Francesco Guicciardini’s fame rests on his statesmanship and his historical-political writings, namely the Storia fiorentina (The History of Florence), Dialogo del reggimento di Firenze (Dialogue on the Government of Florence), Ricordi politici e civili (Political and civil memoirs; translated as Maxims and Reflections), Considerazioni intorno ai Discorsi del Machiavelli (Considerations on Machiavelli’s Discourses), and his masterpiece, Storia d’Italia (The History of Italy). His works also include many orations, discourses, memoirs, reports, and letters dealing with those problems of internal and foreign policy that he faced as an ambassador, political adviser, military leader, and governor in the service of the Florentine Republic, the Medici, and Popes Leo X, Adrian VI, and Clement VII. But the publication of Guicciardini’s personal and political correspondence, of which 13 volumes have so far appeared, is still to be completed. The importance of Guicciardini’s works lies in the fact that their author was the protagonist or observer of the events represented in their pages, and that he was personally acquainted with many figures peopling his narrative. His opinions are today still the most valuable commentary on a crucial period of Italian political history.
None of Guicciardini’s works was published in his lifetime. Not until 1561, 21 years after his death, was The History of Italy published in Florence by one of his nephews. The first edition comprised only the first 16 books of the work; the next four were published separately in Venice in 1564. However, three centuries passed before the remainder of Guicciardini’s works were published by Giuseppe Canestrini in ten volumes under the title of Opere inedite (1857–67; Unpublished works). After this edition, other minor works were discovered, the most important of which is the Cose fiorentine (Florentine affairs), published in 1945. The History of Italy met with success abroad shortly after the first Italian edition. In 1579 in London there appeared the first English translation by G.Fenton dedicated to Queen Elizabeth; two more editions were printed in 1599 and 1618; the last, and most remarkable, was by Sidney Alexander in 1969. By the end of the 16th century the History was also translated into French, Latin, Spanish, German, and Flemish.
Guicciardini was an aristocrat by birth and a lawyer by training, and his ambition was aided by a cold, lucid intelligence. He entered public life in 1512, when he was appointed ambassador to the court of Ferdinand the Catholic of Spain, where he resided for two years. When he organized the antiimperial League of Cognac and the military operations of the pontifical forces in 1526, Guicciardini became one of the important players in a crucial stage of Renaissance Italian history.
His writing was informed by the ideals of Florentine independence, freedom of Italy from foreign domination, opposition to both democratic extremism and tyrannical danger, and self-interest, the famous “particulare,” which made Guicciardini a man hard to like and drove forward his career at the expense of his principles. The History of Florence (wr. 1508–09) covers his city’s history from 1378 to 1509 and is distinguished by characteristics rare in a youthful work: a careful search for both facts and causation, mature and objective judgment, and a sharp depiction of historical characters. From the Dialogue on the Government of Florence (wr. 1525) emerges Guicciardini’s vision of the government of Florence based on the rule by the “ottimati,” the wise and reputable men, dictated by the author’s experience.
Maxims and Reflections is recognized as one of the outstanding documents of a time in crisis and transition and, like The History of Italy, has been translated into many languages. It is made up of two series of maxims and aphorisms, written between 1512 and 1528 and collected by Guicciardini in 1530, after the authorities of the last Florentine Republican had banished him from Florence. They distill the essence of his experience as a statesman in a realistic and disenchanted spirit, and offer an exceptional insight into the working of the minds and hearts of men in private life, politics, and society.
The Considerazioni intorno ai Discorsi del Machiavelli, also written during his banishment from Florence, reveals the author’s distinctive intellectual traits. Unlike his fellow citizen and sometime friend Niccolò Machiavelli, Guicciardini had no patience for theory. Machiavelli liked to move from general theory to the particular, Guicciardini from the particular to the general. He adhered to an empiricism that clipped the flight of the speculation that marks out Machiavelli’s writings, and refused to take examples from antiquity as models for contemporary behavior and action. Guicciardini taught that the living experience is everything and warned against using models of ancient historiography, especially Roman history, as standards of judgment and guides for making decisions and taking actions.
The pragmatism and the lesson of experience that pervade the Considerazioni are worked into the maze of events and figures that people The History of Italy, which covers the period from the death of Lorenzo il Magnifico in 1492 to that of Pope Clement VII in 1534. Discarding the method used by the humanists, Guicciardini achieved a breakthrough in the writing of history. The humanists’ method neglected or used only a few primary sources, aiming instead at literary eloquence and elegance and at inspiring readers with the “correct” standards of thought and action. Guicciardini, an antirhetorician if ever there was one, wrote the history of a whole geographical unit, following the thread of many events, using all available histories and archival documents (including those of the Florentine Republic, which he brought home). Unlike humanistic history, which dealt with only one city or region of Italy, Guicciardini’s History brings to life the entire world of the peninsula in its complexity and, through the repercussions of its politics abroad, also that of other countries. He dictated excerpts from documents to his scribe in chronological order, then fused and reshaped the material, placing in the margins his agreement or disagreement and adding information of his own and of others.
His narration shows that moral virtues have nothing to do with political success or failure, but rather with the protagonists’ response to the events that touch them and with the interactions of their passions. Individuals who act out of passion, prejudice, blindness, and insight are the sole agents of historical change. Guicciardini’s method has produced the classic portrait of a country in decline, illustrating how the rulers of the Italian states had gradually been deprived of all control over their own destinies.
Over-elaborate, dense, bulging with facts and details, here and there weighed down by long winding sentences and paragraphs often presenting an historical and conceptual horizon too wide to maintain comfortably, The History of Italy has lost the appeal it exerted on earlier generations of readers and critics. But it is only in this work that one is able to contemplate the complex structure of the Italian Renaissance and to find both the abundance of blood that coursed through the veins of its public life and the heart that regulated it: for the past four centuries the History has been ransacked as the chief source of Renaissance history and politics. The work offers unparalleled interpretations of events and figures; placed in ample perspectives and drawn with the broad and precise brushstrokes of a masterly hand, they have become historiographical icons: portraits of sickly but warlike Charles VIII, ambitious but bungling Emperor Maximilian, Pope
Clement VII and his tortured personality; the state of Italy at the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent; the discovery of America, the invention and use of guns and gunpowder, the appearance of syphilis, the threat posed by the Turks and Luther to Christendom; the picture of gory battles and the role of bravery and cowardice; the stunning corruption of Pope Borgia, the source of the Christian church’s temporal power, the sack of Rome, and the siege of Florence. The breadth and depth of representation and interpretation explains why, immediately after the History appeared in print, it was elevated to the rank of a masterpiece equal to the great works of ancient historiography.
Born 6 March 1483 in Florence. Studied civil law in Florence, Ferrara, and Padua, from 1498, doctorate, 1505. Married Maria Salviati secretly, 1507, publicly, 1508.
Ambassador to Spain, 1512–14; replaced his father as one of the Seventeen Reformers, 1514; appointed one of the Eight of Ward, and of the Signoria, 1514; appointed consistorial advocate by Pope Leo X, 1515; named governor of Modena by Leo X, 1516, and of Reggio, 1517; became close friends with Machiavelli, 1521; appointed commissary general of the papal army against the French, 1521; named president of Romagna by Pope Clement VII, 1524; appointed lieutenant general of the papal army in the League of Cognac, 1526; banished from Florence, 1530; appointed governor of Bologna by Clement VII, 1531; returned to Florence, 1534; political advisor to Duke Alessandro de’ Medici, 1534–37; retired after Alessandro’s assassination and the rise of Cosimo de’ Medici, 1537. Died in Florence, 22 May 1540.
Essays and Related Prose
Storia d’Italia, 20 vols., 1561–64; edited by Silvana Seidel Menchi, 3 vols., 1971, Emanuella Scarano, 1981, and Ettore Mazzoli, 1988; as The History of Italy, translated by G.Fenton, 1579, Austin Parke Goddard, 10 vols., 1753–56, edited by John R. Hale, translated by Cecil Grayson, 1966, and edited and translated by Sidney Alexander, 1969
Considerazioni intorno ai Discorsi del Machiavelli, in Opere inedite, vol. 1, edited by Giuseppe Canestrini, 1857
Ricordi politici e civili, in Opere inedite, vol. 1, edited by Giuseppe Canestrini, 1857, Roberto Palmarocchi, 1931, Raffaele Spongano, 1951, Ettore Barelli, 1977, Sergio Marconi, 1983, Tommaso Bavaro, 1990, Tommaso Albarini, 1991, and Emanuella Scarano, 1991; as Counsels and Reflections, translated by Ninian Hill Thomson, 1890;
as Maxims and Reflections, translated by Mario Domandi, 1965; selection as The Maxims, translated by Emma Martin, 1845
Dialogo del reggimento di Firenze, in Opere inedite, vol. 2, edited by Giuseppe Canestrini, 1858, Roberto Palmarocchi, 1932, and Emanuella Scarano, 1970; as Dialogue on the Government of Florence, edited and translated by Alison Brown, 1994
Storia fiorentina, in Opere inedite, vol. 2, edited by Giuseppe Canestrini, 1858, Roberto Palmarocchi, 1931, and Emanuella Scarano, 1991; as The History of Florence, translated by Cecil Grayson, 1965, and Mario Domandi, 1970
Cose fiorentine, edited by Roberto Ridolfi, 1945
Selected Writings, edited by Cecil Grayson, translated by Margaret Grayson, 1965
Other writings: family memoirs and correspondence. Collected works editions: Opere inedite, edited by Giuseppe Canestrini, 10 vols., 1857–67; Opere, edited by Vittorio de Caprariis, 1953, and Emanuella Scarano, 1970.
Guicciardini, Paolo, Contributo alla bibliografia di Francesco Guicciardini, Florence: Giuntina, 1946; supplements, 1948, 1950
Annali d’Italianistica issue on Guicciardini, 2 (1984)
Bonadeo, Alfredo, “Guicciardini on War and Conquest,” Il Pensiero Politico 14 (1981):214–42
Bondanella, Peter E., Francesco Guicciardini, Boston: Twayne, 1976
Cochrane, Eric, Historians and Historiography in the Italian Renaissance, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981: 295–305
De Sanctis, Francesco, “L’uomo del Guicciardini,” in his Saggi critici, vol. 3, edited by Luigi Russo, Bari: Laterza, 1963
Francesco Guicciardini 1483–1983: Nel V centenario della nascista, Florence: Olschki, 1984
Gilbert, Felix, Machiavelli and Guicciardini: Politics and History in Sixteenth-Century Florence, Princcton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1965
Luciani, Vincent, Francesco Guicciardini and His European Reputation, New York: Otto, 1936
Palmarocchi, Roberto, Studi guicciardiniani, Florence: Macrí, 1947
Phillips, Mark, Francesco Guicciardini: The Historian’s Craft, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977
Ridolfi, Roberto, The Life of Francesco Guicciardini, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967; New York: Knopf, 1968
Treves, Paoio, Il realismo di Francesco Guicciardini, Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1931
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