ALL HAIL ‘THE PRINCE’ Ital­ian Em­bassy hosts ex­hibit on Machi­avelli’s sig­na­ture work

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY ROLAND FLAMINI

be­come aware of the ne­ces­sity of mak­ing ag­o­niz­ing choices be­tween in­com­pat­i­ble al­ter­na­tives in pub­lic and pri­vate life.”

For ex­am­ple, Machi­avelli writes that “it is de­sir­able to be loved and feared, but it is dif­fi­cult to achieve both, and if one of them has to be lack­ing it is much safer to be feared than loved.”

He also said, “The prom­ise given was a ne­ces­sity of the past — the word bro­ken is a ne­ces­sity of the present.”

A diplo­mat, philoso­pher, play­wright and poet, Machi­avelli wrote “The Prince” while un­der house ar­rest. He had oc­cu­pied high of­fice when his na­tive Florence was a repub­lic, but lost his post and his per­sonal free­dom when the Medici fam­ily was re­stored to power as rulers of the Re­nais­sance city state. He ded­i­cated his most fa­mous work to Lorenzo de Medici, it is said, in the hope of fur­ther em­ploy­ment.

As a job ap­pli­ca­tion it failed: Machi­avelli didn’t find em­ploy­ment with the pow­er­ful Medi­cis. But “The Prince” be­came the most fa­mous book in the Ital­ian lan­guage and the most widely trans­lated. (The sec­ond in the trans­la­tion cat­e­gory is Carlo Col­lodi’s “Pinoc­chio.”)

To­day, “The Prince” is avail­able in prac­ti­cally all the lan­guages of the world, and some of the for­eign ver­sions are in the ex­hi­bi­tion — as are some of the fakes, apoc­ryphal ver­sions, pla­gia­risms and re­worked ver­sions that it has at­tracted.

The au­thor’s orig­i­nal manuscript has been lost, but this com­pact and slightly quirky ex­hi­bi­tion does in­clude one of the 19 ex­ist­ing hand­writ­ten copies of the work — all of them scat­tered among lead­ing li­braries around the world. (The one on dis­play comes from the Au­gusta Li­brary in Peru­gia, Italy.)

The ex­hi­bi­tion — orig­i­nally mounted in Italy ear­lier this year to mark the fifth cen­te­nary of the book’s pub­li­ca­tion — in­cludes the most fa­mous por­trait of Machi­avelli. Painted by An­to­nio Maria Crespi, known as “il Bustino,” it shows him in pro­file, star­ing gravely out of the frame against a dark, fea­ture­less back­ground which, like the ex­hi­bi­tion it­self, sheds no light on the au­thor’s in­ten­tions in writ­ing the work.

In its day, it at­tracted at­ten­tion as a rad­i­cally new ap­proach to po­lit­i­cal thought, both be­cause of its sim­ple, forth­right lan­guage and the ab­sence of the usual def­er­ence in dis­cussing fig­ures in au­thor­ity.

In 1559, “The Prince” was con­demned by the Catholic Church and, to­gether with all the au­thor’s works, put on the in­fa­mous In­dex of Pro­hib­ited Works. The ban has never been re­voked. The of­fi­cial rea­son for the ban was that Machi­avelli had con­tra­vened a new pa­pal ban on books writ­ten in the ver­nac­u­lar in­stead of in Latin, but church au­thor­i­ties doubt­less saw it as ir­rev­er­ence to­ward au­thor­ity.

The ban trans­formed it into an un­der­ground best-seller. Sales jumped, de­spite the risk of seizure, fines or ar­rest.

In their in­tro­duc­tion to the ex­hi­bi­tion, Ital­ian schol­ars and ex­hibit cu­ra­tors Alessan­dro Campi and Marco Pizzo call the book “an ar­chae­ol­ogy of power, con­ducted with such pre­ci­sion and free­dom of judg­ment that it can of­fer ar­gu­ments and prac­ti­cal sug­ges­tions to ei­ther po­ten­tial tyrants or de­fend­ers of free­dom” — hence its en­dur­ing ap­peal through the ages. But they add that it can also be seen as “a disen­chanted dis­ser­ta­tion on hu­man na­ture,” in other words, the cyn­i­cal work of a dis­ap­pointed man who had seen it all, but was now a po­lit­i­cal out­sider.

The cyn­i­cism or ir­rev­er­ence ex­tends to the ex­hi­bi­tion it­self, which has not shrunk from in­clud­ing ex­am­ples of how Nic­colo Machi­avelli has been sub­jected to the same triv­i­al­iza­tion as any 21st cen­tury celebrity. One dis­play case in­cludes but­tons, re­frig­er­a­tor mag­nets, T-shirts and play­ing cards all bear­ing his im­age.

And scenes from the pop­u­lar his­tor­i­cal video game “As­sas­sins Creed,” in which Machi­avelli is the leader of the se­cret so­ci­ety of as­sas­sins, flash con­tin­u­ously on a screen. From Re­nais­sance po­lit­i­cal wonk to char­ac­ter in a video game is a tra­jec­tory that prob­a­bly would have amused him.

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