Machiavelli’s Art of War: A Reconsideration

Machiavelli’s Art of War: A Reconsideration

By Marcia L. Colish

Renaissance Quarterly, Vol.51 (1998)

Introduction: Among Niccolo Machiavelli’s works, the Art of War (published 1521) has received comparatively little scholarly attention. Students of Renaissance literature, finding its theme otiose, content themselves with labeling it a “catechetical” dialogue, one in which one interlocutor is the central speaker while secondary speakers merely keep the conversation going. Scholars have also placed the Art of War in the tradition of such Ciceronian dialogues as De legibus, De finibus, Brutus, De partitione oratoria, and Paradoxa Stoicorum, since the speakers are all contemporaries of the author and figures with views well known to the dialogue’s audience. The fact that the Art of War is set in the Rucellai gardens, it has been noted, evokes the garden setting of Cicero’s De natura deorum and the more recent Paradiso degli’ Alberti of Leone Battista Alberti. Also noted is the influence of Platonic dialogue technique in Machiavelli’s shift from narrative to dramatic dialogue, paralleling his shifts from description or analysis to quotation in his field reports to the Florentine government as a civil servant.

As for historians and students of Machiavelli’s political theory, they have generally confined their attention to tracking his sources among the classical historians and earlier humanists. Observing that he displays in this work the humanist’s propensity for a selective and ad hoc use of sources, some have also pointed out that Machiavelli’s message in the Art of War-his familiar call for the imitation of ancient military institutions, the praise of the citizen militia, and the critique of mercenary troops-reveals his lack of realism and his failure to acknowledge the military technologies, arrangements, and outcomes prevalent in his own day. This latter point has been amply confirmed by historians specializing in Renaissance military history. The unconvincing argument that the work anticipates modern mathematically based game theory has also been offered.

But there is more to the Art of War than that. It is remarkable that so little attention has been directed to the central anomaly of the Art of War. the principal interlocutor in the dialogue is Fabrizio Colonna (1450/60-1520). Presented as the chief exponent of Machiavelli’s military desiderata, he was a member of a distinguished aristocratic Roman family who shared with numerous relatives, past and present, the profession of condottiere. He, and they, were mercenary captains in the employ of the Aragonese kings of Naples, the papacy, Ferdinand of Aragon, the French, and, occasionally, the Florentines. Indeed, so important was Fabrizio’s personal service to the house of Aragon that Michael Mallett, the foremost military historian of Renaissance Italy, gives him more credit than any other captain for the success of Spanish arms in Italy  the same Spanish arms that brought Medici rule back to Florence in 1512, ending the republic led by Piero Soderini in which Machiavelli had made his political career. In the early years of the sixteenth century, Colonna condottieri figured heavily in the reconstruction of Florence’s defenses, the plan for which Machiavelli drafted; he was also instructed by the Dieci di Balii to negotiate with them in his legations to Rome and did so. Following the collapse of the Soderini republic, Colonna condottieri continued to serve both the popes, the Aragonese, the Holy Roman Emperors, and the Florentines. They remained on excellent terms with the Soderini family. Why, therefore, would Machiavelli place an argument in defense of citizen militias over and against mercenaries in the mouth of a mercenary captain? And, given that there were other noteworthy members of that profession who had worked for Florence, including some of Fabrizio’s own relatives (not to mention scions of other families), why choose Fabrizio as the vehicle for Machiavelli’s military opinions, none of which Fabrizio espoused either in theory or practice?

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