A novelistic biography makes Machiavelli into a Renaissance Zelig. He cracks Leonardo’s code! He listens to Michelangelo kvetch!

Book Review: ‘Machiavelli’ by Joseph Markulin

A novelistic biography makes Machiavelli into a Renaissance Zelig. He cracks Leonardo’s code! He listens to Michelangelo kvetch!


Nov. 11, 2013 6:50 p.m. ET

The life of a great thinker presents unique challenges to a would-be biographer. Actions and events are the stuff of biographies, yet thoughts, not deeds, are what chiefly make the thinker of interest to us. As Heidegger reportedly said of Aristotle: “He lived, he wrote, he died.” Niccolò Machiavelli is that rare exception. To paraphrase “The Princess Bride,” his story gives us fighting, torture, poison, revenge, bad men, good men, conspiracies and miracles. All of which is to say that Machiavelli is more suited than most great thinkers for the novelistic treatment he receives in Joseph Markulin’s “Machiavelli: A Renaissance Life.” That this format is less successful than Sebastian de Grazia’s similarly idiosyncratic biography, “Machiavelli in Hell” (1989), is largely due to Mr. Markulin’s inability to manifest the great man’s ideas—to which all the dramatic episodes are secondary.Mr. Markulin’s “novel” really encompasses three genres in one: a political history of Tuscany during the High Renaissance, a depiction of the rhythms of daily life during that same period through the story of one man, and a bildungsroman featuring a world-famous thinker as its protagonist.

Each approach has its limitations. As a work of political history, “Machiavelli” is necessarily tethered to its central figure, and the narrative demands of the novel form preclude it from lingering among German ecclesiastical debates or Lombardian genealogies. As a synecdoche (à la “The Cheese and the Worms,” Carlo Ginzburg’s 1976 study of the life of a 16th-century miller), it is frequently delightful, but one wonders if Machiavelli, an uncommon man who reserved his highest praise for the most uncommon men, is the ideal candidate for typifying his times. Many of the episodes in Mr. Markulin’s book have a hint of the burlesque about them: Machiavelli encounters that New World fruit, the tomato, for the first time! Machiavelli cracks Leonardo da Vinci’s coded writings! Machiavelli listens to Michelangelo kvetching about his papal projects! This is Machiavelli as Zelig.


By Joseph Markulin
(Prometheus, 720 pages, $21.95)

It is the final approach that rightly dominates the work, focusing on the events of Machiavelli’s life and the formation of his character. For the first, it should be noted that Mr. Markulin takes numerous liberties: Machiavelli now maintains a personal friendship with the doomed Savonarola; enjoys intimate relations with the infamously combative Countess Caterina Sforza; and pursues a vendetta against Niccolò Michelozzi, his successor in the Florentine chancellery. In this version, his marriage to Marietta Corsini is one of convenience only, and neither she nor their children make a direct appearance. In place of his historical mistresses, he is given the fictional Giuditta, a Jewish procuress, who plays the most significant supporting role in this story.

The novel form permits a certain degree of poetic license, excusing divergences from the historical record for the sake of entertainment and deeper truth. The deeper truth we as readers are surely most interested in is the consciousness of so singular a figure as Machiavelli. Here the reader wishes that Mr. Markulin had been as bold in depicting Machiavelli’s interior life as in altering his exterior one. As it is, his Machiavelli remains a surprisingly conventional figure: He meets and keeps (albeit not matrimonially) the love of his life. He is suitably shocked and horrified by the shocking and horrifying deeds of his contemporaries. He is skeptical, but not militantly so, of organized Christianity. He remains an ardent believer in freedom and popular rule. This Machiavelli is quite congenial to decent, modern tastes. Yet Machiavelli, in his writings at least, was frequently indecent, and his modernity was revolutionary rather than complacent.

Mr. Markulin consistently presents his Machiavelli in the best light, even when this creates a contradictory portrait. Thus Machiavelli the Florentine patriot comfortably shares space with Machiavelli the Italian patriot (notwithstanding the fact that there wouldn’t be a unified Italy to be patriotic about for another 350 years). Machiavelli the character is repulsed by Cesare Borgia’s manifest cruelty, despite his written praise of Hannibal for the same quality. Similarly, the reader strains to find any trace of the Machiavelli who sardonically laments the parricide Giovampagolo Baglioni’s unwillingness to murder the pope or who records how Caterina Sforza, when her children were taken captive, dismissed the captors’ threat by obscenely flaunting her ability to produce more. (Mr. Markulin’s own recounting of the event is in the heroic mode.)

Throughout the narrative Mr. Markulin presents Livy’s Romans as Machiavelli’s lodestar: the virtuous ancients who contrast favorably with Machiavelli’s divided and effeminate contemporaries. This is true as far as it goes, but only so far. For it has the effect of making Machiavelli seem little more than an apt pupil of the ancient writer—an archivist of sorts—and gives little indication of his ambition to improve upon historical Rome. Mr. Markulin’s Machiavelli is a sincere believer in republican government, so there is little evidence here of the deep irony with which Machiavelli wrote of the political judgment of the people or the counsel he freely gave to tyrants.

While the pleasures of love were one of Machiavelli’s great themes, it is difficult to reconcile the sincere romantic in these pages with the man who penned scabrous erotic comedies or who counseled brute force in subduing the goddess Fortuna. In sum, Mr. Markulin wants to emphasize Machiavelli’s virtues but does so without attending to Machiavelli’s own revaluation of what it means to be virtuous.

Thus, for all the ingenious plot twists and added conspiracies in these pages, Mr. Markulin’s Machiavelli is ultimately less interesting than the infinitely charming, wicked and disturbing figure whose writings have helped shaped the past half-millennium.

Mr. Polansky is a doctoral student in political science at the University of Toronto.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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