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The Cousin and the Maidservant: A Florentine Scandal

Bernardo Machiavelli wants us to know that his cousin Niccolò d’Alessandro Machiavelli was a terrible jerk.

By the late Middle Ages, Italian merchants would regularly keep records of their business transactions, and some of them would even keep diaries and memoirs. These would usually be concerned with their businesses, but you can also find entries related to their family lives or the larger political events of the time.

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Bernardo Machiavelli was one such merchant. He lived in Florence in the fifteenth century running various businesses, including being a bookseller. His diary or Libro di Ricordi survives for the years 1474 to 1487. While most of his entries were relatively short, he devotes several pages to an event that happened in 1475.

Bernardo states that he began writing this account on November 17, 1475, and that it all began on October 25 when he returned to Florence after a trip to the countryside. His wife Bartolomea Nelli revealed to him that she suspected that Nencia di Larezino, their maidservant, was pregnant – she had seen “certain signs.”

Florence, Italy – photo by seth m /Flickr

Bernardo replied by telling his wife “to question the girl, and in one way or another, by threats or blandishments, to find out the truth.” Later on that evening, Bartolomea told him that she had found out the truth – Nencia was pregnant and the father was Niccolò d’Alessandro Machiavelli, the 26-year-old cousin and next-door neighbor of Bernardo. Nencia revealed that they had been sleeping together for almost a year:

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She had gone out at night many times through the window onto the roof or though the little window near the fireplace in the kitchen to Niccolò’s house to be with him, especially during the time that my wife had been big with child, and after she gave birth; and that last May and June, when Niccolò’s wife had been ill, Niccolò had come in many times through the little window and had his way with her on the hearth in the kitchen.

At first Bernardo did not believe her, since Niccolò “had a young, pretty wife.” Bernardo’s next move was to go out to find Giovanni Nelli, his brother-in-law and the man who had originally sent Nencia to work for him. In fact, Nencia’s own mother was working as a servant for Giovanni. He told him of the situation, and together they questioned Nencia. She repeated her story, adding that she and Niccolò were having sex two or three times each week. He had even promised to give her a coat and a wool dress. At this point Bernardo wanted to have his maidservant sent back to her family, but Giovanni convinced him to wait and find out Niccolò’s side of the story.

On October 28, Bernardo finally found Niccolò on the streets of Florence, and he immediately told him he had to talk about Nencia’s accusation. Niccolò denied that he was sleeping with the maidservant; instead he said that it was his friend Francesco Agata who was the real father. According to Niccolò, it was Agata that was staying in his house when Nencia came over, and that his only fault was not telling Bernardo about it earlier. Our writer clearly had some skepticism about this story, as he knew Agata himself, “who was often with me both here in Florence and in the country.” Bernardo continued to upbraid his cousin, and Niccolò responded by saying it was late and he had to leave the city before the gates closed.

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A 15th-century Florentine painting

A couple of days later, Bernardo came across Niccolò at the palazzo near the Ponte Vecchio. This time Niccolò had a new story for his cousin on how this whole affair had started. According to Bernardo, here is what Niccolò said:

“I hadn’t seen you again, but now I want to tell you why I never told you about Nencia and Agata. As you know, Francesco Agata lives in the same house with Doctor Raffaello; please don’t say anything about what I’m going to tell you to the doctor. Francesco had a pretty girl in his household whom I wanted for my own pleasure, and Francesco acted as a go-between for me. So since he had done me that favour, I went along with what he was doing with Nencia.”

Niccolò added that his own affair had caused a “devil of a fuss” but he had settled it, and that was why he had not told Bernardo the truth earlier. One wishes they could have seen the look on Bernardo’s face as he heard this tale, but at least we have his response:

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I replied that this was a nice alibi, and that the girl was telling a different story – that he himself was the father; and that if things were really as he said they were I was even more offended, for he had dared to act as a pimp for Agata with my maid servants and to turn my house into a bordello with people coming and going at all hours of the night.

Bernardo Machiavelli was clearly upset with this whole affair. He wanted to have Nencia leave his house and be returned to her family, but he also knew that if the scandal got out this would hurt the honor of Giovanni Nelli, nor would it be very good for himself either. Moreover, there could be some danger if Nencia’s relatives wanted to avenge her. Therefore, the best plan for them was to send Nencia to some place where she could have the child in secret, and then have her married off.

La donna gravida (The Pregnant Woman), by Raphael

With all the parties wanting to avoid a “big scandal, which might come out if the girl’s father found out,” Niccolò agreed to talk with Francesco Agata and convince him to give 25 florins into a dowry for Nencia so that she could get married once the baby was born. Niccolò again laid the blame for this entire affair on Agata.

A few days later, Niccolò came to Bernardo’s country home, where they had another talk. This time, Niccolò revealed that he had not talked with Francesco Agata. Bernardo writes:

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He decided not to say anything to Agata, because he knew that he was hare-brained and that it would have been a waste of time to say anything to him. So Nic- colò had decided that he would rather bear the brunt himself, since he had done so wrong never to have told me about the sin that Nencia and Francesco Agata were committing together. He said that now he wanted to do what Giovanni Nelli and I told him to do, and begged me to tell my wife not to say anything to his wife about it.

The next week, Bernardo, Giovanni, and Niccolò all met in Giovanni’s shop and finalized an agreement. Niccolò was going to pay Giovanni one hundred lire, which would be used as dowry for Nencia to help her get married. Meanwhile, Bernardo had four years earlier created an account for Nencia at Monte delle Doti to the so-called Dowry Bank, which had been set up in Florence to deposit money for young women. Over the years Bernardo had deposited over four florins into that account, and he wanted that money back. Once Nencia was married, Niccolò would go to the Monte delle Doti and withdraw that money, and then would hand that amount back to Bernardo. The agreement would be kept secret between the three men, and Bernardo wrote up with his own hand three copies for each of them to keep.

A little less than a week later, the entire affair had been settled. The final section in Bernardo’s account runs like this:

I hereby record that yesterday, which was Saturday the 18th of the present month of November 1475, in the evening Giovanni Nelli came to me and told me that that same evening he and Niccolò Machiavelli had been to see Monna Lisa, the midwife who lives at the Croce a Trebio in Florence, and that they had arranged to take Lorenza, otherwise known as Nencia di Lazarino, the girl who serves in my house, to her this morning, and that Monna Lisa had promised them that she would keep her until she gives birth. Niccolò had promised to give her five lire every month, and he had given her a florin in advance. So this morning, a little before the 14th hour, Giovanni took Nencia to Monna Lisa’s house and my wife let Nencia take all her shifts, handkerchiefs, and other linen. So Nencia left my house and went with Giovanni this morning, the 19th of November. Later Giovanni dined with me and told me that he had taken Nencia and left her with Monna Lisa. And for clarity’s sake I have recorded it on this 19th of November.

The story of this affair is a fascinating one, just for the simple fact that it was meant to be kept a secret, but that Bernardo had decided to record it – in great detail – in his own diary. One might think that he wanted to make sure that his family knew about it, and perhaps even make it known for posterity. Perhaps he just wanted to let us know that his cousin Niccolò was a scumbag. For indeed, the way Bernardo writes reveals that he never really believed that Agata was the father, but that it was in fact Niccolò – the latter certainly comes across as duplicitous, even twice begging Bernardo that this news of this affair wouldn’t get out.

To modern eyes, Bernardo does not come off too well either. Once he knows that Nencia is pregnant, he just wants to throw her out of his home, and the agreement he signs at the end gets him back the money he had invested in her dowry. He seems to have little compassion for Nencia, who has been in his home for several years.

What essentially we are reading here is how three men – Bernardo, Niccolò, and Giovanni – are making sure their honor and reputations are not tarnished, and that the “problem” of this maidservant is swept under the rug. It is probably just one of many such stories that happened in a city such as Florence during the Middle Ages.

You can read Bernardo’s account in Merchant Writers: Florentine Memoirs from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, by Vittore Branca, translated by Murtha Baca. It was published by the University of Toronto Press in 2015.

With a name like Machiavelli, and given that this tale takes place in late fifteenth-century Florence, one might wonder if there is any connection to the famous writer Niccolò Machiavelli. Yes, there is! Niccolò was Bernardo’s son, and there are some entries in the father’s diary are about the young Niccolò and his education. For example, this was written when the boy was seven years old:

I record that on this 6th day of May 1476, my son Niccolò began to go to Maestro Matteo, the grammar master who lives at the foot of his side of the Santa Trinita bridge, to learn to read the Donatello.

Top Image: Detail from the Banquet of Herold, painted by the 15th-century Florentine artist Fra Filippo Lippi.

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