Professor Stephen Milne of the University of Manchester came across the 1513 proclamation which led to the downfall of Niccolò Machiavelli, the famous Renaissance political philosopher, buried in the state archives in Florence.
The ‘most wanted notice’ began a chain of events that led to the writing of The Prince later that same year and marked a change in the civil servant’s political fortunes, eventually resulting in his death 14 years later in abject poverty.
The Prince, infamous for advocating the sacrifice of virtue and morality to maintain power at all costs, has been updated to apply to areas as diverse as banking, finance, business and politics.
Its 500-year anniversary is being celebrated by the city of Florence – beginning with a reconstruction of the events surrounding his capture and imprisonment. A town crier mounted on a horse and armed with a silver trumpet to attract the attention of crowds will make the proclamation at sites across Florence.
By examining hundreds of proclamations between 1470 and 1530, Professor Milner has also mapped the sites within the city where the town crier would have actually read out the proclamation.
His further discoveries have shed light on the payments made to four horsemen who searched the streets for Machiavelli and the cash they received for his capture.
“When I saw it I knew exactly what it was and it was pretty exciting,” said Professor Milner. “When you realise this document marked the fall from grace of one the world’s most influential political writers, it’s quite a feeling.”
He added: “The Prince is a seminal work, with a lasting influence on political thought and culture. The term Machiavellian and the naming of the Devil as ‘Old Nick’ all derive from this single work.
“But the circumstances of its composition have often been overlooked. On the return of the Medici faction to power in 1512, Machiavelli was removed from his post in the city’s Chancery because of his close association with the previous leading citizen and head of the republican government, Piero Soderini.
“When his name was linked to conspiracy to overthrow the Medici, they wasted no time in seeking his capture using the proclamation I discovered. On the same day, he was imprisoned, tortured and later released and placed under house arrest outside the city.
“The Prince was written in the vain hope of gaining favour and employment with the Medici – but there’s no evidence to suggest they even read it.”
James Johnson, associate professor of history at Boston University, adds that it is something of a mystery why Machiavelli wrote The Prince: “Some say he wanted to empower tyrants; others say he listed their crimes the better to expose them. Readers across the ages have found support for all kinds of causes: monarchists, defenders of republics, cynics, idealists, religious zealots, religious skeptics. Whatever its intent, one thing is clear. The book follows its declared purpose fearlessly and without hesitation: to show rulers how to survive in the world as it is and not as it should be.”
Source: University of Manchester