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64 of the 84 surviving letters of Machiavelli are edited and translated by Allan Gilbert in this edition published in 1961. It is a curiously tantalising book in as much as we get only one side of the correspondence. Many of the letters deal with Machiavelli’s thoughts on the political situation that faced Florence under the Medicis after they had been restored to power in 1512 and Machiavelli had been exiled from politics. He is writing as an outsider and while he had met or had intimate knowledge of the major players involved (Kings of France and Spain and the Pope) it all feels a little once removed. His letters are mainly to Francesco Vettori who was still employed by the Florentine government and Francesco Guicciardini who served the Pope in Rome and so it is frustrating not to have sight of their correspondence. A theme of the earlier letters is Machiavelli’s desire to get back into politics and there is a constant feeling that he is trying to prove how useful he could be, later on he seems more resigned to his fate as a watcher from the sidelines and then towards the end of his life when he does get the unenviable position of Procurator of the Walls of Florence he is back into the swing of political business. I say unenviable position because Florence was trying to defend itself from being overrun by the Spanish or the French armies and had to negotiate with the Pope in Rome on how to organise its defensive positions, still Machiavelli was back in business and no doubt relished the task. In one of his final letters to Francesco Vettori Machiavelli says “I love my native city more than my own soul” and from reading his previous correspondence there is no doubt that this is true. In an age of corruption Machiavelli appears as an honest man, he did not profit overmuch from his official government positions and remained relatively poor throughout his life. The letters do of course bring out the human side of his character, his concerns over his family and friends, his advice and encouragement to his children to work hard in order to gain advancement and good practical advice to relatives on how to conduct themselves. Allan Gilbert’s lengthy introduction gives a potted history of the life of Machiavelli, which would be essential reading for anybody coming to his book with little knowledge of its subject.. He also brings out some salient points from the letters on various topics such as: The Mind of a Statesmen and A Poet, Thinking towards the Prince, Florentine Marriages etc. these are useful, but not essential as many readers with some knowledge of the period will be able to pick out these themes for themselves. Had this book been the only available translation of Machiavelli’s letters then it would certainly be essential for anyone interested in the correspondence, it would also serve as useful material for the student or the more casual reader. However there is a more recent book “Machiavelli and his Friends: their personal correspondence, which might suit the enthusiast even more. I think I might be tempted.
Biagio Buonaccorsi a Niccolò Machiavelli
Totto Machiavelli a Niccolò Machiavelli
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