From Taboo to Treasure: Niccolò Machiavelli in Santa Croce

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©Archivio dell’Opera di Santa Croce/Arrigo Coppitz

Dubbed the “Temple of Italian Glories,” Santa Croce shelters a pantheon of “secular saints.” These civic legends, like their divine counterparts, endured trials for the sake of humankind, and now eternally inhabit a special place in our hearts and minds. One such figure is Niccolò Machiavelli, who suffered tribulations during his prolific life and then again in death. After tirelessly contributing to his hometown of Florence, Machiavelli was buried in Santa Croce and left uncelebrated for over 250 years. Time would resurrect his memory, and Innocenzo Spinazzi’s 1787 monument to Machiavelli in the church offers inspiring evidence of this awakening. The memorial not only testifies to an important chapter in Florentine history, it also embodies a central idea of the Opera di Santa Croce: honoring our universal heritage.

Santi di Tito, Portrait of Niccolo Machiavelli, late 16th century, Palazzo Vecchio.

Born in 1469, Machiavelli’s personal history, like that of his native Florence, was entangled with the political fortunes of the Medici. His most successful and productive period came after their expulsion and the subsequent execution of the Dominican friar turned theocrat, Girolamo Savonarola. In 1498, he was appointed the second chancery of the reestablished Republic and elected secretary of the Ten of War, which was responsible for diplomacy and warfare. During his fourteen-year tenure, Machiavelli embarked on more than forty diplomatic missions and published numerous works, including Discourse about the Provision of Money and the poem The Second Decade. Distrustful of commonly-used mercenaries, he additionally organized a citizen army, which ultimately failed to thwart the Medici’s return in 1512.

This seismic political shift stripped Machiavelli of his offices. Charged with conspiring against the Medici in 1513, he was imprisoned and tortured. After two weeks of incarceration, an unexpected shift in allegiances occurred. Desperate to change his circumstances, Machiavelli penned a pair of sonnets to the “Magnificent” Giuliano de’ Medici, the last son of Lorenzo the Magnificent and current ruler of Florence. Whether by luck or his own compelling words, Machiavelli was released. Subsequently, he withdrew from public life and stole to his family farm just south of Florence. From his solitude, he wrote his friend Francesco Vettori expressing his unwavering dedication to politics, despite his circumstances:

When evening comes, I return home and enter my study. . . . and put on the garments of court and palace. . . . I step inside the venerable courts of the ancients. . . . where I am unashamed to converse with them and to question them about the motives for their actions. . . . And for four hours at a time I feel no boredom, I forget all my troubles, I do not dread poverty, and I am not terrified by death. . . . I have jotted down what I have profited from in their conversation and composed a short study, De principatibus [later titled The Prince]. . . . I am dedicating it to His Magnificence Giuliano.

Love for politics and Florence drew Machiavelli back to the city in 1520. Now under Medicean patronage (initially Pope Leo X and then Pope Clement VII), he was commissioned to produce his final great – and longest – work, the eight-volume Florentine Histories. Aware of the hand that fed him, he produced a diplomatic version of Florentine history and the role the Medici had played. He ends his saga with the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1492.

Machiavelli received various appointments and favors under the reinstated Medici. However, after the family was deposed a second time in 1527, Machiavelli’s recent affiliations with the family left a black spot on his record, hindering any chance of advancement under Republican rule. Tragically, within weeks of the Republic’s restoration, Machiavelli died on June 21, 1527 at age 58. The next day, he was interred without honors in his family tomb in Santa Croce. Unfortunately, the exact location of this burial has been lost to history as many of the family tombs were destroyed during the renovations by Giorgio Vasari starting in 1566. 

His complex relationship with the Medici, suspected atheism, and “Machiavellian” political proposals rendered Machiavelli’s name taboo for over 250 years. The 1664 “Index of Forbidden Books” provided another nail in the coffin, when the Catholic Church banned his works. Nonetheless, a smattering of seventeenth-century scholars and librarians began to foster the nascent study of his forbidden texts. However, disseminating his works still posed a risk, so false frontispieces masked publications in Italy.

Anton Raphael Mengs, Leopoldo de Lorena, gran duque de Toscana, 1770, Museo del Prado.

The eighteenth-century Age of Enlightenment rehabilitated Machiavelli’s reputation and legacy. This resurrection took place largely under the reign of Pietro Leopold, Grand Duke of Tuscany from 1765 to 1790. In many ways, Pietro Leopold himself was a product of the Enlightenment and a champion of reform. He was the first modern ruler to ban the death penalty and he also greatly reduced censorship. Under his rule, Florence became increasingly popular with wealthy tourists on their Grand Tour. One such foreigner was Englishman George Nassau Clavering-Cowper, 3rd Earl of Cowper, the man ultimately responsible for the resurgence of Machiavelli and the erection of the Santa Croce monument.

Workshop of Johann Zoffany, George Nassau Clavering, 3rd Earl of Cowper (1738-1789), Florence Beyond, private collection.

After visiting Florence in 1759, Cowper decided to remain in the city, where he became an avid art collector (two Madonnas by Raphael still carry his name, both currently in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C). Cowper himself was greatly interested in Machiavelli, and the Anglo-Florentine funded a complete edition of his works in 1782. Devoted to the memory of Machiavelli, Cowper also wanted him to have a proper memorial. There was, however, the ever-looming problem of Machiavelli’s atheist sentiments, and Rome obstructed the project. An ancestor of Machiavelli, Scipione de’ Ricci – the Bishop of Pistoia – intervened. He claimed that Machiavelli had received last rites prior to his death and was a faithful Christian, thus making him eligible for commemoration in the church. With this, the enterprise won papal approval

Santa Croce had long been a place of burial, with many people laid to rest beneath its floor. The richest had the honor of securing tomb slabs and at one point, over a thousand adorned the church’s pavement. Starting in the fifteenth century, with sepulchers for Leonardo Bruni and Carlo Marsuppini, Santa Croce began erecting large monuments for secular exemplars of Florentine virtue. Machiavelli’s continues in this direction of elaborate humanist-tombs. Interestingly, the belated monument to this once persona-non-grata was funded completely by public donations. As such, it eternally echoes the interests of eighteenth-century Florence, whose citizens felt the wave of intellectual change.

The structure is not only a monument to the clarifying atmosphere of the Enlightenment, but is also a harbinger of a future unifying spirit. A passage from The Prince succinctly foreshadows Italy’s unification during the Risorgimento (1815 – 1871):

Italy, after so many years, must welcome its liberator…The love with which these lands that have suffered a flood of foreign armies will receive him will be boundless, as will be their thirst for vengeance, iron loyalty, their devotion and tears. All doors will be flung open. What populace would not embrace such a leader?

In short, the Santa Croce monument immortalizes Machiavelli’s unfailing interest in and contributions to Italian politics and history.

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©Archivio dell’Opera di Santa Croce/Arrigo Coppitz

Designed by Alberto Rombotti and sculpted by Innocenzo Spinazzi, a personification of Politica sits vigil atop the structure. The enchanting woman tilts a portrait of Machiavelli to viewers with her right hand. The large books she sits on represent his many written works while attributes of his work– scales, sword, and scroll – appear at her side. Although the precise interpretation of the objects remain conjectural, they no doubt embody the spirit of the Latin inscription below: “For so Great a Name, no Equal Eulogy: Niccolò Machiavelli.”

The monument to Machiavelli – promoted by an Anglo-Florentine, paid for by the public, and visited by all – offers stirring testimony to our universal heritage. Resurrected from the forgotten depths of history, Machiavelli is now a household name and gloriously dwells with the basilica’s constellation of legends. Nearly 500 years after his death, visitors react with familiarity and excitement when  encountering his newly-restored memorial. Although born Florentine, Machiavelli now truly belongs to the world.

Guest Blogger: Clara Shaw is a rising senior at Mount Holyoke College, fresh from a semester abroad in Siena, Italy. She is majoring in Art History and minoring in Museum Studies.


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