Sarah Dunant

Machiavelli: The Horrors of 16th Century Diplomacy

 

All through the autumn of 1502 Niccolò Machiavelli has been shadowing Cesare Borgia as he fights off a major rebellion and gets ready to fight back. There have been times when the Duke has taken the Florentine diplomat into a kind of confidence. But not any more…

Niccolo MachiavelliWinter descends, bringing wind and icy rain. But it is the drop in diplomatic temperature that makes his life particularly inhospitable. The Duke has no use for Florence any more and so he is cast adrift. Were their roles reversed Machiavelli knows he would have done the same thing.

But it is not just Florence that is ignored. In the city of Iola, Cesare Borgia seems to have gone off the diplomatic game altogether. Instead he has returned to his old habit of inverting night and day, so that the only time to see him is when everyone else is in bed. There are rumours of alternating lethargy and tantrums, even a re-occurrence of the agonies of the pox. But all is conjecture.

‘You must remember that we deal with a prince who governs by himself,’ Niccolò writes home, not without certain bitterness. ‘So do not impute it to negligence if I do not satisfy you with more information, because for most of the time I do not even satisfy myself.’

There is no satisfaction to be had anywhere else either. Two months of a billeted army has eaten the city and its neighbouring land down to stalks and scrag ends. There is barely a cask of decent wine to be found and a clean woman would demand more money than he could raise, and even then she would probably be lying. He finds himself missing Marietta more than he might like to admit. But there is no solace to be gained there: from loving letters, through impatient ones – ‘you promise a few weeks and already you are gone for months,’ - she has now fallen into petulant silence, though it seems she is shouting loud enough to anyone else who will listen.

‘She misses you, Niccolò, that much is clear, though she has a strange way of showing it.’ Biagio writes. He can almost see his friend blowing on his fingers to show the heat of her anger. ‘I’ve done what I can. For God’s sake send her funds or a present of some kind to keep her sweet.’

Except he has nothing to send. He has eaten up each month’s wages and expenses before they arrive and his requests for more money are ignored. Who would be a diplomat from a modest family in Italy? Influenza stalks the city and he shivers under thin blankets as water dribbles down the inside of the walls. He finds himself thinking about his life up until now. Remembering youthful conversations with his father about the importance of a man serving the city he loves. And he had been educated to do just that. But instead, Florence had fallen under the sway of a zealot who believed that God had sent him to create the kingdom of heaven on earth. No dancing, no gambling, no fornication and worst of all, no words worth reading but the words of God. Niccolò had sinned enough during those years for a lifetime of penances, and he wasn’t the only one. By the time a new government needed new faces, he was something of an expert in human nature; both in the past and the present. But he was no longer a young man. At twenty-nine, he had had some catching up to do. And now at thirty-three he feels it even more intensely. In late November, with no more intelligence to be gleaned, and even if there was, no money to get it, he asks be recalled. The council have made their decision and he can do no more. ‘If it goes on like this you will be bringing me back in a casket.’

It does no good. His request is refused. Niccolò Machiavelli is far too good at his job to be allowed home. That night he takes himself to a tavern where he knows that other, richer envoys like to congregate to bitch about the hardships of diplomatic living. Next morning he wakes to blinding headache and the satisfaction of knowing that no one except Cesare Borgia himself has a clue what his next move will be.

This extract from In The Name of the Family: A Novel of Machiavelli and the Borgias

Finding Mrs Machiavelli

Finding Mrs Machiavelli: though there are times when I see her more like this, And hear her voice…

Imagining Mrs MachiavelliShe has given it thought over the time he has been away, how to handle this young marriage of hers. She knows that complaint is not the way. But here she is complaining. How do other wives do it? Of course, gossip has trickled through to her – how could it not? – about the life this big brained husband of hers leads.

One night, when she was missing him, she had made the mistake of going through the papers in his desk. No snoop ever read well of themselves. But she had read nothing. Amid pages of notes she does not understand about everything in nature living, dying and being reborn without the need of any God, and the endless power of Fortuna, she finds a poem written in her husband’s hand celebrating love like a bolt of lightning, passionate yearning words addressed it seems to every women rather than his wife. She who shares his bed and will mother his children is left outside when he steps inside his mind. She is angry with herself for expecting more. Such is the punishment for a woman who falls in love with her own husband. ‘

Outside, an owl hoots like a mournful ghost. Soon enough he will be packing his bag again and heading back into the maelstrom of politics. In his own way she knows he will miss her.

‘Permanent envoy? How long will you be away?’

‘Oh, not that long,’ he lies smoothly, for why find trouble before it finds him. ‘It is a great an honour for the family.’

‘You don’t have to tell me that, Niccolò. I am not a child.’

She turns to him now, opening her shift to let her breasts spill out. While there are prettier, certainly easier women in his life, with one’s eyes closed their breasts are no fuller or no smoother than hers.
‘So,’ she says softly. ‘Give me something to remember you with. With a little Fortuna – ’ and she smiles at herself for the use of the word; snooping has its uses – ‘it will be a boy, as ugly as you with the same moleskin of hair. That way when I stroke his head I will miss you less.’

Niccolò Machiavelli, permanent envoy and valued and honoured servant of the Republic. He thinks of his father, how proud it would have made him, and how much he would have relished holding a grandson in his arms, and his prick rises effortlessly to meet the softness of a wife who smells almost as good as a mistress in bed.

This extract from In The Name of the Family: A Novel of Machiavelli and the Borgias

Machiavelli on the Job

“The Prince” will make him famous, but for many long years Niccolò Machiavelli was just another junior diplomat on the job. It is the beauty of fiction that following him into the doldrums can sometimes be as rewarding as his watching his triumphs…

In November 1502, he is stranded in Imola waiting on the highly secretive Cesare Borgia, who has stopped talking to anyone…

Niccolo MachiavelliCesare Borgia

The Borgia Duke seems to have gone off the diplomatic game altogether. Instead he has returned to his old habit of inverting night and day, so that the only time to see him is when everyone else is in bed. There are rumours of alternating lethargy and tantrums, even a re-occurrence of the agonies of the pox. But all is conjecture.

‘You must remember that we deal with a prince who governs by himself,’ Niccolò writes to his masters in Florence. ‘So do not impute it to negligence if I do not satisfy you with more information, because for most of the time I do not even satisfy myself.’

There is no satisfaction to be had anywhere else either. Two months of a billeted army has eaten the city and its neighbouring land down to stalks and scrag ends. There is barely a cask of decent wine to be found and a clean woman would demand more money than he could raise, and even then she would probably be lying. He finds himself missing Marietta more than he might like to admit. But there is no solace to be gained there: from loving letters, through impatient ones – ‘you promise a few weeks and already you are gone for months’ - she has now fallen into petulant silence, though it seems she is shouting loud enough to anyone else who will listen.

‘She misses you, Niccolò, that much is clear, though she has a strange way of showing it.’ Biagio writes. He can almost see his friend blowing on his fingers to show the heat of her anger. ‘I’ve done what I can. For God’s sake send her funds or a present of some kind to keep her sweet.’

Except he has nothing to send. He has eaten up each month wages and expenses before they arrive and his requests for more money are ignored. Who would be a diplomat from a modest family in Italy? Influenza stalks the city and he shivers under thin blankets as water dribbles down the inside of the walls. He finds himself thinking about his life up until now, remembering youthful conversations with his father about the importance of a man serving the city he loves. And he had been educated to do just that. But instead, Florence had fallen under the sway of a zealot who believed that God had sent him to create the kingdom of heaven on earth. No dancing, no gambling, no fornication and worst of all, no words worth reading but the words of God. Niccolò had sinned enough during those years for a lifetime of penances, and he wasn’t the only one. By the time a new government needed new faces, he was something of an expert in human nature; both in the past and the present. But he was no longer a young man. At twenty-nine, he had had some catching up to do. And now at thirty-three he feels it even more intensely.

With no more intelligence to be gleaned, and even if there was, no money to get it, he asks be recalled. The council have made their decision and he can do no more. ‘If it goes on like this you will be bringing me back in a casket.’

This extract from In The Name of the Family: A Novel of Machiavelli and the Borgias

Machiavelli and his wife

In June 1502, a young Niccolo Machiavelli, is dispatched from Florence to negotiate with the thuggish Cesare Borgia who has just scandalised Italy by invading the state of Urbino. History will report their meeting, but say nothing about the leaving of his new young wife in their house on the south side of the Arno.

And yet it must have happened…

Niccolò Machiavelli and his wife as she might have looked

Niccolò Machiavelli and his wife as she might have looked

‘I should have known sooner. How can I get everything ready so fast?’

‘You knew as soon I did, Marietta. There is nothing to upset yourself over. I will not be away long.’

‘What do you mean? You may never come back!’

Through the open windows on the Via Guicciardini, there is the muted rubble of carts as the city closes up for the night.

‘What if this Borgia monster kills you or takes you hostage?’

‘Wife, you have no understanding of such things. Nothing will happen to me. My fellow diplomat is Bishop Soderini.’

‘A bishop? That won’t stop him. They say that the Pope poisons bishops and cardinals every day to get his hands on their money.’

‘You listen to too much street talk,’ he says laughing.

‘Well, what else is there to do? My husband is never here and when he is he never tells me anything,’ she mutters with a touch of petulance in her voice; their marriage is young enough to accommodate a little sparing.

‘The city is in crisis. I have been working.’

‘Where? In the ale house?’

‘It is your own vinegar and rosemary that you can smell on my breath.’

‘Yes, that’s what I mean.’

While she is no great beauty, when her spirit is up her eyes glint and her cheeks flush. Some weeks before, an early pregnancy had been washed away in a blood tide, and though she had coped well enough – a woman’s life, she had informed him, is full of such wounds which men can never comprehend – it is clear that this news of his has upset her more than she would chose to show. He should be more solicitous, but the anticipation of his journey has wiped such matters from his mind.

‘Well, I have done my best with your shirts,’ she says looking up from the bundle of clothes on the table. ‘See – these two have new collars and there is a change of doublets, both clean and pressed. Of course it’s not enough. But at least this way if this godless Duke sticks a knife in your back it is only old velvet he’ll be ruining – and before you say again that nothing will happen to you, what about those brothers that were fished out of the river in Rome? That wasn’t street gossip. They were the rulers of… well… wherever it was –‘

‘Faenza. But they no longer ruled. The city was in Borgia hands. Their death was inevitable.’

‘Niccolò!’

‘What? You want me to talk to you about what is happening.  No duke can afford to have rival families left for opposition to graft itself onto. I am telling you how men are, Marietta, not how you might like them to be.’

‘Then you all are equally godless and if only women kept their legs closed there would be fewer of you,’ she says, primly committed in her disapproval. ‘Sometimes I think I should have married that apothecary from Impruneta. He had a good business you know. And I could have been of use to him.’

‘What, making rat poisons and poultices for old men’s gout? You would have shrivelled up with boredom.’

She grunts. The truth is Marietta Machiavelli is not sure how far her husband’s unorthodox views offend her, for just as he seems to enjoy voicing what others might think but never say, so she has found a role being the foil for them. It is better to have him talking than always living in his head. And not just in his own. There have been dinners where the table has felt crowded and there is no one but the two of them sitting there.

She pushes the last of his clothes down into the small travelling bag, ties a leather belt over it and drops the bag onto the floor where it hits a metal cooking pan, waking the dog, whose bark then disturbs the goose so that the house is suddenly full of yapping and honking.

He laughs. He would give odds against any robber who tried his luck while he was away. If she had her own troops Cesare Borgia would probably be buying his wife into his service. Marriage. When he has the time to think about it he would probably say that he could have done worse. God knows he could not have borne a stupid or docile wife.

‘Here,’ she says holding out something in her hand. ‘Perhaps you will do me the favour, husband to wife, of wearing this?’

‘What is it?

‘The badge of St Anthony. Attach it prominently to your hat when you are on the road.’

‘Marietta! I am not a pilgrim –‘

‘Would that you were! Then the Saint will protect you.’

‘What? Even from a godless prince?’

This extract from In The Name of the Family: A Novel of Machiavelli and the Borgias