Young diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli combines forces with artist and engineer Leonardo da Vinci to thwart the ambitions of a ruthless warlord to dominate Italy.
Florence, 1498. The long rule of the Medici is over and a new regime has emerged from the turbulence, a genuine republic of the people. But Florence is weak and threatened by a new warlord who is rampaging across central Italy—Cesare Borgia.
Niccolò Machiavelli is young and inexperienced when he becomes second secretary of the Florentine chancellery, but he is destined to become his city’s leading diplomat. As he tries to counter the Borgia threat, Machiavelli is plunged into the grim realities of power politics, negotiates with kings and popes, and learns that no one can be trusted.
In the tradition of Hilary Mantel, this is the story of a skilled diplomat whose name has become a byword for treachery and double dealing.
Targeted Age Group:: 16+
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
As a student of politics and history, I have always known who Niccolo Machiavelli was, and what he wrote. But it was when I was living in Florence two years ago that I became fascinated with his life, after visiting his farm in the Tuscan hills. The more I read about him, the more I realised that his life as a diplomat, in one of the most challenging periods in Florentine history, was a great story, and great material for a historical novel.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Interestingly, virtually all of the characters in the book were real people who lived in Italy and France in the 16th century. Machiavelli's life is well documented in his dispatches and correspondence, but not a lot is known about some of the others. Leonardo da Vinci's life, for example, contains all sorts of gaps. For the most part my task as a historical novelist was not so much to create characters as to fill in the blanks and make them as real as I could.
‘Throw out everything that is noxious to the health of the soul. Let everyone live for God and not for the world. Live in simplicity and in charity.’
The preacher was barely visible to all except those members of the congregation who were closest to the pulpit of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. But the frame of this small, gaunt man concealed powerful lungs and a passionate spirit, which combined to hurl his words to the very back of the cathedral, where Niccolò Machiavelli was standing, near the entrance portico.
‘Here it comes,’ he murmured. ‘The Great Denunciation.’
‘You merchants and bankers, you think you can buy everything with money. You weigh your wives and daughters down with gold, and you pay the artisans to paint you as saints. But do you really think the Virgin Mary went about dressed in fine silks and draped with golden earrings? Do you? You should destroy these idolatrous images, abandon your palaces, and go back to the simple ways of Christ!’
A sigh rippled through the crowd.
‘We will all die, my brethren, the rich and poor, the old and the young, the infirm and the strong, all will turn to ashes. But those who have abandoned Christ will leave behind a special stench, and no absolution offered by the corrupt priests of the Church of Rome will erase that stench from the nostrils of the faithful. Those priests, who pretend to live by holy orders, who absolve the worst sins of the rich in return for a handful of coins, but demand a week’s wages from the poor for the same indulgences, they will be condemned to hellfire for all eternity. And the worst sink of iniquity is Rome itself! Yes! Rome is a cess-pool of wickedness and lechery, and all the vices known to man are practised there.’
Now there were shouts here and there, as the people grew more agitated. This was an old song that they had heard repeated many times in the preacher’s sermons.
‘The time is coming, my brothers, when all will be swept away, when these evil men who rule our church and our state are turned out by the sword of the righteous. I know this because God came to me and showed me a vision.’ He paused, the fervent, prominent eyes sweeping across the crowd, gauging their mood. ‘I saw a sword over Italy, quivering. Then, all of a sudden, the sword turned its point downwards, and amid a tempest, it set about scourging all the evil-doers in the land.’
The crowd was hushed, now: they had heard the preacher talk about his visions before, and they knew that there was something extraordinary coming.
‘What did this mean? I, Fra Girolamo Savonarola, I will tell you: Florentines, that sword is that of the king of France! It is he who will cleanse Italy of the stink of corruption!’
As the crowd erupted into excited chatter, a tall, elegant young man gave out a snort of derision, loud enough to attract disapproving stares from those around him. Not that Agostino Vespucci gave a fig for that. ‘King Charles is in Italy for more temporal reasons, I’ll wager. Come on Nico, let’s get out of here: he’ll be raving for another hour at least.’
Niccolò fought the urge to giggle at the shocked looks on the faces of the people around them as he turned to follow his friend down the crowded nave towards the cathedral’s main doors. Only an aristocrat like Agostino could get away with showing such disdain for Savonarola and all his works.
Emerging from the chilly shadow cast by the immense cathedral into bright sunshine, they hurried across to their favourite tavern, a low-roofed place with a jolly striped canopy that extended out into the piazza and sheltered a rough table and benches which they proceeded to colonise, shouting for wine and food as they sat down.
‘On the way, lads,’ fat Carlo the innkeeper said; he bawled instructions at one of his serving girls and then looked curiously at the four students. ‘Been listening to the friar have you? And what song was he singing today?’
‘The same as all his other sermons,’ Agostino sniffed, picking at a thread on the sleeve of his padded and slashed doublet. ‘Fire and damnation unless we all go about wearing ashes and sack-cloth. We should give up all material things, he says, and establish the City of God on the Arno.’
Carlo’s face split into a red-cheeked grin. ‘Florence as a new Jerusalem? He’s barking up the wrong tree there, I’d reckon. Can’t see all them Medici and Albizzi and the rest giving up their finery, can you?’
‘You’re right Carlo,’ Niccolò laughed. ‘No matter what Savonarola says, Florentines will keep on amassing money and spending it on paintings and sculptures to stuff into their grand palazzi, Carnival will always be a drunken riot, and the bum-boys in Sant’ Ambrogio will continue to offer their arses to anyone who will give them a few scudi for the pleasure. There are so many delicious vices to choose from if you are a Florentine!’
‘Still, Brother Savonarola has a point, I reckon, when he says the devil uses the rich to oppress the poor. Rich folks say that poor people only have themselves to blame for their misery, but when these great men force shopkeepers to sell their shops and farmers their land for a trifle, when they pay a pittance to labourers and artisans for their work, is it any wonder that people turn to thievery and prostitution?’
Having made this pronouncement, Carlo turned and waddled back into the inner recesses of the tavern, leaving the two friends to exchange bemused looks.
‘Carlo doesn’t exactly look like he’s on the bones of his arse, does he?’ Agostino laughed. ‘I know for a fact he does very well out of this place, and what is more he owns a couple of warehouses down by the river which bring in a good income.’
Niccolò was unsurprised by his friend’s knowledge of the finances of their friendly tavern-keeper: Agostino’s sources of information were mysterious but comprehensive, and he always seemed to know the most surprising things about people.
‘That might be true, Agostino, but Carlo is not so different from the rest of that crowd in the cathedral. There were plenty of poor artisans and beggars, for sure, but surely you noticed that there were also lots of well-off gentlemen and ladies swooning over every word, even as Savonarola denounces them. It’s as if they go there wanting to be condemned.’
Agostino’s reply was cut short by the chaos that enveloped them as the arrival of food and drinks coincided with the appearance of two more friends, students like themselves, shouting greetings and hurling orders at the poor harassed serving-girls. In appearance the newcomers were a mismatched pair: Filippo Casavecchia, the taller and leaner of the two, was perfectly and fashionably turned out in tight-fitting blue doublet and scarlet hose, covered with a short turquoise tabard that made no concession to the cold. His companion, Biagio Buonaccorsi, was almost the opposite, his chubby figure carelessly dressed in rumpled clothes that clearly had not had the attention of a laundress for some time, and his shoulder-length hair was in need of a comb.
‘New hat, Casa?’ Niccolò asked once everyone had settled down. ‘Come into some money?’
Casavecchia removed the hat in question, an elaborate blue silk affair decorated with a long feather, and regarded it critically.
‘It is elegant, isn’t it? The latest fashion in Venice, or so the vendor in the market by the Ponte Vecchio told me. It was a gift from my uncle.’
‘Never mind his damned hat,’ Biagio said excitedly, ‘you won’t believe the news we heard there: the French have occupied Pisa and declared that they will restore it to its ancient liberty!’
That got everyone’s attention, much to Biagio’s satisfaction. King Charles VIII of France had entered Italy a month before with a huge army, intent on enforcing his claim to the throne of Naples. One after another, the states of northern Italy had thrown themselves at his feet; the Florentines had temporised, making vague promises of support, but that had not prevented the king from invading Florentine territory. The fortresses at Sarzana, Pietresanta and Livorno had all been taken, which was bad enough, but to lose Pisa was a body-blow, for the city was Florence’s western gateway to the sea, and the jewel in the Florentine crown.
‘And have a look at this.’ Rummaging in the big purse that hung from his belt, Biagio extracted a leaflet which he slapped down on the table so that everyone could see. ‘These are appearing all over the city, posted on walls and left in churches. I found this one blowing about the courtyard of the Studio.’ The Studio was the official name of Florence’s university, where they all studied together.
The leaflet was a cheaply printed effort, and most of its message was yet another exhortation to Florentines to think less of Mammon and more of God, but it was the headline at the top that was particularly arresting:
Oh, Most Christian King of France, free the people of Florence from the yoke of Tyranny!
‘Savonarola was just singing the same tune just now in the cathedral,’ Agostino said, frowning. ‘But his message was that the French king was coming to cleanse us of our moral corruption, not to overthrow the government.’
‘Is that what this means?’ Casavecchia asked.
‘Don’t be naïve, Casa, what else could it mean? Whoever printed this—and we can be sure it was printed with Savonarola’s approval—is calling for the downfall of Piero de’ Medici and his friends.’
‘But Piero is hardly a tyrant. After all, he is subject to the will of the Signoria, like everyone else.’
‘Which is stuffed full of Medici supporters, as are all the other government committees.’ Niccolò was brusque. ‘Agostino is right; this is a call for King Charles to overthrow the government.’
‘And replace it with what?’ Biagio wanted to know.
‘If the good friar is to be believed, the kingdom of God, though I expect the king of France might have a few other ideas. Let’s see what Adriani has to say this afternoon; he always has original thoughts on matters political.’ Marcello Adriani was their lecturer for the afternoon at the Studio, Florence’s university.
‘He won’t be having any thoughts today,’ Biagio said, again happy to be the first with the news, ‘other than where the nearest latrine might be; apparently he has come down with a case of the flux. No lectures this afternoon.’
After a few not very sincere expressions of sympathy for their lecturer’s illness, the friends indulged in another hour’s drinking, talking, and harassing the serving-girls. By the time their impromptu party broke up, Niccolò was a little tipsy as he made his way through the crowded streets of Florence. It was late in the afternoon when he walked onto the Ponte Vecchio, and the butchers were starting to close up their stalls. Frowning, he came to a halt, guiltily remembering that the housekeeper had asked him to buy something for their supper that evening.
‘Ho, there, young Niccolò, looking for something? You’d better be quick, or I’ll be closed before you’ve finished your wool-gathering!’
‘I’m not gathering wool, Marco, I am thinking.’ Niccolò was indignant. ‘It’s different.’
‘Looks the same to me. Come on, my wife will scream the house down if I am late for dinner.’
‘All right, all right. Angelina wanted some beef. Three pounds or so, she said.’
The burly young butcher rummaged among the bleeding carcasses on his counter and set about chopping and cutting with the dexterity of long practice. In a few minutes, the required amount of meat had been carved, weighed and wrapped. ‘There you are. And take some chicken livers as well, fresh today, on me.’
‘Hah! You will do anything to keep Angelina sweet on you, Marco. Now, how much are you going to rob me for the rest?’
Agreeing on a price after a few minutes’ good-natured haggling, Niccolò paid over the required coins and was on his way across the bridge and into his home district of Santo Spirito. Casa Machiavelli was much like its neighbours—four stories tall with a small warehouse on the ground floor where they stored the wine and oil produced on the family farm in the hills, the brown stone façade above punctured by windows whose green-painted shutters had been thrown wide open to admit as much light and air as possible from the narrow street.
Having delivered his parcels to the housekeeper, Niccolò went in search of his father and found him in his library, where he almost always spent the afternoon. Bernardo Machiavelli was proud of his collection of books, his most prized possessions, and spent many hours each day interrogating them. He was busy translating the writings of the ancient Roman historian Titus Livius from Latin to Italian, a project that had been commissioned by one of Bernardo’s wealthier acquaintances, for which he was being paid a gratifyingly fat fee.
‘Hello father,’ Niccolò said, dropping his satchel on a chair. ‘Angelina says there is bread and cheese, and some of her pickled onions, whenever you are ready.’
Bernardo looked up from his book, mildly irritated at the interruption. ‘Yes, all right. You’re home early.’
‘Marcello Adriani is ill, so we were all allowed the afternoon off. Have you seen this?’
Bernardo picked up his spectacles and peered at the leaflet. ‘Well, well. The yoke of tyranny, indeed. I suppose they mean Piero and his friends.’
‘Who else would they mean? Is there anyone else who could be described as a “tyrant” in Florence?’
‘Piero is just a boy, though he thinks he is a prince and entitled to princely trappings.’ Bernardo was dismissive. ‘Lorenzo would never have been criticised so, not even through the side of the mouth like this.’
‘True enough, father,’ Niccolò said. ‘Though they didn’t call him “Lorenzo the Magnificent” without cause: all that money spent on building palazzi and country houses, and all the paintings and sculpture to adorn them. He lived like a prince, so it is hardly surprising that his son thinks he is royal.’
‘Who are the Medici anyway? Jumped up wool traders. There are plenty of other wealthy and ancient families in Florence who could claim the right to lead us.’
Niccolò smiled, always amused when his father’s snobbish streak came out. It was true, though, that the old Florentine families had always resented the Medici dominance of the government, even as they acquiesced in it, fawning on Lorenzo while they muttered insults behind his back. When Lorenzo had died, two years back, they had wasted no time investing his twenty-year-old son Piero with all of his father’s authority, even as they expressed doubts about his ability. Since then, the chorus of complaints had grown ever louder and more insistent.
‘Anyway, I doubt King Charles is much interested in changing the government of Florence,’ Bernardo went on. ‘He just wants us to stand aside while he marches through Tuscany on the way south to Rome and Naples.’
‘Oh? You don’t think he has been sent by God, like Savonarola says, to scourge us of our wickedness and licentiousness, and cleanse the corruption of the church?’
That provoked a predictable outburst. ‘Savonarola! That charlatan. But I suppose in these gullible times foolish men will believe in the ravings of a friar from…where is he from? Ferrara?’ Bernardo sniffed his contempt. ‘No doubt we shall soon see the government of the Medici replaced by the government of priests, and decisions made by the consultation of entrails.’
We are nearly at that point now, Niccolò thought as he left his father to his books and went to get something to eat. Savonarola’s outburst anointing King Charles as the scourge of Florentine vice was hardly new: he had been prophesying some such thing every week for months. But as the French army got closer, more and more people had crowded into the cathedral, and his credibility had soared. The great lords of the Signoria were increasingly afraid of him, and there was even a Savonarolan party beginning to emerge, dedicated, so they said, to his aims and ideals.
As for Piero de’ Medici, Niccolò hadn’t ever really given him much thought. Lorenzo had come to power in the year that Niccolò was born, the third generation of the Medici dynasty to hold power in the republic. His death had been a shock, but Piero’s accession had just seemed inevitable at the time, and if the aristocrats had doubts about his ability they didn’t say so in public, at least not at first. For Niccolò and his university friends, it seemed to be no bad thing that the government of an old man was about to be replaced by that of a man who was more or less their own age. His father was right about one thing, though. Where old Lorenzo had charmed his critics, Piero seemed to go out of his way to antagonise them, and that would lead to nothing good.
As Angelina fussed about getting the evening’s supper onto the table, Niccolò pulled his dog-eared copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy from his pocket and propped it open to read while he devoured bread and some hard pecorino cheese. There was little point in thinking any more about politics, he decided, since the Machiavelli family was hardly likely to be able to have any influence over them, so he might as well lose himself for a while in the great master’s poetry. Before long, he was climbing Mount Purgatory with Dante and Virgil, oblivious to the growing cacophony around him as the various members of the household arrived for supper.
Under the portico surrounding the courtyard of the Studio, the dice clicked and clattered as they rolled across the flagstones, rolled to a halt, and announced their verdict—four, two, six.
‘Zara, dammit!’ muttered Filippo Casavecchia, the loser for this throw, having guessed wrongly the total of the dice thrown by his opponent. ‘And by just one! You have the devil’s luck, Niccolò.’
‘Whene’er a game of dice is broken up, the one who loses sorrowing stays behind, and learns, as sadly he repeats the throws…’
‘Yes, all right, Agostino, you know your Dante. But I’m not far behind. Another few throws and I’ll get even.’
‘Very well, Casa,’ Niccolò agreed. ‘But just three more. After that, like Dante I am abandoning you to purgatory.’
Casavecchia took up the dice again and was about to throw when a commotion coming from the gate connecting the courtyard to the street caught their attention.
‘Go and find out what’s happening will you, Biagio?’
Niccolò thought for a moment that Biagio might protest at this peremptory request, delivered with a cool expectation of obedience. But after a moment’s hesitation and the smallest of grimaces, Biagio shrugged and ambled over to the gate.
‘It’s a march of some kind. I think something is going on. Come and see for yourselves.’
When the friends got to the gate, they were confronted by a crowd of citizens tramping determinedly down the narrow street, shouting the same slogans over and over, ‘The People and Liberty! Down with the Medici!’ It was only then that Niccolò realised that the bells were ringing from the direction of the Piazza della Signoria. That was usually a signal for the citizenry to go to the piazza for an emergency assembly. Without giving it a second thought, they gathered up their dice and joined the jostling, cheering throng.
‘No idea what is happening, my young friend,’ the jolly-looking man marching next to him said in answer to Niccolò’s query. ‘But someone said that the Signoria has locked that brat Piero out of their palazzo. It’s the end of the Medici, I reckon.’
That was sensational news if it was true. Criticism of Piero had become deafening over the last few weeks, particularly since he had decided, without any authority from the Signoria, to dash off to the camp of King Charles and make all sorts of promises if he would refrain from attacking Florence. People had been particularly incensed when Piero had agreed that the French could keep all of the fortresses and towns they had taken, including Pisa.
Emerging from the narrow street into the broad expanse of the piazza, they found themselves at the back of a huge crowd gathered around the tall, fortress-like Palazzo della Signoria, the headquarters of the Florentine government standing on the south-east corner of the square. Held aloft on tall poles carried by their proud flag-bearers, the banners and pennons of the city’s districts flapped and snapped in the breeze above the mutter of the crowd. From every side came shouts: ‘The People and Liberty! Long Live Florence! Down with the Medici!’
A memory came to the surface of his mind: fifteen years ago, when he had been just a boy approaching his ninth birthday, his father had come home in a state of white-faced shock, taking pains to double lock the doors and close all the shutters. Bad men had attacked Lorenzo de’ Medici and his brother Giuliano, he said, and the city is in an uproar. Niccolò had never seen his father look so frightened as he told his mother in a low voice that the conspirators had killed Giuliano, and no-one knew whether Lorenzo had survived.
When he was older, his father had told him the rest of the story, how the population seemed to lose its collective mind, running wildly around the city torching the conspirators’ houses and stringing them up from the battlements of the government palazzo. Lorenzo had, of course, survived the attack though he had been badly wounded, and he had wreaked terrible vengeance on the surviving conspirators and their families. With a shudder, he wondered whether history was about to repeat itself.
Three long trumpet blasts rang out, and slowly the noise subsided into a gentle murmur. A man appeared on the small balcony projecting from the centre of the palazzo and began to read a proclamation. From their position at the back of the crowd, Niccolò and his friends could hear nothing clearly, but the gist was conveyed quickly enough in hurried summaries that passed from mouth to mouth.
‘He says that Piero de’ Medici and his brother Giovanni are banished from the city,’ the jolly man in front of them said. ‘He is an outlaw, and any man who kills Piero will earn a reward of two thousand ducats.’
‘That’s a lot of money.’ Biagio whistled. ‘If I were Piero, I would be on a horse out of Florence right now.’
Piero was apparently of the same view. That evening, when the friends gathered at Carlo’s tavern to chew over the day’s events, the story was being told that Piero and Giovanni had gathered their households and ridden out of the city towards Bologna. Stunningly, it seemed that the rule of the Medici really was over.
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