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A Great & Wretched City: Promise and Failure in Machiavelli's Florentine Political Thought.

A Great & Wretched City: Promise and Failure in Machiavelli's Florentine Political Thought, by Mark Jurdjevic. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2014, 295 pp. $49.95 US (cloth).

Mark Jurdjevic focuses on two texts written by Machiavelli in the 1520s--the Discourse on Florentine affairs after the death of the younger Lorenzo [de ' Medici] and the Florentine Histories--contrasting their political thought with his two most famous political works, The Prince and the Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livy, both written between 1513 and 1519. Jurdjevic's thesis is that the two later works represent a new direction: rejecting the individualistic emphasis of The Prince and the ancient Roman model advocated in the Discourses, Machiavelli now proposed a reform scheme based on radical institutional change.

Much of Jurdjevic's argument is correct. Neither The Prince nor the Discourses is a text exclusively or even extensively focused on the particular problems of Machiavelli's native Florence: the former is directed to a potential Medici new prince in the Papal States, while the latter offers ancient Rome as a standard by which to judge modern politics (therefore including several discussions of Florence, as one among many modern states compared with the Roman paradigm). The Histories provide numerous specific examples of the disastrous institutional structures lambasted on a general level in the Discourse. Following the lead of Francesco Bausi and Humfrey Butters, Jurdjevic documents a sympathy for the traditional Florentine aristocracy in the two later works, absent from the populism dominant in The Prince and the Discourses. The most original contribution of Jurdjevic's book is a revealing demonstration that, in the Histories, Machiavelli is just as critical of the Florentine populace as he is of the Florentine elite (who replaced the ancient nobility), revising an interpretation by John Najemy, who had emphasized Machiavelli's populism in contrast to the aristocratic penchant of earlier Florentine political thinkers such as Leonardo Bruni.

Nevertheless, Jurdjevic's analysis is sometimes misleading. Machiavelli did not reject reform initiatives by individuals in the two later works: in both, the reform scheme had to be implemented by Florence's Medici rulers (Pope Leo X explicitly in the Discourse, Pope Clement VII implicitly in the Histories [III. 1]). There is no evidence that Machiavelli was a friend or ally of the pro-Savonarolan leader Francesco Valori (p. 44), opposition to whose party helped Machiavelli gain appointment to the Florentine chancery in 1498. Jurdjevic repeats a blunder (p. 69) that vitiated two of his earlier publications: all Machiavelli scholars agree, on orthographical and palaeographical grounds, that the text now known as The Natures of Florentine Men was not written as a draft for unfinished chapters of the Histories but rather dates to 1506-1508. Piero Soderini, the former Florentine life Gonfalonier, was not an instigator of the 1522 antiMedici conspiracy (p. 48) but rather his brother, Francesco, cardinal of Volterra.

The most significant shortcoming is Jurdjevic's focus on only Machiavelli's four major political texts. Besides the Discourse Machiavelli wrote two other reform proposals, both in 1522. The "Memorandum to Cardinal Giulio [de' Medici] on the reform of the constitution of Florence" shows no sign of the radical restructuring proposed in the Discourse, but is conceived rather in terms of a revival of the essential elements of the republic from 1494 to 1512. The "Draft of a law for the reform of the Florentine constitution in the year 1522" was similarly less radical, preserving the main republican institutions established after the expulsion of the Medici in 1494, although its second version enhanced the power of the aristocracy more than Discourse. These texts contradict Jurdjevic's vision of Machiavelli as a committed radical reformer in the 1520s.

Even more important is the omission of Machiavelli's "Summary of the affairs of the city of Lucca" (1520) and The Art of War (1519-20, mentioned only in passing on p. 19). These two texts show unequivocally that Machiavelli was moving not in a radical but in a conservative direction in the 1520s. The

Discourse and the Histories propose a mixed constitution, with power balanced among four and then three elements: the Medici, the aristocracy, the middle classes and the populace. This was a form of government particularly favoured in earlier Florentine political thought by advocates of aristocratic government, realizing that behind the facade of the mixed constitution par excellence--Venice--there existed an oligarchic regime. A sign of his new pro-Venetian sympathies can be found in the Art of War (1.178), and his positing in the Lucchese summary of Venice and Rome as models of equal merit, in contrast to Lucca (and implicitly Florence), is a step in the same direction. In the Histories he called Venice "a republic that, through its institutions and its power, must be celebrated above every other principate in Italy" (1.28). Late in life he was moving toward a political conservatism reminiscent of that supreme Florentine advocate of the mixed constitution and admirer of Venice--his intimate friend Guicciardini.

Mark Jurdjevic has made an important contribution, significant particularly for recognizing the fundamental changes in Machiavelli's later political thought, but his emphasis on a new radicalism overlooks the extent to which Machiavelli transformed himself into a conservative in the 1520s (also demonstrated, incidentally, by a comparison of his two comedies, the earlier Mandragola [before 25 March 1520, arguably 1515-17] and the later Clizia [1524-25]).

Robert Black

University of Leeds
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Author:Black, Robert
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2014
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