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Journal of the History of Ideas 63.2 (2002) 185-206
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Machiavelli's Sketches of Francesco Valori and the Reconstruction of Florentine History
... As for the lies of these citizens of Carpi, I can surpass them all, because it has been a long time since I became a doctor of that art... for some time now I have never said what I believed and never believed what I said; and if indeed I do sometimes tell the truth, I hide it behind so many lies that it is hard to find....
Niccolò Machiavelli to Francesco Guicciardini, Carpi, 17 May 1521. 1
Is Machiavelli a reliable source for Florentine history? This article addresses that question by focusing on a remarkable discrepancy in Machiavelli's writing: the Florentine secretary's contradictory interpretations of Francesco di Filippo Valori, a major figure in the post-Medicean republican regime and one of the leaders of the Savonarolan movement. In the Discourses, Machiavelli described Valori as an ambitious politician whose quasi-princely power engendered dangerous factional violence. Several years later, in The Natures of Florentine Men, one of the few texts from Machiavelli's literary corpus that has yet to receive any sustained analysis, Machiavelli described Valori as a republican patriot who consistently sought the common good and upheld the republic's laws. Both assessments were written over a decade after Valori's murder (1498). [End Page 185]
What caused Machiavelli to alter his initial interpretation? Were both accounts part of a larger single interpretation of the Florentine statesman? If not, which portrait more faithfully conveyed the nature of Francesco Valori's career and its effect upon Florentine political life and what did Machiavelli hope to achieve by the other portrait? Finally, why did Machiavelli praise a man so directly associated with Savonarola and the political party that had excluded Machiavelli from office before 1498? Machiavelli's reputation as an opponent of Savonarola was the cause of his rejection for an office in the Second Chancery in February 1497, during Valori's term as Gonfaloniere di giustizia. It was also a likely cause of his more spectacular success in April 1498, immediately following the downfall of Savonarola and Valori. 2
This article examines the political circumstances surrounding the composition of The Natures of Florentine Men, Machiavelli's ties to the Valori family, and contemporary accounts of Valori's personality and career. It argues that The Natures are the preliminary sketches of the unwritten ninth book of the Florentine Histories and that Machiavelli, writing in a Florence of renewed Medici power, rewrote Valori's role in recent history to obscure his own ties to the principal statesmen of the Soderini regime. In particular, arguing from a different set of sources, it confirms Felix Gilbert's cautious and often-forgotten reminder about the impact of politics and political survival on the pioneering historical literature of early sixteenth-century Florence: that Machiavelli and Guicciardini "frequently had political purposes when discussing historical events and thus consciously constructed a historical myth." 3
The Valori family played a prominent role in the political and cultural life of Quattrocento Florence. The family had been allied with the Medici since Cosimo de' Medici's political ascent in 1434 and Bartolomeo Valori, as a generous patron of neo-Platonic philosophy, became a close friend of Lorenzo de' Medici and Marsilio Ficino. Francesco, however, dramatically realigned the family's political identity and loyalties along strong anti-Medicean lines. He began his political career as a successful participant in the Medici party, receiving numerous offices and distinctions, including election as Gonfaloniere di giustizia three times (1484, 1489, 1493). When the political tide turned against Piero de' Medici in 1494, however, Valori was among the first ottimati to capitalize on Medici weakness. He participated in the popular revolt against Piero de' Medici and became one of the constitutional founders of the new Republic. His power and ambition became famous, even notorious, after he emerged as one of the most important and powerful political allies (1495-98) of the prophetic friar...