“I liked the man.” – Author Niccolo Capponi discusses An Unlikely Prince: The Life and Times of Niccolo Machiavelli

“…there is always the suspicion that Machiavelli is seldom completely serious when he writes – the Florentine jocular, caustic, irreverent spirit too strong in him.”

WHAT: Acclaimed scholar Niccolo Capponi – a direct descendant of Machiavelli – analyses the famous political theorist in the context of his own times, revealing the many sides of the man behind the political genius and explaining his inability to capitalise on his own theories. In his compelling new biography – the first comprehensive one in English in more than forty years – historian Niccolo Capponi frees Machiavelli (1469-1527) from centuries of misinterpretation.

Exploring the Renaissance city of Florence where Machiavelli lived, Capponi reveals the man behind the legends, and a complex portrait of Machiavelli emerges – he was at once a brilliantly skillful diplomat and woefully inept liar; a sharp thinker and an impractical dreamer; a hard-nosed power broker and a risk-taking gambler; a calculating propagandist and an imprudent jokester. Capponi’s intimate portrait of Machiavelli shows how Machiavelli’s behavior was utterly un-Machiavellian, and how his vision of the world was limited by his very provincial outlook. In the end, frustrated by his own political failures and always writing with Florence in mind and for a Florentine audience, Machiavelli was baffled by the international success of “The Prince”.

WHO: Niccolò Capponi is the author of the highly acclaimed “Victory of the West” and a former fellow of the Medici Project. A direct descendant of Machiavelli, he lives in Florence, Italy.

MORE? Here!

Why Nicolo Machiavelli?

I liked the man, I liked the subject. Obliquely, it was also a way of getting even with Ol’ Nick, after being forced to go through his impenetrable prose.

Perhaps the biggest surprise about the real-life Machiavelli is how poorly he navigated the currents and slipstreams of his own political landscape. Why was Machiavelli so bad a being a politician?

Machiavelli was a theorist, and had never had a chance – unlike some of his contemporaries – to experience a hands-on approach to politics before he entered the Florentine Chancery. Like most theorists, he ended up losing himself up his own posterior orifice – something that his friend Francesco Guicciardini underscored more than once.

You say that Machiavelli’s most significant literary achievements were his plays. What did it mean to be a playwright in Machiavelli’s Florence? Were there permanent theatres, companies, well-known actors and authors? Where did Machiavelli fit into that picture?

Machiavelli wrote his plays for his own benefit or for that of a specific actress if she happened to be his girlfriend at the time. In early 16th century Florence, there was no such thing as a ”playwright” in the modern sense; simply, some literati who enjoyed writing plays. Not being any permanent theatre at the time, plays were set up ad hoc: gardens, private houses, churches… However, theatrical companies did exist and some leading performers justly famous.

Have you ever seen one of Machiavelli’s plays performed live? Are they any good?

Machiavelli’s plays are good, and La Mandragola an absolute masterpiece. I’ve seen it performed various times – the Clizia once – and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

If you could ask Machiavelli one question what would it be, but also when in his career would you ask it?

I would ask him late in his life, how was it that his vaunted militia, that he believed filled with the virtues of the ancients, took to its heels at Prato when pitted against professional soldiers – the mercenaries Niccolò so despised (that would be a good example of Florentine malice, on my part).

If you could own one object associated with Machiavelli what would it be?

I think the now believed-to-be-lost play Le Maschere.

Were the women in Machiavelli’s life anything more than dalliances and distractions? Did they impact his work?

Some were dalliances, some were serious. Certainly, his relationship with La Barbera (Barbara Raffacani Salutati), a renowned actress and singer, did impact his work, since he wrote La Clizia with her in mind.

You argue that the archetypical cold fish, buttoned-lipped reptilian Machiavelli is a modern myth not born out by the exuberant, salacious, occasionally coarse personality that emerges from his private papers. So which actor would you get to play him?

Jeremy Irons; at least as the older Machiavelli

Did Machiavelli really sit there of a night, wearing his robes of state, having imaginary conversations with the great and the good of times past – a kind of crankish thing to do? Or was he pulling our leg with a wry smile?

Knowing Ol’ Nick one can well believe that he sought the company of his intellectual equals – even if deceased. On the other hand, there is always the suspicion that Machiavelli is seldom completely serious when he writes – the Florentine jocular, caustic, irreverent spirit too strong in him.

What are you currently working on?

I’ve got a number of projects, mostly non-fiction. A book on the Battle of Castagnaro, written with Kelly DeVries, is coming out this July. Maybe I tackle Galileo next, just to ruffle a few more feathers.