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|The Garments of Court and Palace: Machiavelli and the World That He Made by Philip Bobbitt|
The Times - June 29, 2013
He had a lot going for him, did young Niccolo’ Machiavelli: born into the throbbing, prosperous heart of the Renaissance in 15th-century Florence; a successful rise as a diplomat; a skillful navigation of turbulent political times as the city-state is buffeted between the powerful Medici and Borgia families; then in 1513 when his name appears on a list of possible conspirators against the latest Medici potentate, he gets a spot of gardening leave (well, after a spot of torture) during which he writes some plays but also a book, later called “The Prince”, which is still being read and talked about 500 years later.
The one thing he lacked, however, was a spin doctor. If this brilliant writer about statecraft and political science, known later as “the prince of darkness”, had had his own prince of darkness acting as his media chief—such as, perhaps, our recent bearer of that nickname, Peter Mandelson—then he could have avoided his name entering the English language as a synonym for cunning, unscrupulous, even evil behaviour.
For had history and the book’s reputation—mangled as it was in England by Elizabethan propagandists—turned out differently the term “Machiavellian” might instead have become associated with the pioneering definition and establishment of constitutional legitimacy in a post-feudal state. Had his advice been taken by his contemporary Italian potentates, his name might even have been associated with the creation of a unified Italian nation-state three centuries earlier than it actually happened. Machiavelli could have been, in other words, a blend of our own Walter Bagehot and Count Camillo di Cavour, the first prime minister of Italy in 1861.
This is far from the first attempt to rescue Machiavelli from the adjective derived from his name, but it is an especially convincing one. In part, this is because Philip Bobbitt is an especially convincing fellow. An American historian and constitutional expert at Columbia University, one of his previous books, a bit of a doorstop called, intriguingly, “The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History” (2002) may be one of those on your shelves that you admire and are proud to display, but have not necessarily read. Like Mr Bobbitt, it is distinguished and serious and independent-minded.
“The Garments of Court & Palace” is a slimmer work than “The Shield of Achilles” or its equally intimidating successor “Terror and Consent” (2008), but it is just as serious and thoughtful, even if it too is not an easy read. What it mainly makes the reader think about is the way in which, at Machiavelli’s time in history, the nature of the European state was changing. And it also makes you think about how, in the ferocious, chaotic but also extraordinarily creative atmosphere of 16th-century Italy, history really could have turned out differently.
Machiavelli became associated with immoral, anti-religious behaviour, of “ends justifying means” because this was a time when the nature of power and legitimacy were shifting from the Church and from monarchs claiming divine rights to states built on law, order and structures built to endure beyond the lives of powerful individuals or their dynasties. Italy, with its spectacularly wealthy republican city-states such as Venice, Genoa, Siena and indeed Florence, had already pioneered law-based, quasi-democratic forms of government. But raw power, of money and military strength, kept on disrupting those republics, as did recurrent threats from foreign potentates commanding larger swathes of territory, particularly the kings of France and Spain.
Two books to have in mind when considering Bobbitt’s thesis are, in fact, novels: Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” and “Bring on the Bodies”. Historians blench at her interpretation and depiction of Thomas Cromwell, and not just with jealousy about her book sales. They argue that she has cleansed the bloody hands of Henry VIII’s henchman, who was in truth a ruthless torturer, and has thus distorted historical truth in pursuit of a happier story—or, some say, simply to counter Hollywood’s equally misleading depiction of Cromwell’s rival, Sir Thomas More, by Robert Bolt in “A Man for All Seasons”.
Yet the statesman that Mantel describes in her Booker-prizewinning blockbusters is actually the genuinely Machiavellian figure that Bobbitt outlines. If Cromwell was cunning and unscrupulous, it was not for personal gain, on Mantel’s account. He played a big role in turning England into a sustainable, durable state, one less likely to repeat the chaos of the Wars of the Roses, and one (marginally) less likely to be invaded and overwhelmed by the greater powers of France, Spain or the Holy Roman Empire.
What Machiavelli was seeking to do was to define how a “principality”—ie, a territory ruled by a prince, and indeed the original title of his book, ‘The Prince”—could be run according to a constitutional order and law that would endure after that particular prince had passed on, that would be accepted by those who served whatever previous prince had ruled the territory, and that stood a chance of being strong enough to withstand invasions by rival states. His crucial distinction was between the interests of the individual and those of the state or principality he ruled, and therefore also between the moral codes that an individual should follow and those of a state.
The ambiguity, and thus the enduring interest, of the Tudor England of Thomas Cromwell, lies in this very tussle between the personal interests and morality of King Henry and those of the still wobbly state over which he reigned. In his pursuit of a male heir, and of resources and power independent of the Roman church, was he serving himself or England? Did Cromwell’s use of torture and deception break the law or establish its later legitimacy?
Since Cromwell himself spent a formative part of his life working in Renaissance Florence, it is tempting to dream of a conversation between him and Machiavelli. And for Italians to wonder whether a Florentine Cromwell might have succeeded in achieving the ambition of the final chapter of “The Prince”, namely the creation of a single, powerful nation of Italy.