Monday, May 22, 2006

Reading :: The History of Florence

Originally posted: Mon, 22 May 2006 23:34:59

The history of Florence, and other selections

By Niccolo Machiavelli

This version of Machiavelli's great history of Florence is incomplete, including only Books II-IV, VII, and VIII. Nevertheless, it's fascinating and highly entertaining for the most part. When describing a great statesman, Machiavelli sometimes gets caught up in cataloguing the man's best zingers -- Machiavelli did love the insults -- but most of the time he provides a dispassionate account cataloguing both the virtues and the flaws of the actors. We can see many of the lessons from the Prince here in historical form, including concrete illustrations of the shifts in government (republic, aristocracy, dictatorship) and detailed analyses of how these came about in Florence time after time.

These history lessons also remind us that reading The Prince is not enough to understand Machiavelli's political analysis. Of one contemptable Duke, who lost his sovereignty in a revolt, Machiavelli says, "he wanted men's service, not his goodwill, and therefore he preferred to be feared rather than loved" (p.110) -- clarifying the advice he famously delivers in his more popular book. As in The Discourses, his many discussions of conspiracies remind us that "in these affairs the number small enough to keep the secret is not sufficient to put it into effect" (p.44) and that long-term conspiracies are always discovered (p.95). He amusingly notes that Florence's government prosecuted fewer wars once a law was passed applying taxes to nobles as well as the popliani. and in passing, he notes that one Pope "had shown himself a wolf and not a shepherd" (p.279). Later, the Pope signed a peace agreement, and died five days later; Machiavelli suggests that it was because "the sorrow of having to make peace killed him" (p.302).

Machiavelli also has lessons for project managers. Here's a story about Niccolo Soderini, who became Gonfalioniere of Justice and manages to screw things up:

Messer Tommaso and Niccolo Soderini were brothers; Niccolo was the more spirited and enterprising of the two, and Tommaso the more sagacious. The latter being a great friend of Piero de? Medici, and knowing at the same time his brother?s disposition, and that he had no other object but the liberty of the city and to establish the government firmly and without injustice to any one, advised him to have no ballotings made, so that the election purses might be filled with the names of citizens devoted to their free institutions; which being done, he would see the government established and confirmed without disturbance or harm to any one. Niccolo readily adopted his brother?s advice, and thus wasted the period of his magistracy in vain efforts, which his friends the conspirators allowed him to do from jealousy, being unwilling that the reform of the government should be effected through the authority of Niccolo, and in the belief that they would yet be in time under another Gonfaloniere. When Niccolo?s magistracy came to an end, it became apparent that he had begun many things, but accomplished none; and thus he left his office with much less honor than he had entered upon it. (pp.233-234).

You gotta manage your projects, Niccolo.

All in all, this book is not just interesting but insightful and easy to read. I had worried that it would be a long slog, but by the end I was disappointed there wasn't more. Maybe I'll pick up the complete version soon.


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