The Annotated Prince - The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli with notes by Gene Gessert

Chapter 26: An Exhortation to Liberate Italy from the Barbarians

Having carefully considered the subject of the above discourses, and wondering within myself whether the present times were propitious to a new prince, and whether there were elements that would give an opportunity to a wise and virtuous one to introduce a new order of things which would do honor to him and good to the people of this country, it appears to me that so many things concur to favor a new prince that I never knew a time more fit than the present.

And if, as I said, it was necessary that the people of Israel should be captive so as to make manifest the ability of Moses; that the Persians should be oppressed by the Medes so as to discover the greatness of the soul of Cyrus; and that the Athenians should be dispersed to illustrate the capabilities of Theseus: then at the present time, in order to discover the virtue of an Italian spirit, it was necessary that Italy should be reduced to the extremity that she is now in, that she should be more enslaved than the Hebrews, more oppressed than the Persians, more scattered than the Athenians; without head, without order, beaten, despoiled, torn, overrun; and to have endured every kind of desolation.

Although lately some spark may have been shown by one, which made us think he was for our redemption, nevertheless it was afterwards seen, in the height of his career, that fortune rejected him; so that Italy, left as without life, waits for him who shall yet heal her wounds and put an end to the ravaging and plundering of Lombardy, to the swindling and taxing of the kingdom and of Tuscany, and cleanse those sores that for long have festered. It is seen how she entreats God to send someone who shall deliver her from these wrongs and barbarous insolences. It is seen also that she is ready and willing to follow a banner if only someone will raise it.

Recall that Machiavelli dedicated The Prince to Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici, Duke of Urbino, whose uncle was Pope Leo X.  This is probably a reference to Cesare Borgia who was supported by Pope Alexander as presumably Lorenzo would be supported by his uncle, the current pope, Leo X.

Nor is there to be seen at present one in whom she can place more hope than in your , with its valor and fortune, favored by God and by the Church of which it is now the chief, and which could be made the head of this redemption. This will not be difficult if you will recall to yourself the actions and lives of the men I have named. And although they were great and wonderful men, yet they were men, and each one of them had no more opportunity than the present offers, for their enterprises were neither more just nor easier than this, nor was God more their friend than He is yours.

The illustrious house is that of the Medici, who have better support in Italy than did Cesare Borgia, since they can claim not only a Pope, Leo X, but also Giulio di Giuliano de' Medici (1478 – 1534) who Leo had just been made a cardinal (in 1513) and who would later become Pope Clement VII (from 1523 to 1534).

With us there is great justice, because that war is just which is necessary, and arms are hallowed when there is no other hope but in them. Here there is the greatest willingness, and where the willingness is great the difficulties cannot be great if you will only follow those men to whom I have directed your attention. Further than this, how extraordinarily the ways of God have been manifested beyond example: the sea is divided, a cloud has led the way, the rock has poured forth water, it has rained manna; everything has contributed to your greatness; you ought to do the rest. God is not willing to do everything, and thus take away our free will and that share of glory which belongs to us.

And it is not to be wondered at if none of the above-named Italians have been able to accomplish all that is expected from your illustrious house; and if in so many revolutions in Italy, and in so many campaigns, it has always appeared as if military virtue were exhausted, this has happened because the old order of things was not good, and none of us have known how to find a new one. And nothing honors a man more than to establish new laws and new ordinances when he himself was newly risen. Such things when they are well founded and dignified will make him revered and admired, and in Italy there are not wanting opportunities to bring such into use in every form.

Here there is great valor in the limbs whilst it fails in the head. Look attentively at the duels and the hand-to-hand combats, how superior the Italians are in strength, dexterity, and subtlety. But when it comes to armies they do not bear comparison, and this springs entirely from the insufficiency of the leaders, since those who are capable are not obedient, and each one seems to himself to know, there having never been any one so distinguished above the rest, either by valor or fortune, that others would yield to him. Hence it is that for so long a time, and during so much fighting in the past twenty years, whenever there has been an army wholly Italian, it has always given a poor account of itself; the first witness to this is .

Here Machiavelli lists battles where Italian forces were defeated.  The incidents often share one of both of two common features which Machiavelli was keen to emphasize:

  • The Italians were faced with powerful national armies that were ineffectively opposed by Italian condottiere.
  • The foreign invaders were assisted by Italian powers who attempted to gain a short term (and short sighted) advantage by entering a coalition with the invaders.

Il Taro is a reference to the river at which the Fornovo di Taro at which the Italian forces of the Holy League clashed with French forces during the Italian War of Charles VIII.  The League was attempting to attack the French as they were retreating after Charles’ conquest of Naples.  The Italians enjoyed a 2-to-1 numerical superiority, but the French managed to make good their retreat, albeit with the loss of their baggage and artillery.

Alessandria refers to the French siege of the city’s fortress in 1499, in the opening action of the French attack on Milan at the beginning of the Italian War of Louis XII. The fortress was thought to be a strong point, but it quickly fell to the French commander, Trivulzio. Its fall forced Milan’s ruler Ludovico Sforza to flee.

Capua refers to the Siege of Capua in July 1501, which was part of the French attack on the Kingdom of Naples in the Italian War of Louis XII.  The French commanders were assisted by Cesare Borgia pursuant to the terms of an agreement with Pope Alexander VI according to which Louis would lend Borgia troops to conquer the Romagna, and Cesare would collaborate in the conquest of Milan and Naples.  Fredric IV attempted to defend Capua, with a force under Fabrizio Colonna but his forces were insufficient without the expected aid of his kinsman Ferdinand II (the Catholic) of Aragon.  Ferdinand withheld aid because he had, under his Treaty of Granada agreement with Louis, agreed to partition the kingdom and retain Capua for himself.  While Colona was negotiating the surrender, the French sacked the town.  Colona then joined the forces of Ferdinand the Catholic.

Genoa refers to the revolt of 1507 against French rule, which Louis XII promptly suppressed.

Vaila refers to the 1509 Battle of Agnadello, which was part of the War of the League of Cambrai in which Louis XII of France was allied with Pope Julius II against Venice.  In this battle Louis’ army defeated one of the squabbling condottiere companies that the Venetians had hired in their defense.  After the battle, the other company deserted and Venice “lost that which in eight hundred years they had acquired with so much trouble. Because from such arms conquests come but slowly, long delayed and inconsiderable, but the losses sudden and portentous.”

Bologna refers to the same incident that Machiavelli cited in Chapter 13 (see not on Ravenna) in connection with Pope Julius’ use of auxiliary troops. Here Machiavelli focuses on the immediate aftermath of the Pope’s attack on Ferrara (1511), which was an incident in the series of wars associated with the League of Cambri, in which Pope Julius II brought France (among others) into Italy in order to snatch the mainland territories of Venice.  However, after weakening Venice, Julius switched sides and allied with Venice to drive out the French.  Then with French troops still in Italy, Julius attacked Ferrara’s fort at Mirandola to punish them for remaining loyal to their French ally.  The French, under Trivulzio, counter attacked and at Casalecchio, defeated the Papal troops, led by Francesco Maria della Rovere, duke of Urbino. Trivulzio then conquered Bologna, where Pope Julius had been awaiting his triumphal entry into Ferrara.  Julius’ flight to Ravenna marked a low point in his career.  

Mestri refers to a (1513) battle in the Holy League phase of the League of Cambri wars in which France and Venice were allied and opposed by the Holy League alliance (the Pope, the Emperor, Ferdinand II and Maximilian Sforza of Milan. This phase of the war was another battle of mercenaries (and auxiliaries). In the course of the battles, League forces burned Mestri.

The notes in this section are from Alvarez p 155 Notes 9 – 15 and the Military History Encyclopedia on the Web

If, therefore, your illustrious house wishes to follow these remarkable men who have redeemed their country, it is necessary before all things, as a true foundation for every enterprise, to be provided with your own forces, because there can be no more faithful, truer, or better soldiers. And although singly they are good, altogether they will be much better when they find themselves commanded by their prince, honored by him, and maintained at his expense. Therefore it is necessary to be prepared with such arms, so that you can be defended against foreigners by Italian valor.

And although Swiss and Spanish infantry may be considered very formidable, nevertheless there is a defect in both, by reason of which a third order would not only be able to oppose them, but might be relied upon to overthrow them. For the Spaniards cannot resist cavalry, and the Swiss are afraid of infantry whenever they encounter them in close combat. Owing to this, as has been and may again be seen, the Spaniards are unable to resist French cavalry, and the Swiss are overthrown by Spanish infantry. And although a complete proof of this latter cannot be shown, nevertheless there was some evidence of it at the battle of Ravenna, when the Spanish infantry were confronted by German battalions, who follow the same tactics as the Swiss; when the Spaniards, by agility of body and with the aid of their shields, got in under the pikes of the Germans and stood out of danger, able to attack, while the Germans stood helpless, and, if the cavalry had not dashed up, all would have been over with them. It is possible, therefore, knowing the defects of both these infantries, to invent a new one, which will resist cavalry and not be afraid of infantry; this need not create a new order of arms, but a variation upon the old. And these are the kind of improvements which confer reputation and power upon a new prince.

This opportunity, therefore, ought not to be allowed to pass for letting Italy at last see her liberator appear. Nor can one express the love with which he would be received in all those provinces which have suffered so much from these foreign scourings, with what thirst for revenge, with what stubborn faith, with what devotion, with what tears. What door would be closed to him? Who would refuse obedience to him? What envy would hinder him? What Italian would refuse him homage? To all of us this barbarous dominion stinks. Let, therefore, your illustrious house take up this charge with that courage and hope with which all just enterprises are undertaken, so that under its standard our native country may be ennobled, and under its auspices may be verified that saying of Petrarch:

Virtu contro al Furore
Prendera l'arme, e fia il combatter corto:
Che l'antico valore
Negli italici cuor non e ancor morto.

Virtue against fury shall advance the fight,
And it i' th' combat soon shall put to flight:
For the old Roman valor is not dead,
Nor in th' Italians' brests extinguished.

Edward Dacre, 1640.

Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici

Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici, Duke of Urbino - looking, in this portrait by Raphael, unlikely to spring into patriotic action in response to Machiavelli’s eloquent lobbying. Attribution: Raphael [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Reasons for Optimism

Machiavelli again addresses this concluding chapter to the prince to whom the book is dedicated, Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici, Duke of Urbino, the nephew of Pope Leo X.  Lorenzo was a new prince and one, like Cesare Borgia, who owes his elevation to fortune rather than his own skill.  As such Lorenzo faces all the difficulties that Machiavelli describes in the first 7 chapters of The Prince.  

Machiavelli again addresses this concluding chapter to the prince to whom the book is dedicated, Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici, Duke of Urbino, the nephew of Pope Leo X.  Lorenzo was a new prince and one, like Cesare Borgia, who owes his elevation to fortune rather than his own skill.  As such Lorenzo faces all the difficulties that Machiavelli describes in the first 7 chapters of The Prince.  
However, recall that, as Machiavelli tells the story, Cesare very nearly succeeded in his attempt to establish a state for himself in the Romagna.  He failed only because his father, Pope Alexander VII, died at a time when Cesare was himself ill.  Alexander’s death cut off Cesare’s financial support and his own incapacity prevented Cesare from reacting to his father’s death as he had planned.  In this chapter, Machiavelli argues that Lorenzo can succeed where Cesare failed, in spite of the inherent difficulties. 

Machiavelli cites reasons for optimism:

  • Lorenzo comes from an illustrious house. With the support of the papacy, Machiavelli could reasonably claim that Lorenzo is better placed than was Cesare Borgia to continue to receive papal support.
  • The invasions of Italy (which started with Charles VIII and Louis XII) have created an opportunity to unite Italy against all outsiders (barbarians).  This point refers back to Machiavelli’s remark in in Chapter 6 that to do great works, fortune must first present the prince with an unusual opportunity. #moses
  • Lorenzo is likely to enjoy popular support because the cause of expelling the barbarians is so manifestly just and therefore obviously, desired by all Italians.
  • He can remedy the main weakness that caused of former Italian princes to lose their states, the use of mercenaries and auxiliaries – the evils of which Machiavelli has pointed out throughout the book starting with Chapter 9 and Chapter 12.

Finally, Machiavelli resumes the flattery and emotional appeal, which he began in the Dedication and that he hopes will prompt Lorenzo to selfless nationalism or at least a quest for personal glory. 

His effort to move Lorenzo failed, but in the attempt, Machiavelli has left us with a ground breaking work of political science.