The mind of Guicciardini summarizes the skeptical disillusionment of the times. It was one of the sharpest minds of the age; too cynical for our taste, too pessimistic for our hopes, but penetrating as a roving searchlight in the skies, and candid with the frankness of a writer who has wisely resolved on solely posthumous publication.
Francesco Guicciardini had the initial advantage of aristocratic birth. From his childhood he heard educated conversation in good Italian, and learned to accept life with the realism and grace of a man confident of his footing. His great-uncle was several times gonfalonier of the republic; his grandfather held in turn most of the principal offices in the government; his father knew Latin and Greek, and filled several diplomatic posts; “my godfather,” wrote Francesco, “was Messer Marsilio Ficino, the greatest Platonic philosopher then in the world”68—which did not prevent the historian from becoming an Aristotelian. He studied civil law, and at the age of twenty-three was appointed professor of law at Florence. He traveled widely, even to noting “the fantastic and bizarre inventions” of Hieronymus Bosch in Flanders.69 At twenty-six he married Maria Salviati “because the Salviati, in addition to their wealth, surpassed other families in influence and power, and I had a great liking for these things.”70
Nevertheless he had a passion for excellence, and the self-discipline to create works of literary art. His Storia Fiorentina, written at twenty-seven, is one of the most surprising products of an age when genius, swollen with its recovered heritage but loosened from tradition, flowed full and free in a dozen streams. The book limited itself to a short segment of Florentine history, from 1378 to 1509; but it treated that period with an accuracy of detail, a critical examination of sources, a penetrating analysis of causes, a maturity and impartiality of judgment, a command of vivid narrative in fine Italian, that were not matched by the Storie Fiorentine that Machiavelli wrote eleven years later in the sixth decade of his life.
In 1512, still a youth of thirty, Guicciardini was sent as ambassador to Ferdinand the Catholic. In quick succession Leo X and Clement VII made him governor of Reggio Emilia, Modena, and Parma, then governor general of all the Romagna, then lieutenant general of all papal troops. In 1534 he returned to Florence, and supported Alessandro de’ Medici throughout that scoundrel’s quinquennium of tyranny. In 1537 he was the chief agent in promoting the accession of Cosimo the Younger to be Duke of Florence. When his hopes of dominating Cosimo faded, Guicciardini retired to a rural villa to write in one year the ten volumes of his masterpiece, the Storia d’ltalia.
It is inferior to his earlier work in freshness and vigor of style; Guicciardini had meanwhile studied the humanists, and slipped into formality and rhetoric; even so it is a stately style, presaging Gibbon’s monumental prose. The subtitle, History of the Wars, limits the subject to matters military and political; at the same time the field is widened to all Italy, and to all Europe as related to Italy; this is the first history to view the European political system as a connected whole. Guicciardini writes of what for the most part he knew at first hand, and, toward the end, of events in which he had played a part. He collected documents sedulously, and is far more accurate and reliable than Machiavelli. If, like his more famous contemporary, he returns to the ancient custom of inventing speeches for the persons of his tale, he frankly states that they are true only in substance; some he specifies as authentic; and all are used effectively to state both sides of a debate, or to reveal the policies and diplomacy of the European states. Taken together, this massive history, and the brilliant Storia Fiorentina, constitute Guicciardini as the greatest historian of the sixteenth century. As Napoleon was anxious to see Goethe, so Charles V, at Bologna, kept lords and generals waiting in an anteroom while he conversed at length with Guicciardini. “I can create a hundred nobles in an hour,” he said, “but I cannot produce such an historian in twenty years.”71
As a man of the world he did not take too seriously the efforts of philosophers to diagnose the universe. He must have smiled at the excitement aroused by Pomponazzi, if he noticed it. Since the supernatural is beyond our ken, he considered it useless to war over rival philosophies. Doubtless all religions are based upon assumptions and myths, but these are forgivable if they help to maintain social order and moral discipline. For man, in Guicciardini’s view, is by nature self-seeking, immoral, lawless; he has to be checked at every turn by custom, morals, law, or force; and religion is usually the least disagreeable means to these ends. But when a religion becomes so corrupt that it has a demoralizing rather than a moralizing influence, a society is in a bad way, for the religious supports of its moral code have been sapped. Guicciardini writes, in his secret record:
To no man is it more displeasing than to me to see the ambition, covetousness, and excesses of priests, not only because all wickedness is hateful in itself, but because… such wickedness should find no place in men whose state of life implies a special relationship to God…. My relations with several popes have made me desire their greatness at the expense of my own interest. Had it not been for this consideration, I would have loved Martin Luther as myself; not that I might set myself free from the laws imposed upon us by Christianity… but that I might see this swarm of scoundrels (questa caterva di scelerati) confined within due limits, so that they might be forced to choose between a life without crime or a life without power.72
Nevertheless his own morality was hardly superior to that of the priests. His personal code was to adjust himself to whatever powers were at the moment supreme; his general principles he kept for his books. There, too, he could be as cynical as Machiavelli:
Sincerity pleases and wins praise, dissimulation is censured and hated; the former, however, is more useful to others than to oneself. Therefore I should praise him whose usual mode of life was open and sincere, and who only used dissimulation in certain things of great importance; it then succeeds all the better, the more one has contrived to establish a reputation for sincerity.73
He saw through the shibboleths of the various political parties in Florence; each group, though it shouted for liberty, wanted power.
It seems clear to me that the desire of dominating one’s fellows and asserting superiority is natural to man, so that there are few so in love with liberty that they would not seize a favorable opportunity of ruling and lording it. Look closely at the behavior of the indwellers of the selfsame city; mark and examine their dissensions, and you shall find that the object is preponderance rather than freedom. Those, then, who are the foremost citizens do not strive after liberty, though that be in their mouths; but the increase of their own sway and pre-eminence is really in their hearts. Liberty is a cant term with them, and disguises their lust of superiority in power and honor.74
He despised the Soderini merchant republic, accustomed to defend its liberties with gold instead of arms. And he had no faith in the people or democracy:
To speak of the people is to speak of madmen, for the people is a monster full of confusion and error, and its vain beliefs are as far from truth as is Spain from India…. Experience shows that things very rarely come to pass according to the expectations of the multitude.… The reason is that the effects… commonly depend on the will of a few, whose intentions and purposes are nearly always different from those of the many.75
Guicciardini was one of thousands in Renaissance Italy who had no faith whatever; who had lost the Christian idyl, had learned the emptiness of politics, expected no utopia, dreamed no dreams; and who sat back helpless while a world of war and barbarism swept over Italy; somber old men, emancipated in mind and broken in hope, who had discovered, too late, that when the myth dies only force is free.