Great minds that thought differently

From Poliziano to Machiavelli
August 6, 1999

The central figure in this book is neither Poliziano nor Machiavelli, but Marcello Virgilio Adriani, whom Peter Godman has rediscovered by reading his writings in manuscript and in print in Florentine libraries. Marcello Virgilio became a professor in the University of Florence in 1494 on Poliziano's death. In 1497 he became also first chancellor of Florence, an important civil service post, and was joined in 1498 by Machiavelli as second chancellor. He therefore in a sense bridges the gap between the two stars. But of course in most senses he does not. Marcello seems to have been a fairly run-of-the-mill humanist, whose instinct was to look back to the republican ideals of Florence in the age of Leonardo Bruni in the first half of the 15th century. That was appropriate for a civil servant around 1500 when Florence, having escaped from the domination of the Medici (Lorenzo the Magnificent had died in 1492) and from the tyranny of Savonarola (1494-98), was looking for a way to establish a firm republican regime amid threats of French invasion and papal aggression. The experiment of a constitutional monarch in the person of Piero Soderini, in 1502-12, was followed by the return of the Medici. Marcello and Machiavelli both had important careers in this world.

Marcello had some interesting things to say about the links between medicine and literature; but in general he was a rather conventional writer. Nevertheless the reconstruction of Marcello as a realistic character on the basis of difficult Latin manuscripts is itself a considerable achievement. Godman's book also shows many other learned discoveries, which will make it an essential work for students of this fascinating period of turmoil and originality.

Seeing Poliziano and Machiavelli enclosed within the pages of a book on "humanism" brings home to one how little positive content that term has beyond the bland definition of "devotion to classical literature". Two men of letters could not have been more different. Poliziano was in modern terms a brilliant philologist, a very clever and learned student of Latin and Greek words, the aspect most prominent here. He was also a great poet, the reason why he has an English name, Politian, as well as an Italian. He was the author of Orfeo , the dramatic fragment that lies behind all later uses of the Orpheus legend, and also of the Stanze per la Giostra , a gem of Renaissance artistry that inspired Raphael. How to link him with Machiavelli? They cannot really be made into stages in a single intellectual movement.

Machiavelli, in contrast, had comparatively little interest in philology, though he was obviously much indebted to Livy and Polybius. While the first chancellor stayed in Florence dealing with home affairs, Machiavelli travelled, attempting to prevent political disaster to Florence by talking to the Pope and Cesare Borgia. He also tried to safeguard the city by a radical and original reform of the Florentine army. When the return of the Medici in 1512 ended his official career - Marcello remained in office - he turned to literature as a vehicle for expressing his opinions on contemporary politics, hence The Prince and the Discourses . He would have shared with Poliziano an interest in erotic literature, a common feature of the Florentine world, but one may feel that little else links them.

George Holmes is emeritus professor of medieval history, All Souls College, Oxford.

From Poliziano to Machiavelli: Florentine Humanism in the High Renaissance

Author - Peter Godman
ISBN - 0 691 01746 8
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £33.50
Pages - 366

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