Sarah Dunant

Machiavelli and his wife

In June 1502, a young Niccolo Machiavelli, is dispatched from Florence to negotiate with the thuggish Cesare Borgia who has just scandalised Italy by invading the state of Urbino. History will report their meeting, but say nothing about the leaving of his new young wife in their house on the south side of the Arno.

And yet it must have happened…

Niccolò Machiavelli and his wife as she might have looked

Niccolò Machiavelli and his wife as she might have looked

‘I should have known sooner. How can I get everything ready so fast?’

‘You knew as soon I did, Marietta. There is nothing to upset yourself over. I will not be away long.’

‘What do you mean? You may never come back!’

Through the open windows on the Via Guicciardini, there is the muted rubble of carts as the city closes up for the night.

‘What if this Borgia monster kills you or takes you hostage?’

‘Wife, you have no understanding of such things. Nothing will happen to me. My fellow diplomat is Bishop Soderini.’

‘A bishop? That won’t stop him. They say that the Pope poisons bishops and cardinals every day to get his hands on their money.’

‘You listen to too much street talk,’ he says laughing.

‘Well, what else is there to do? My husband is never here and when he is he never tells me anything,’ she mutters with a touch of petulance in her voice; their marriage is young enough to accommodate a little sparing.

‘The city is in crisis. I have been working.’

‘Where? In the ale house?’

‘It is your own vinegar and rosemary that you can smell on my breath.’

‘Yes, that’s what I mean.’

While she is no great beauty, when her spirit is up her eyes glint and her cheeks flush. Some weeks before, an early pregnancy had been washed away in a blood tide, and though she had coped well enough – a woman’s life, she had informed him, is full of such wounds which men can never comprehend – it is clear that this news of his has upset her more than she would chose to show. He should be more solicitous, but the anticipation of his journey has wiped such matters from his mind.

‘Well, I have done my best with your shirts,’ she says looking up from the bundle of clothes on the table. ‘See – these two have new collars and there is a change of doublets, both clean and pressed. Of course it’s not enough. But at least this way if this godless Duke sticks a knife in your back it is only old velvet he’ll be ruining – and before you say again that nothing will happen to you, what about those brothers that were fished out of the river in Rome? That wasn’t street gossip. They were the rulers of… well… wherever it was –‘

‘Faenza. But they no longer ruled. The city was in Borgia hands. Their death was inevitable.’

‘Niccolò!’

‘What? You want me to talk to you about what is happening.  No duke can afford to have rival families left for opposition to graft itself onto. I am telling you how men are, Marietta, not how you might like them to be.’

‘Then you all are equally godless and if only women kept their legs closed there would be fewer of you,’ she says, primly committed in her disapproval. ‘Sometimes I think I should have married that apothecary from Impruneta. He had a good business you know. And I could have been of use to him.’

‘What, making rat poisons and poultices for old men’s gout? You would have shrivelled up with boredom.’

She grunts. The truth is Marietta Machiavelli is not sure how far her husband’s unorthodox views offend her, for just as he seems to enjoy voicing what others might think but never say, so she has found a role being the foil for them. It is better to have him talking than always living in his head. And not just in his own. There have been dinners where the table has felt crowded and there is no one but the two of them sitting there.

She pushes the last of his clothes down into the small travelling bag, ties a leather belt over it and drops the bag onto the floor where it hits a metal cooking pan, waking the dog, whose bark then disturbs the goose so that the house is suddenly full of yapping and honking.

He laughs. He would give odds against any robber who tried his luck while he was away. If she had her own troops Cesare Borgia would probably be buying his wife into his service. Marriage. When he has the time to think about it he would probably say that he could have done worse. God knows he could not have borne a stupid or docile wife.

‘Here,’ she says holding out something in her hand. ‘Perhaps you will do me the favour, husband to wife, of wearing this?’

‘What is it?

‘The badge of St Anthony. Attach it prominently to your hat when you are on the road.’

‘Marietta! I am not a pilgrim –‘

‘Would that you were! Then the Saint will protect you.’

‘What? Even from a godless prince?’

This extract from In The Name of the Family: A Novel of Machiavelli and the Borgias

Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

In this room the various councils of the Florentine republic would have met during the renaissance. And off to the left was the little cubicle where we think Machiavelli might have worked. Until he was called upon to sit in on the discussions…

Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

‘So, members of the council, it is agreed, yes? As long as Florence is under the protection of the French King we stand firm against any hint of Borgia aggression or pressured overture of friendship.’

In his seat in the corner, Under-secretary Niccolò Machiavelli notes down the general murmur of approval. Piero Soderini, the elected leader of the republic, is an honourable and principled man, and it is impossible not to respect him. In another era, one of honour and principle, Niccolò thinks, he would make a most successful politician.

‘Under-secretary: if you would stay behind for a moment.’

High on the frescoed wall of the council chamber St Zenobius, the first bishop of Florence, stands with open arms, giving his blessing to good government, a glimpse of the cathedral’s famed dome peeking out from a pillar behind. It pains Niccolò every time he sees it, for this city that he so loves has changed dramatically in the years since the great Domenico Ghirlandaio stood with his brushes on the scaffold. Once respected everywhere for her wealth and stability, she now spends her diplomatic life looking nervously over her shoulder, like a young virgin on the street at night. To survive with her name, if not her purity, intact, what is needed is a government that can temper republican honour with a more pliant pragmatism. But these are not the thoughts that he is paid to deliver. Unless directly asked.

‘Do I gather you have some issue with the decision of the council, Niccolò?’

‘I am its under-secretary, not an elected member, Gonfaloniere. It is my job to advise, not conclude.’

‘Except with you one cannot always tell the difference. So speak your mind.

This extract from In The Name of the Family: A Novel of Machiavelli and the Borgias

Ponte Vecchio, Florence

Ponte Vecchio, Florence

When Niccolò Machiavelli crossed this bridge every day to work there was no upper story and certainly no tourists. Instead it was a rough cobbled path leading through blood and offal…. This is what he might have seen…

January 1502

His journey takes him down Via Guicciardini on the south side of the city and across the river Arno via the Ponte Vecchio. A maverick winter snowfall has turned into a grimy frost and the ground cracks like small animal bones under his feet. On the bridge fresh carcasses are being unloaded into the butchers’ shops. Through the open shutters he catches glimpses of the river, its surface of the water a silvery apricot under the rising sun. A feral dog streaks across his path, going for a gobbet of offal near the wheel of a cart. It earns him a kick in the ribs for his daring but his jaws remain firmly clenched over the prize. Scavenging opportunist! Stick a feathered hat on him and give him a sword and you’ve got half the country.

Across the bridge, he passes by the side of San Pier Scheraggio church into the open space of the Piazza della Signoria. The great bells from the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore sound out, marking the starting hour of the day and his thoughts move briefly to the cathedral workshop where a Florentine is chiseling into a block of flawed marble, commissioned by the state to produce a great statue of David to be placed on the façade of the cathedral. Nine months he’s been at it with no one allowed near the work, though the leaked gossip talks more of its size than its beauty. It remains to be seen whether it will be powerful enough to shield the city from the Borgia Goliath.

As the last chimes die away, a series of contorted male shrieks rise up from somewhere nearby; a late coupling between the sheets or a few early knife thrusts into a belly? Niccolò smiles. Such are the sounds of his beloved city, the sounds indeed of the whole of Italy.

This extract from In The Name of the Family: A Novel of Machiavelli and the Borgias

Trumping history with the Borgias

Pope Alexander VI and Donald Trump

A historical Comparison

There are moments when rather than feeling like a straight line, history starts to resemble a circle…

In 1492, having been viewed as an outsider for the biggest job in the Catholic church, Rodrigo Borgia barnstormed his way through a sweaty conclave, using threats and bribery to neutralise his rivals and win the papal crown. When the final vote was held, we are told that he jumped to his feet and punched the air with the words “Yes, I am pope”.

A corpulent, energetic man in his sixties, he was already famous for his great wealth, his ruthless financial dealings – he was the church’s vice chancellor for many years – and his inveterate womanising. Though his position as a cardinal demanded celibacy, for him (as for many high clerics) that did not mean chastity. He had seven children in all, four of them by a recent long-term mistress whom he discarded after some years for a much – much – younger model.

Right from the start, the Borgia papacy specialised in family self-aggrandisement. He staged a huge showy inauguration playing to the Roman crowds. Top positions went to family and friends. He built his own apartments in the Vatican, having them extravagantly decorated by the most fashionable painter of the day and when his daughter got married, he threw a lavish wedding inside those same rooms.

His eldest son Cesare was his closest advisor, finally moving into the Vatican and using papal funds to run a military campaign to annex Papal States into the Borgia dynasty. Rodrigo himself was by all accounts so fond of his daughter Lucrezia that when her first marriage was annulled in favour of a new alliance on the grounds of her husband’s impotence, the furious man (whose first wife had died in childbirth) remarked publically: “I have known my wife an infinity of times and the pope only wants her back for himself.” One lie led to another and what started as gossip soon became accepted in history as fact.

In a world not shy of brutality and ruthlessness the Borgias still stood out. When the Spanish came to ask for a lion’s share of the new world (America starts here) the pope got a royal bride for his son out of the deal. When one of the Roman families moved against him during a French invasion, he had the head of the family poisoned in prison and some years later annihilated half the rest. He lied and dissembled without compunction. The bodies of his enemies were found garrotted in the Tiber and when an anonymous letter damning the family’s actions was samizdated around town (renaissance media was mainly gossip but sometimes print), Cesare Borgia caught a Venetian on the streets distributing it and cut off his hand and tongue. When Venice’s ambassador complained, the Pope replied “Ah, he’s a nice boy but he can’t abide insults.’

Rodrigo died in 1503, felled by a mosquito bite during a viciously hot Roman summer: the gossip was that his bed chamber was full of cavorting bare chested devils (speaking if not in Russian, then a strange tongue, come to claim him after the deal made with him to let him rule. His body was so bloated that it started to decay almost immediately and had to be hurriedly buried, men pushing and shoving into a coffin, which was already too small for it.

His papacy was to have a powerful impact on the history of Europe. His political and diplomatic dealings were followed with acute interest by a young Florentine envoy, who spent months at the court of Cesare Borgia. His name was Niccolò Machiavelli and used what he had seen and learned when he wrote his political masterpiece ‘The Prince’. A few years later Martin Luther, who had visited Rome as a young monk during the 1500 jubilee and been appalled at what he saw, nailed his 17 treatises to the church door at Wittenberg. The protestant reformation, spreading war and bloodshed across Europe, had begun. History, then as now, has consequences.

In the Name of the Family: A novel of Machiavelli & the Borgias is out now