The Prince Setting
If you've ever been to a Renaissance Festival, you'll know exactly what we are talking about. Actually, you won't. What time period do fairies, mermaids, and meat-on-a-stick come from anyway?
Minor inaccuracies aside, the time period the Renaissance Festival was named after was pretty cool. Sure, there are no souvenirs to buy, but all the big name dudes lived during this time period. Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, Copernicus, Christopher Columbus. Any of those names ring a bell?
Okay, first things first. The term "renaissance" simply means rebirth ("re": again; "naissance": from the Latin word "nasci," which means "to be born"). Okay, but a rebirth of what? Stuff from a long time ago that everyone forgot about—Greek, Roman, and all that ancient art, literature, and philosophy. Looking at this stuff really got everyone's juices flowing, and bam! Europe was exploding with innovations in art, science, and literature. This was the blooming of humanism, so head over to "Genre" for all of that contextual goodness.
Italy was the center of all the new activity, and it was the hip place to be. Amazingly enough, the Renaissance began in Machiavelli's home town, Florence. Coincidence? We think not.
While all this artsy and science-y stuff was going on, there were some other things happening, too. People were getting tired of the Catholic Church. Thanks to conniving popes like Alexander VI (check out his "Character Analysis"), people were doubting that these guys were as great as they said they were. Martin Luther would soon (in 1517) be nailing his theses to the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg in Germany. These theses sparked the Protestant Reformation, a movement to clean up the abuses of the Catholic Church and get people back to a simpler version of Christianity.
Elsewhere, the beginnings of what we would recognize as modern nations were forming. Old isolated feudal territories gradually came together under kings and emperors. War was the tool of choice for these new nations, so Europe was a complicated and dangerous place to be.
Maybe not as fun as fairies, mermaids, and meat-on-a-stick—but a lot more exciting.
Renaissance Italy and the Florentine Republic
While the rest of Europe was busy nation building, Italy was still only a bunch of cities that happened to be close to one another. These little cities were constantly fighting each other, trying to get bigger and better than all the rest. No one could really come out on top because the others kept the overachievers in check.
These cities were ruled by specific families, just like certain Mafia families ruled some cities in the U.S. in the twentieth century. In Florence, the rich Medici family, who made their fortune in banking, ruled behind the scenes. Their rock-solid grip on Florence began with Cosimo di Giovanni de' Medici in early 1434. After Cosimo, the family lied and cheated to keep their power—and it seemed to work for them.
The problems weren't only inside Italy. Things were getting messy from the outside, too. The French, Spanish, Germans, and the Pope all wanted a piece of that nice Italian land. Italy was, literally, surrounded. By the way, the name for the major beating that Italy was getting? The Italian Wars.
When the French came to claim a piece of the Italian (pizza?) pie in 1494, the Medicis were ousted and Florence became a republic. This is when Machiavelli's political career began—and ended just ten years later, when Pope Julius beat the French in 1512. Florence lost its ally and the republic fell. The Medicis were back, baby.
Machiavelli, on the other hand, was fired and kicked out. Bored at his family's country home, he started to write The Prince as a job-seeking strategy. No such luck. And no luck in 1527, either, even though the Medicis were kicked out again and a new republic was started.
Then… Machiavelli died. It would be another 350 years before Italy would finally unify, stop the madness, and join the rest of Europe in being a modern nation.
A Product of His Time
Looking at all of this, maybe it's no surprise that Machiavelli ended up writing The Prince. He grew up and lived during a time that everything was changing. He caught the new-fangled humanism bug and was riding the wave that changed the way Europe felt about the whole Church thing. Plus, if you grew up watching all this war, trickery, invasion, and intrigue, wouldn't figuring out a way to keep your country nice and stable be important to you?
The advice in The Prince is not advice for a president or prime minister. It is advice for a prince who has to go out and fight every day in that wacky arena called Early Modern Europe that we just told you about. Of course Machiavelli doesn't tell him to talk it out. He tells the prince to go out swinging and strap some rockets to his back if he can.
Through our modern-day lens, The Prince sounds like a bunch of crazy talk. But if you look at it again from its real setting, you'll see that it's not that weird after all. In fact, it might just be pretty sound advice.