censures of the moral degeneration of the Italian feudal aristocracy.  It also leaves out his poetry, much of it modeled on Dante’s terza rima style.  His Tercets on Ambition is one of the most powerful indictments of oligarchical war ever written.

Il Principe

Machiavelli began writing The Prince [11] only weeks after his release from prison, and what is clearly uppermost in his mind is the catastrophic failure of Florence’s leadership in 1512, including the failures of his friend Piero Soderini. [12]

Only months earlier Machiavelli had seen the Florentine Republic crushed, and his and Leonardo’s work of the previous ten years destroyed.

The subject of The Prince, therefore, is leadership and the indispensable quality of virtł.  To establish a republic, to defend it, to do battle with the most powerful oligarchical forces on the planet, this, Machiavelli is saying, is not a feat for the squeamish or faint of heart.

As Machiavelli says:  “When the entire safety of our country is at stake, no consideration of what is just or unjust, merciful or cruel, praiseworthy or shameful, must intervene.  On the contrary... that course alone must be taken which preserves the existence of the country and maintains its liberty.”

1776 - General George Washington leads his citizens' army across the icy Delaware River before dawn on Christmas Day, to surprise and rout a bunch of mercenaries on the other side. Painting by Emmanuel Leutze.

In the Discourses Machiavelli provides an example of the quality of leadership needed to secure liberty.  Machiavelli asks the following hypothetical question:  If one’s army captures and occupies a hostile city, what should be done with the local ruling class?  There are three choices:  attempt to win them over as allies;  send them into exile;  kill them.  Machiavelli says the answer is obvious... kill all of them.  And he is not being metaphorical.

Today we either kill the British Empire, or it will kill us.

But Machiavelli’s target is always the oligarchy, and a far different approach should be extended in all dealings with the people. In Chapter IX of The Prince Machiavelli says the following:

“A prince cannot by fair dealing, and without injury to others, satisfy the nobles, but he can satisfy the people, for their object is more righteous than that of the nobles, the latter wishing to oppress, while the former only desire not to be oppressed.”

Machiavelli is not writing some textbook advice for woolgathering academics.  There is an oligarchical enemy, an oligarchical system, and victory over it is only possible if you possess the fortitude to destroy it.

Chapters XII and XIII of The Prince again deal with the paramount issue of creating a Citizens Army and the insanity of relying on mercenary soldiers, and once more Machiavelli cites Borgia:

“I shall never hesitate to cite Cesare Borgia and his actions. This duke entered the Romagna with auxiliaries, taking there only French soldiers... but afterwards, such forces not appearing to him reliable, he turned to mercenaries, discerning less danger in them, and enlisted the Orsini and Vitelli;  whom presently, on handling and finding them doubtful, unfaithful, and dangerous, he destroyed and turned to his own men. And the difference between one and the other of these forces can easily be seen when one considers the difference there was in the reputation of the duke;  he was never esteemed more highly than when every one saw that he was complete master of his own forces.”       

A Republican Primer

Virtł and Fortuna

Reams have been written on Machiavelli's concept of Virtù. However, almost all of the armchair academic analysis generally ignores the key issue: what Machiavelli was actually doing with his life. In speaking of Virtù, he is discussing the quality necessary, in citizens and leaders, to bring a republic into existence and to defend it. This involves boldness, foresight, courage, and, yes, ruthlessness. But all in the service of a higher universal purpose. There is a quality of agápe in Machiaveli’s Virtù never discussed by the historians, the same quality which Abraham Lincoln evokes in the Gettysburg Address.

Machiavelli counterposes Virtù to Fortuna, i.e., unforseen events, or developments beyond our control. An example of Fortuna today would be the current threat to life on earth emanating from the trajectories of asteroids and other near earth objects. The quality, or lack, of our Virtù will determine how we deal with this.

An example of the absence of Virtù can be found in the old baby-boomer folk song, "There but for fortune go you or I," i.e., events in the universe are mysterious and uncontrollable, and we bear no responsibility for what will occur. And, of course, the modern existential notion that we have been "thrown into" a meaningless impotent existence, is nothing but a surrender to Fortuna.

The Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius is Machiavelli’s greatest work.

Using as his subject Livy’s original examination of the Roman Republic, Machiavelli not only dissects that work, but provides an in-depth study of how a republic can be created, governed and defended.

At over 800 pages, it is not possible to discuss the Discourses in depth, but let it be said that on almost every page there are gems of wisdom worth contemplating.

Two of the primary themes of the Discourses, which are woven throughout the work, reappearing again and again in different forms, are:

1) the danger to freedom emanating from the oligarchy, and

2) the fatal problem arising from a moral corruption of the population.

Repeatedly, Machiavelli makes the point that it is only the people who are able to defend freedom, but, he says, “if the people are corrupt, there is NO possibility of establishing a republic, and laws to preserve order are useless... The most dangerous corruption is the corruption of the people. It is the corruption of the people which leads to the corruptions of the institutions of state.”

He stresses that, “It is very difficult to overcome this problem.”

However, Machiavelli also insists that it is not from the people whence this corruption arises, but from their toleration of a wealthy oligarchical class. He says that a republic is governed easily if the people are not corrupted, but a republic can not exist in a state which tolerates an idle nobility, living off estates or in control of castles and vassals. It is the abundance of this class in Naples, the Romagna, Lombardy, and the region around Rome which has been the ruin of Italy. To found a republic in such a territory requires the extermination of the nobility.

Machiavelli declares: "It should be the object of every well-governed commonwealth to make the state rich and keep individual citizens poor," i.e., a republic should encourage actions which benefit the republic, and penalize actions which benefit private oligarchical interests.

Or, as Machiavelli puts it in Book II of the Discourses: "It is the well being, not of individuals, but of the community which makes a state great; and, without question, this universal well-being is nowhere secured save in a republic."

Citizenry in a Republic

The three books of the Discourses contain many brilliant specific pieces of advice on how to conduct successful war, e.g., Machiavelli’s advice against both limited war and long wars; the foolishness of attempting to hold indefensible positions; his instructions on the use of artillery in battle; and his lengthy discussions on the use of flanking attacks.

However, Machiavelli returns again and again to the central question of the citizenry. His unwavering view is that the key to victory in war is not money or position, but a good army composed of good soldiers. In discussing the importance of the breakthroughs then being made in the use of artillery, he goes so far as to say that artillery will not replace a well-trained citizen soldiery, and that artillery, without such a soldiery, is useless.

Statue of Cincinnatus, in Cincinnati, Ohio.

This is why he returns several times to the subject of Cincinnatus, and it is also why he repeats several times that, “No ordinance is of such an advantage to a commonwealth, as one which enforces poverty on its citizens.”

This is not just about soldiers; what Machiavelli is actually describing is a new type of universal power, a power which does not, and can not, exist in an oligarchical state, no matter its wealth or money.

This for Machiavelli, is the ultimate flank, one for which the oligarchy has no possible defense: the development of the cognitive abilities, the cognitive power of the citizenry, organized through urban-based republican institutions.

This is why he spends so much effort on discussing the constitutional system of such a state and the crucial importance of just laws, and why the state must always act on behalf of the common good.

Out of such an urban-based, technologically-progressive republic, a power to transform the universe can be unleashed which no oligarchy can defeat.


VIII.  The Denouement...  and the Future  

In the words of the Florentine historian Francesco Guicciardini, the year 1509 began a “dark chapter” in the history of Italy:

“There followed throughout Italy, and against the Italians themselves, the cruelest accidents, endless murders, sackings, and a destruction of many cities and towns, military licentiousness, and religion violated... These actions originated from the rash and overly insolent actions of the Venetian Senate.”

In June of 1510 the duplicitous Pope Julius II betrayed his allies in the League of Cambrai, as he switched sides and joined with Venice in a military alliance against France, Florence, and the latter’s ally Ferrara. [13]

Following the break-up of the League, the oligarchical faction in Florence began to move against Machiavelli and Soderini. By the end of the year there were calls for Machiavelli’s ouster from office, and, late in the year, a plan to assassinate Soderini was discovered and thwarted at the last minute.

In an attempt to salvage the situation, Machiavelli spent four months – from June to October of 1510 – at the French Court at Lyons, attempting to forge a new alliance of France, Florence, Ferrara, and the German Emperor Maximilian against Venice and the Pope.

In December of 1510, the artillery of Alfonso d’Este utterly destroyed a Venetian invasion fleet at Ferrara, sinking more than 200 ships.

But then, in June of 1511, word spread of a new alliance – the Holy League, including the Papacy, Venice, King Ferdinand of Spain and Naples, the German Emperor Maximilian, Henry VIII of England, and Swiss mercenaries – all arrayed against France and Florence.

The attacks on Soderini and Machiavelli escalated, and, in September, the Pope placed an Interdict on Florence, and called for the death of Gonfalonier Piero Soderini.

On April, 11, 1512, despite their victory over the combined armies of the Holy League at the Battle of Ravenna, the French are forced to retreat north when 18,000 Swiss mercenaries, paid by Rome, invade French territory. This leaves both Florence and the city of Milan without French protection.

In the summer of 1512 a combined force of Spanish and Papal troops occupy Milan. Leonardo da Vinci, then residing there, flees to Florence. Shortly thereafter forces of the Holy League occupy Parma, Bologna and Genoa.

In July the Pope demands Piero Soderini’s resignation and the submission of Florence to the Papacy. The Spanish Army marches on Florence; Machiavelli, commanding a militia of 12,000 men, is put in charge of the city’s defense.

In August, leaders of the Holy League, meeting at Mantua, demand the destruction of Florence’s republican government and the immediate restoration of the Medici.

The Spanish Army attacks, and defeats the Florentine Militia at Prato (after Soderini, in disagreement with Machiavelli, refuses to negotiate with them) [14]. Days later Spanish troops enter Florence. Soderini resigns and goes into exile. 5,000 Florentines are killed. The Republic is abolished, the Great Council dissolved, and the Militia disbanded.

Leonardo da Vinci flees Florence and goes into the countryside.

On September 3rd, the new Florentine government, under Giuliano de’ Medici, officially joins the Holy League and allies with Venice against France.

On November 7th, Machiavelli is fired from all government posts and banned from entering any government building

On February 12, 1513, Machiavelli is arrested, imprisoned and tortured for 30 days.


In March of 1513 Pope Julius dies and a general amnesty is declared, leading to Machiavelli’s release from prison. He is immediately forced into exile and ordered to live outside the city limits, but he is forbidden to leave Florentine territory, upon penalty of death.

Leonardo flees to Rome, where for the next three years he is, for all practical purposes, under house arrest, not harmed, but not allowed to work or carry out scientific experiments. He is denied all painting commissions, at a time when Michelangelo and others are given work in the Vatican. In 1516 Leonardo is rescued by King Francis I of France, and spends the last three years of his life, under protection, in the household of the French king.

Between 1513 and 1525, in exile, Machiavelli produces The Prince, the Discourses on Livy, the Art of War, La Mandragola, and his History of Florence.

In 1525 the Imperial Army of Charles V (Hapsburg) crushes the French army and prepares to invade Italy. Once again confronting the threat of foreign conquest, the Florentine government recalls Machiavelli from his 12 year exile and names him as chief military advisor to the government.

In November of 1526, Charles V invades Italy, and Machiavelli is placed in charge of Florence’s defense. The invaders ravage the countryside, occupy many cities, and in May of 1527, occupy and sack Rome. However, they carefully and deliberately bypass the heavily fortified Florence, whose defenses are under the sole command of Machiavelli.

The next month, on June 21, 1527, Machiavelli dies.

Less than ten years after his death, Venice unleashes a campaign to defame, vilify and destroy Machiavelli’s influence. In 1539 the Venetian agent Cardinal Reginald Pole condemns Machiavelli as “an enemy of the human race.” In 1557, following the 16th session of the Council of Trent, all of Machiavelli’s writings are placed on the Index of banned books by Pope Paul IV.

In the years, even centuries, since Machiavelli’s death, it has become commonplace to portray Machiavelli – or the “Machiavel” – as a near-Satanic figure.

This hatred – and fear! – of Machiavelli was not an act revenge, stemming from his actions on behalf of the Florentine Republic from 1502 to 1512. Such temporal events are long-gone and mostly forgotten. What the Venetian empire understood was that Machiavelli had discovered a means by which the feudal imperial system could be destroyed; and that Machiavelli’s actions, together with his writings, had created a republican impetus which simply could not be contained.

The post-Council of Florence emergence of sovereign nation-states, parallel and allied with the Cusa-Brunelleschi-Kepler revolution in science, when combined with the discoveries of Machiavelli, created an enormous crisis for the Venetian Empire. This played itself out during the 16th century, and culminated with the seizure of power, in Venice, by Paolo Sarpi and his allies in 1588. Old methods were abandoned and certain fundamentals of the Empire were transformed, all leading into the creation of the Anglo-Dutch Empire in 1688. But that is another story.

But then...

In 1620, only 93 years after Machiavelli’s death, forty-one passengers on board the Mayflower signed a Compact in which they committed to “combine ourselves together into a civil body politic.” Ten years later John Winthrop and his allies established the great Commonwealth in Massachusetts Bay, founded on the principle of the Common Good.

Between 1630 and 1688, under the leadership of Winthrop and his allies, Massachusetts enacted measures for public education, internal improvements, and a citizen’s militia. They established a credit system, through the Pine Tree Shilling, and used it to finance science and industry, such as the Saugus Iron Works, independent of the imperial center in London.

Saugus Iron Works.

This is Machiavelli’s Republic! This is the vision of Renaissance Florence, reborn on the shores of the New World, just as Cusa had envisioned.

Did the colonists read Machiavelli? Perhaps some of them. It doesn’t matter. This is the miracle of the human mind; this is the invisible tangibility of ideas.

Machiavelli discovered a valid scientific principle, and once that principle was demonstrated as truthful, and entered our culture, it’s truthfulness could not be destroyed.

Today we face a profound crisis on all fronts, and we can’t escape the fact that our people and our institutions have become corrupt.  But this is by no means an insurmountable problem.  As Machiavelli says in Book III of the Discourses, it is natural, over time, for states to become corrupt;  but such states, particularly Commonwealths, are able to renew themselves because of the virtues of their heritage and their constitutional institutions.

Machiavelli also says that, were such a renewal to occur, it is then impossible for the oligarchy to work great mischief.

Today, in the global mass-strike, we see a potential for just such a renewal.  If we learn the lessons of where we came from, and the principles upon which our republic was founded, we will have every expectation of success.

The Republic is the most powerful force in human history.  That is our basis for victory over the British Empire today.


by Robert Ingraham
March 29, 2011 [15]



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The Unknown Leonardo, edited by Ladislao Reti, © 1974, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York

The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci, translated by Jean Paul Richter, © 1883, Sampson, Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, London

The life of Niccolo Machiavelli, by Roberto Ridolfi,  translated from the Italian by Cecil Grayson, © 1954, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago

The Artist, the Philosopher, and the Warrior: the intersecting lives of Da Vinci, Machiavelli, and Borgia and the world they shaped, by Paul Strathern, © 2009,  Bantam Books, New York

Niccolo Machiavelli and his times, by Pasqualle Villari, © 1878, C. Kegan Paul and Company, London

Niccolo's smile: a biography of Machiavelli, by Maurizio Viroli, © 1998, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York

Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love and Death in Renaissance Italy, by Sarah Bradford, © 2004, Viking Press

[1] The Gonfalonier was the head of the Florentine government.  Prior to 1502 Gonfaloniers served a term of only two years.

[2] More will be said of the Vespucci family later in this article, but for now, it is important to mention that both Leonardo da Vinci and Machiavelli were on intimate terms with members of that family.

[3] The Prince

[3A] Ferrara’s earlier Renaissance role under Alphonso’s father Ercole d’Este is well known. What is less well known is the role of Alphonso’s wife and Borgia’s sister, Lucretia, as the de facto ruler of Ferrara during the period of the League of Cambrai, while her husband was away, fighting battles.

[4] Leonardo worked on several other water projects in his lifetime.  In 1502 Cesare Borgia wanted him to build a 10 mile navigable canal from the city of Cesna to the Adriatic Sea.  He also designed extensive water diversion projects both in France and Milan.

[5] The Decennale was later published in 1506 by Agostino Vespucci.

[6] It is important to understand the role of “letters” during this period.  At a time when there were no newspapers, letters were the indispensable source of news from around the world.  Except for those most personal of nature, most letters were recopied by hand over and over again, and circulated quite freely.  These were known as “familiar” letters, and authors of these letters, often, consciously designed their messages to reach a much broader audience.

[7] Vespucci’s first two voyages were for Spain.  His third and fourth voyages were for Portugal.

[8] It was commonly held, at that time, that there were three parts to the world:  Europe, Asia, and Africa.

[9] It should be noted that all of the existing copies of Vespucci’s letters are corrupt.  The originals are lost.  In the words of one scholar, Vespucci's "private letters... were pirated, misquoted, ... printed, translated, [and] reprinted.  The texts on which we base our judgments are vastly different from those which left the authors hand."

[10] It is interesting to note that while the Florentine Vespucci was the first European to explore the entirety of the South American coastline, it was another Florentine, Giovanni da Verrazano, in 1524, who first explored the length of the North American coast, from Florida to Newfoundland, on a voyage backed by the French King Francis I, the same monarch who was the benefactor of Leonardo da Vinci, during the final years of his life.

[11] The actual name is Il Principe or “On Principalities,” which, as the Italian implies, is about the art of governing.  The English mistranslation suggests, wrongly, that the work is about how to be an absolute ruler.

[12] Despite their close relationship, Machiavelli’s one criticism of Soderini was his caution and indecisiveness, and, conversely,  when a crisis arose, his tendency for rash action, rather than having taken decisive action from the beginning.

[13] In truth, Julius II was allied with Venice both before and after the League of Cambrai.  His participation in the League was solely for the purpose of annexing some of Venice’s possessions in the Romagna to the Papal States.

[14] Machiavelli had told Soderini that Prato could not be held by the Militia against a Spanish attack..

[15] This current article is dedicated to Charles B. Allen, Jr. and James Legare, republican patriots from an earlier generation.