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The Garments of Court and Palace

Machiavelli and the World That He Made

Philip Bobbitt

He had a lot going for him, did young Niccolo Machiavelli. He was born in the throbbing, prosperous heart of the Renaissance, in 15th-century Florence, was a successful diplomat and skilfully navigated turbulent political times as the city-state was buffeted between the Medici and Borgia families.

Then in 1513 his name appeared on a list of possible conspirators against the latest Medici potentate, he was given a spot of gardening leave (after a spot of torture) during which he wrote some plays, but also a book, The Prince, which is still being read and talked about 500 years later.

The one thing he lacked, however, was a spin doctor. If this brilliant writer about statecraft and political science, known later as “the prince of darkness”, had had his own prince of darkness acting as his media chief — such as, perhaps, our recent bearer of that nickname, Peter Mandelson — he could have avoided his name becoming a synonym for cunning, unscrupulous, even evil, behaviour.

For had history and the book’s reputation — mangled as it was in England by Elizabethan propagandists — turned out differently, the term “Machiavellian” might instead have become associated with the pioneering definition and establishment of constitutional legitimacy in a post-feudal state. Had his advice been taken by his contemporary Italian potentates, his name might even have been associated with the creation of a unified Italian nation state, three centuries earlier than it actually happened. Machiavelli could have been, in other words, a blend of our own Walter Bagehot and Count Camillo di Cavour, the first prime minister of Italy in 1861.

This is far from the first attempt to rescue Machiavelli from the adjective derived from his name, but it is an especially convincing one. In part, this is because Philip Bobbitt, an American historian and constitutional expert at Columbia University, is an especially convincing fellow. One of his previous books, a bit of a doorstop called The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History (2002), may be one of those on your shelves that you are proud to display, but have not necessarily read. The Garments of Court and Palace is a slimmer work than The Shield of Achilles, or its equally intimidating successor Terror and Consent (2008), but it is just as serious and thoughtful, even if it is not an easy read. What it mainly makes the reader think about is the way in which, at Machiavelli’s time in history, the European state was changing. And it makes you think about how, in ferocious but extraordinarily creative 16th-century Italy, history really could have turned out differently.

Machiavelli became associated with the immoral, anti-religious behaviour of “ends justifying means” because this was a time when the nature of power and legitimacy was shifting from the Church and from monarchs claiming divine rights to states built on law, order and structures created to endure beyond the lives of powerful individuals or their dynasties. Italy, with its spectacularly wealthy republican city-states such as Venice, Genoa, Siena and Florence, had already pioneered law-based, quasidemocratic forms of government. But raw power, of money and military strength, kept on disrupting those republics, as did recurrent threats from foreign potentates commanding larger swaths of territory, particularly the kings of France and Spain.

Two books to have in mind when considering Bobbitt’s thesis are, in fact, novels: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. Historians blench at her interpretation and depiction of Thomas Cromwell, arguing that she has cleansed the bloody hands of Henry VIII’s henchman, who was a ruthless torturer, and has thus distorted history in pursuit of a happier story — or, some say, simply to counter Hollywood’s equally misleading depiction of Cromwell’s rival, Sir Thomas More, by Robert Bolt in A Man for All Seasons.

Yet the statesman that Mantel describes in her Booker-prizewinning blockbusters is the genuinely Machiavellian figure that Bobbitt outlines. If Cromwell was cunning and unscrupulous, it was not for personal gain, in Mantel’s account. He played a big role in turning England into a sustainable, durable state, one less likely to repeat the chaos of the Wars of the Roses, and one (marginally) less likely to be invaded.

What Machiavelli was seeking to do was to define how a “principality” — ie, a territory ruled by a prince — could be run according to a constitutional order and law that would endure after that particular prince had passed on, that would be accepted by those who served whatever previous prince had ruled the territory, and that stood a chance of being strong enough to withstand invasions by rival states. His crucial distinction was between the interests of the individual and those of the state or principality he ruled, and therefore also between the moral codes that an individual should follow and those of a state.

The ambiguity, and thus the enduring interest, of the Tudor England of Thomas Cromwell, lies in this tussle between the personal interests and morality of King Henry and those of the state over which he reigned. In his pursuit of a male heir, and of resources and power independent of the Roman Church, was he serving himself or England? Did Cromwell’s use of torture and deception break the law or establish it?

Since Cromwell spent a formative part of his life in Renaissance Florence, it is tempting to dream of a conversation between him and Machiavelli. And for Italians to wonder whether a Florentine Cromwell might have succeeded in achieving the ambition of the final chapter of The Prince, namely the creation of a single, powerful nation of Italy.

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