BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Maurizio Viroli, author of "Niccolo's"--I did it wrong. No, I did it
Professor MAURIZIO VIROLI, AUTHOR, "NICCOLO'S SMILE": You did it
LAMB: "Niccolo's Smile," yeah. What does it mean when someone says a
politician is Machiavellian?
Prof. VIROLI: When someone says that a politician is Machiavellian,
what they mean to say is that the person in question has very low
moral standards, that the person is not reliable, that he's cunning
like a fox, astute, that you cannot trust him. That--that is what
they mean when they say that the politician is Machiavellian.
LAMB: Why do they say that? Where does it come from?
Prof. VIROLI: It came s--from the mid of the 16th century in--within
the context of the counterreformation. Then, at that time, the
Jesuits begun to use the word Machiavellian in the sense that I have
described, meaning someone unreliable, someone who always wears a
mask, someone who is ready to deceive, who is always keen, always
ready and prepared to put his interest before any other moral
LAMB: Was Machiavelli himself like that?
Prof. VIROLI: Niccolo Machiavelli was the opposite of a
Machiavellian--precisely the opposite. Machiavellians are
calculators. Niccolo was passionate. Machiavellians always try to
adapt themselves to the circumstances. Machiavelli fought many
battles against the conventional political culture of his time.
Machiavellians normally win. Niccolo was a loser. Machiavellians
always fight for what they think they can get. Niccolo always fought
for grand ideas. He was precisely the opposite.
LAMB: Then why over the years does it mean the opposite of--when you
say someone's Machiavellian--the opposite of the man that they took
the philosophy from?
Prof. VIROLI: Because Niccolo Machiavelli's works have been read
over the centuries by scholars who were not apt to understand. They
don't want to make the effort to understand what Niccolo was saying,
either because they were prejudiced or because they were too bigoted
or for one reason and the other.
LAMB: When did he live?
Prof. VIROLI: He was born in 1469 in Florence.
LAMB: When did he die?
Prof. VIROLI: He--he died in 1527, June.
LAMB: Which made him how old when he died?
Prof. VIROLI: I'm very bad with numbers.
LAMB: About 58 I think?
Prof. VIROLI: Yeah. No--yeah, 59, I guess. But I'm very bad with
numbers, so it should be 31 plus 27? Fifty-eight, yes. Even though,
in one of his last letters, he said, `Now that I am 60,' it was not
true. He was only 58. He...
LAMB: Where was he...
Prof. VIROLI: He was also very bad with numbers.
LAMB: Where was he from?
Prof. VIROLI: He was born from Florence, yes. And the family was
coming from the southern part of Tuscany. He was the son of a lawyer.
His father was a lawyer, unsuccessful, which is very rare; poor, which
is even more difficult because in Florence, lawyers then and even
today are normally very wealthy. So Niccolo did not belong to the
inner circle of the Florentine elite. He was cul--he had the chance
to study in Latin, rhetoric, ancient history, modern history, grammar.
He knew how to write, and it shows. But he had--he did not belong to
the important families. For him, was impossible even to be elected or
appointed to important positions in the government, because, according
to the statutes of Florence, in order to be appointed to the highest
positions, you--you had to belong to a family that had already had
someone governing high posts in the government. That's important
because Machiavelli was close to power but never within the circle of
LAMB: Where are you from?
Prof. VIROLI: I come from Romania. It's a bit north of Florence.
Romania is the area of Ravenna, Rimini, Phillippe. If you have seen
the--Fellini's movie, "Amarcord," that's where I come from.
LAMB: How did you get to the United States?
Prof. VIROLI: It was--it was a joke. I--I had completed my PhD
thesis at European University in Florence. I was, like many other
people at the time, jobless, unemployed. I had no chances to get into
an Italian university...
LAMB: What year?
Prof. VIROLI: 198--1985 we are talking. A friend of mine--a friend
of mine was here at--at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.
She said, `Maurizio, they are looking for an assistant professor in
political theory.' And I responded to her, `And do you think that the
Princeton, they need someone from Forli in Romania from Italy to cover
a position in political theory?' `It costs you nothing to try.' I
applied. I sent my vita, my disser--dissertation that I composed then
in French. It was in part translated into English by Cambridge
University Press. And they should never forget the fact that I got
the position at Princeton University without even knowing the names of
the people in s--in the committee. One day I must tell the names of
these people, because they are an example of how you should conduct
this kind of activities if you want to keep a university great.
LAMB: But--but how would they--what--what--on what basis then would
they choose you?
Prof. VIROLI: It's a normal application. As you know, there were
about 250 applicants. They selected three. I was wha--what they call
the short list. Then they summoned me. I got the phone call late in
the night from Professor Amy Gutmann who is now the director of the
Center for Human Values in Princeton. She say, `We would like to
interview you.' And I asked back, `But I have to fly.' And she say,
`No problem.' So I flew over. I spent three days. I gave my talk. I
met everyone in the department--strange feeling, very completely
different world. Then I came back. And after two months, I got the
pho--phone call saying, `We would like you to offer you a position as
an assistant professor in politics.' That's--that is as simple as
LAMB: At Princeton?
Prof. VIROLI: At Princeton.
LAMB: And how long have you taught there?
Prof. VIROLI: Since 1987.
LAMB: Teach what?
Prof. VIROLI: Political theory.
LAMB: And when did you first start writing about Mach--Machiavelli?
Prof. VIROLI: Well, I--it's a long--it's an old and deep love for
Niccolo Machiavelli. I started writing on Niccolo Machiavelli in
LAMB: Why the title of this book, "Niccolo's Smile"?
Prof. VIROLI: Well, because I have written a number of essays and
the book on Niccolo Machiavelli's political thought. Then while I was
writing the book on Niccolo Machiavelli's political thought, I
discovered that perhaps Niccolo, the person, his life, his passions,
his ideals, was more interesting than the thinker. And what was
interesting about Niccolo, his wisdom of life, the wisdom with which
he conducted his life, the wisdom with which he tried to make sense of
his own experience and of human experience in general, meaning how to
deal with despair, hopelessness, defeat and gratitude but also with
love, friendship, the various dimensions of life. I have discovered,
if I'm right, that Niccolo conducted his life--he dealt with all the
issues that I've mentioned, all the aspects of human experience that I
have mentioned, with a--a remarkable depth and intelligence, wisdom.
That wisdom was, so to speak, summarized by his smile, his way of
smiling at life, at himself and--Who knows--perhaps even smiling at
LAMB: Where does this portrait come from that's on the cover of your
Prof. VIROLI: It's Tito Santi; Santi di Tito is his correct name.
He painted the portrait after Machiavelli's death, so he did not see
Machiavelli. That's how he imagined Niccolo Machiavelli to be on the
basis of existing sketches or statues. There is a marble--th--sorry,
wooden bust of Niccolo Machiavelli in Palazzo Vecchio where, of
course, I always go to pay my tribute in the pilgrimage.
LAMB: What is Palazzo Vecchio?
Prof. VIROLI: Vecchio, yes. Second floor.
LAMB: What is it? What is it?
Prof. VIROLI: Palazzo Vecchio is the palace in which the great
council of the Republic of Florence used to meet, is in Piazza della
Signoria. It's the center of the republican power of the Republic of
Florence. In fact, when Machiavelli tried to persuade de Medici in
1521 to restore the republican institutions in Florence, the manner in
which he said that was `reopen'--(foreign language spoken)--reopen the
main hall in Palazzo Vecchio. It--Palazzo is the symbol of Florence
LAMB: What is de Medici?
Prof. VIROLI: De Medici is--de Medici were the most powerful family
in Florence. They were bankers, silk traders. They had only
Machiavelli's lifetime, two popes. Imagine a family that can produce
two popes. It's much more than producing two presidents of the United
States, like the Bush family. They are--they were extremely wealthy.
And thanks to their wealth, they were able to offer favors--lending
money, helping people in various ways to set up their business or help
them to find the solution for legal problems. And in this way, they
became--they became extremely powerful. They had a large network of
partisans, supporters, so, in fact, they were practically the rulers
of Florence, the masters of Florence, particularly between 1434 and
1464 under the leadership of Cosimo de Medici. Then de Medici were
expelled from Florence in 1494 when the republican government was
instituted. They returned in power in 1512 with the help of Spanish
armies. And they were, so to speak, the enemies of the republic.
Florence lived its own political life, then the oscillation between
the republican governments, more or less aristocratic, and the regime
of de Medici.
LAMB: You talk about the Republic of Florence and a lot of other
republics that you mention in your book. What was Italy in the early
1500s? What did it amount to?
Prof. VIROLI: Well, you have to consider that you had northern part
of Italy. You had the--the dukedom of Milan. That was under--it was
a dukedom. Then east, you had the Republic of Florence--of Venice,
sorry. They were very powerful, very wealthy, very aristocratic.
South, you had small principalities, Balogna, Robino. You had the
Republic of Genoa. And then south, you had the Republic of Florence.
Florence was not just a city republic. Florence also controlled a
LAMB: Did the Republic of Florence have to answer to anybody on a...
Prof. VIROLI: No. To be a republic means to be, as the--as the
jurists used to say, to be (foreign language spoken), which means you
are--you are your own prince. Or you are a prince unto yourself. And
you do not recognize superior powers. That is the meaning of--being a
republic means that there are--you do not recognize political powers
LAMB: How many people lived in that part of the world back in the
Prof. VIROLI: In Florence, the city?
LAMB: In that whole area, in ala--Italy?
Prof. VIROLI: It's difficult to--I forget figures. I know for
Florence--at the time of Machiavelli, Florence must have been around
LAMB: So the whole area is relatively small in population?
Prof. VIROLI: Yes. Relatively small population.
LAMB: You--you--you say in the author's note, and I'll just read it.
You say `The reader will find some fairly strong language in the
letters by Machiavelli in his correspondence and in documents of the
period, expressions that other biographers have edited or cut.' And I
must admit to you that I was surprised that some of the language that
was used back then, the four-letter words, a lot of the F-word used in
those days. Where does all that come from?
Prof. VIROLI: Interestingly, as you have perhaps noticed, the
correspondence and the friends of Machiavelli used that kind language
more than Niccolo himself. Let me give you an example. He--one of
the best friends of Niccolo Machiavelli was Francesco Vettori. They
had more or less the same age with a difference that--I'm giving you a
little background--that Francesco Vettori was powerful and successful.
Niccolo Machiavelli was powerless and unsuccessful. Nonetheless, they
When Vettori was the ambassador of Florence in Rome in the--at the
paper court, Vettori wrote his friend Niccolo, who was at the time in
Florence elected, in which Vettori says, `I'm so bored by life here
that I must necessarily think about something pleasant, and I know
nothing that is more pleasant than'--you know what they mean--`or the
thought of.' Interestingly, Niccolo Machiavelli responds back with a
letter in which he speaks of the enchanting sweetness of love.
Someone is using--a friend of his uses that language, F and so on.
Niccolo responds with a poem on the beauty and sweetness of the
passion of love. Nonetheless, Niccolo himself was famous in Florence
for the--the stories he used to tell. And I'm sure that he was pretty
good at using the same language.
You ask why? Because they were Florentine. In Florence, there is the
air--the atmosphere itself is irreverent. They are colorful. There
are various ways of expressing the concept, but they always prefer the
most colorful. And the most colorful is exactly the language that I
LAMB: But you decided for some reason to leave it in, the language.
Prof. VIROLI: Yes.
LAMB: And why did most biographers take it out?
Prof. VIROLI: Because I think most biographers--well, they thought
that perhaps it was--it'd be damaging to show how they were speaking.
I think that, in fact, there is nothing wrong in showing contemporary
readers how 16th century Florentine were speaking.
And it's also--also funny because I must say that you can use colorful
words without being vulgar, and you can be vulgar without using
colorful words. When you use words like--like the ones we are
alluding to, you must be very good because then it takes a special
intelligence, sensitivity--you have to u--use them with--in the right
moment, in the right context. And you can see that there are letters
in which, if you replace the colorful words with ordinary words, the
letter or the expression would lose its brightness, its intensity.
Remember that Niccolo Machiavelli and many other--many friends of him,
they were belonging to popular classes, to the people. That's
where--the way--that was the way in which they spoke.
LAMB: One of those stories...
Prof. VIROLI: You're going to reveal too much.
LAMB: No. I'm not going to read this, as you well know. It's on
page 109. It's the old bod.
Prof. VIROLI: 109?
LAMB: Yeah. You know, it's--it's--it's Machiavelli...
Prof. VIROLI: Oh. Oh, no, please. Don't do that.
LAMB: But wh...
Prof. VIROLI: Well, if you want to. If you read it.
LAMB: No, I'm not going to read it. But I jus--I just bring--bring
it up because I want to ask you--I want to ask you the circumstances
of that as a way of showing what Machiavelli was like personally. Is
that a--is that a true story?
Prof. VIROLI: No. I think that this is--you picked an important
place. I think that Niccolo liked to make fun of himself. He liked
to exaggerate not his virtues, his vices. And in this case, what he's
doing is to respond--you are referring to the famous letter in which
he narrates the misadventure he had with the--an old prostitute, very
old, very ugly prostitute, in Verona. That's what they're mentioning.
Well, you have to consider that Machiavelli in that letter is
responding to a letter of a friend of him, Luigi Richardini. Luigi
Richardini, we can guess from Niccolo's answer, must have written him
a letter of that sort. `You know, Niccolo, last night I met a
gorgeous woman, so charming. And we did this and that,' and he must
have gone forever, and he must certainly have ended the letter,
`Luigi,' by saying I can't wait to see her again.
Niccolo, what does he do? He turns upside down the letter of Luigi.
He says, `I instead, I have met the most ugly woman on Earth. I had
the most horrible sexual experience I've ever had and I--I'm sure that
for a long time I will not see her again, and for sure, I will not
even look for other similar experiences.' It's the opposite of what
Luigi Richardini was glorifying himself. Niccolo debases himself to
LAMB: What about his marriage? His love life? His relationships
Prof. VIROLI: Now you--you bring me into very difficult terrain.
Machiavelli was--we have only one letter from his wife, Marietta. We
have letters of friends that speak of his wife. We have two letters
from his younger son, Guido, in which Guido speaks of mother. What we
can derive from this little evidence is--is that Marietta Corsini was
very fond of Niccolo. She missed him badly.
LAMB: When did they marry?
Prof. VIROLI: If I remember correctly, he must have married her soon
after the death of the father. I guess 1501, 15--15...
LAMB: How old were they?
Prof. VIROLI: Well, we don't know of Marietta, but Niccolo at the
time must have been around 31, 32.
LAMB: Where did he meet her?
Prof. VIROLI: Well, they were belonging to--they both belonged to
families that--Florentine families of the same social ranking.
Machiavelli could not have married--Niccolo Machiavelli could not have
married a woman of the nobility. And Marietta Corsini could not have
married a prominent ari--aristocrat. You--as you know, at the time,
marriages were a political and economic affair. It was essential for
a--a--a--a rich farmer to marry their daughters well, to someone at
least as powerful or as wealthy. So it's not surprising that
was--Niccolo must have thought about getting married after the death
of his father, because I'm sure Niccolo doesn't like loneliness and
solitude. And--and he wanted to be surrounded by a family. They had
He was affectionate, Niccolo. We can see that, because Marietta says,
`When you are here, we feel safe. It's better. When you are not with
us, I'm sad and disgusted.' And she was angry at him because he was
spending so much time abroad for diplomatic missions.
Niccolo was also a good father, a wonderful father. When I say
`wonderful father,' I mean a father who was not imposing, not
authoritarian. He was too poor and too powerless to be authoritarian.
But we have a--one--we have two letters from Niccolo Machiavelli to
his son, Guido, that are really spectacular, the best, I think, of the
entire collection of Niccolo's personal letters. You can see that
Niccolo was teaching his son how to be a good person, how to try to
attain great things by working, by studying. And the way in which he
teaches is tender, is affectionate. He doesn't say, `You must.' He
says, `If you do that, if you believe in yourself, you will attain a
life probably, great things, more than I have done.'
And he tells Guido--he teaches his son, Guido, a wonderful story about
weak creatures, the story of the little mule. Guido says, `Wait. We
have here in the farm a mule that has become crazy, mad.' And what you
normally do with crazy mules is to kill them or to tie them up.
Niccolo says to the son, `Don't do that. Let him free. Bring him
somewhere where he can be free. Freedom will probably help the little
animal to regain his sanity.' It's a wonderful story, wonderful story.
Having said all that, I must immediately emphasize Machiavelli was not
a loyal husband, not at all. He loved--Marietta Corsini was not the
greatest love of his life. He was too fascinated by women's beauty,
and he pursued it with great devotion, with some success, if we judge
from the record that we have, until he was quite old for his time,
till he was 54. His last love that we know of was dramatic, because
he fell in love with a younger woman, very attractive, Ms. Barbara,
or Barbara (pronounced bar-BAIR-ah), an opera singer. And Niccolo
said--he remarks that if you fall in love with a woman who's very
attractive, much younger than you, it's likely that you suffer
be--because, as he wrote in a nice poem, little poem, `so much beauty
deserves much younger person.'
With women, what I found extraordinary is that the common opinion
sustained by important scholars that Niccolo was a macho is completely
absurd, completely. I've seen--I've shown in the book that in the
important occasions, he treats women as equals. That's not the
behavior of a macho. He says that he has found in women more
tenderness, more gratitude, deeper compassion and friendship, more
lasting friendship than in men. He says that women are better then
men, even in governing kingdoms.
And what impressed me in reading this side of Niccolo's life is that
he felt for women a kind--he felt he was similar to women, in one
sense, that, like women in 16th century Florentine society, he was not
part of the privileged circle. And all the stories I have--I've
rediscovered about his love affairs, they show us a Machiavelli
that--Machiavelli who is a poet, who has a poetic abandonment about
LAMB: How many love affairs were you able to identify?
Prof. VIROLI: The record speaks. We--one woman who was waiting for
him nearby Pontelogratz, certainly one when he was in France, Jan or
John. Then the best, the most lasting story with Lucretzia. (Foreign
language spoken), the curly .. …. Then probably the
wife of (foreign language spoken). Then for sure, Barbara, and--and
how many others.
LAMB: Did he have any children by any of these women?
Prof. VIROLI: No.
LAMB: And did his wife know about these women?
Prof. VIROLI: I ask myself the same question. I think that it was
difficult for her to know. But I cannot answer the question that I
think is even more difficult, namely had she known, what was--would
have been--what would have been her reaction?
LAMB: How did all this go down in a Catholic country back then?
Prof. VIROLI: Oh, precisely in a Catholic country is the right
country where you can have affairs.
Prof. VIROLI: Because there is a double morality. Because there is
the pope. And remember that popes, at time, were the most libertine
creatures on Earth. Read the letter in which Victoria
speaks--describes--Victoria was in Rome, was the ambassador of the
papal court. He describes how he spends his evenings. And he says,
`Around 8:00 some women come to spend the evening with us, only to
chat,' he says, `because I'm too old to do much else.' They're coming
from the court of the pope. They've completed their day of service,
and now they stop by graciously.
The friars, they were famous for being libertines. Consider the story
that Machiavelli says, puts in the mouth of a character in one of his
comedies, "Clizia," there is a woman speaking of another woman and she
says, `Well, she wanted to be pregnant. They told her that if she
goes for 40 days in a row, to take the first Mass in the morning in
the friar, in the fr--s--in the convent, the monastery, she will
certainly get the miracle of getting pregnant.' And the other woman
says, `It would be a miracle if she did not get pregnant by--after
going for 40 days to take Mass.'
Catholic countries are countries in which transgression is much
easier, much easier. Certainly Niccolo had no moral anxieties about
his devotion to women's beauty. And considering one last aspect that
Florence was Catholic, but also there was this vein of paganism. That
is to say, mentality focused on the pursuit of beauty, pleasure,
LAMB: Why--and this is my dog-eared copy from many years ago in
Prof. VIROLI: That's wonderful.
LAMB: Why has this survived all these years, 400 years, and is read
in this country still by a lot of people in college, high school?
Prof. VIROLI: It is certainly read. It is discussed. It is
translated. There are--there are new translations coming out every
year. Why? I think because in that text, Niccolo Machiavelli tells
us, or reveals to us some important truths about political life.
Truths that surpass, that go beyond his own time, his own
te--intellectual context of his time. Of course, in "The Prince"
Machiavelli meant to--to teach something to the political leaders of
his own time. But certainly, he wanted to teach something important
about politics to possible future princes interested in becoming great
princes. There's one thing I want to make clear. Niccolo never told,
never intended to teach princes--real or possible, present or future,
princes how to gain power. He wanted to teach them how to do great
things in politics, such as redeeming a country, liberating a people,
restoring political life, emancipating your republic from corruption.
He really was not the teacher of ordinary, low, mediocre, mean,
miserable politics. He was a teacher of grand politics. That is--I
think, is the lasting beauty of that text.
LAMB: Now you've been in this country around 15 years.
Prof. VIROLI: Thirteen.
LAMB: Thirteen. Of all the politicians you've seen in the United
States, would you call any of them Machiavellian?
Prof. VIROLI: It's a difficult question. You know that in my
courses--I teach a course in political theory, I never comment about
the United States because I'm a resident alien and I think it is
indelicate for me to comment about the life of a country to which I
cannot contribute since I'm not an American citizen.
But I can certainly answer your s--your questions by saying that if
you mean to kn--what--the meaning of your question is, you think there
are politicians that are Machiavellian, the answer is easy. There's
plenty of them. Politicians who are simulators, people whom you
cannot trust, people who are always prepared to seek their own
advantage. Or the advantage of their faction, and to put the interest
of their group above the common interest of the republic. There are
plenty of them.
But if you ask me, have you ever seen in America or do you know of,
from American history, political leaders whom Machiavelli would have
admired? Would have said, `He is a great politician'? Then the
answer is, yes. Machiavelli loved founders and redeemers. Those who
have founded new states or those who have redeemed republics from
corruption, from slavery, from oppression. You had plenty.
Machiavelli liked leaders who were capable of inspiring, of touching
people's passions, of generating a culture, of sustaining hope. You
had politicians like that. You had people like Roosevelt. You had
people like Lincoln. You had people like Martin Luther King. These
were certain politicians that Machiavelli would have enjoyed to meet.
And I'm sure that they would have enjoyed the company of Niccolo.
LAMB: How big was he?
Prof. VIROLI: Slim.
Prof. VIROLI: Reasonably tall, but slim. I--I g--it's a guess,
because we have--yes, we have a letter of his wife in which his wife
describes him, the baby that she just--she had just had, and she say,
`He looks like you,' so we know that he had dark eyes, that he was
slim, and also because he was slim, he survived the torture in--when
he was tortured in 1513, when he was accused of a conspiracy against
the Medici. He was tortured and the torture was the torture of the
rope. People were hanged to the ceiling, tied to their back.
LAMB: With the arms behind their back? And...
Prof. VIROLI: Mm-hmm. Yes.
LAMB: And the rope was tied?
Prof. VIROLI: Yeah. And then they let the rope and they went, and
that was the torture, and he survived because he was slim. If
LAMB: What were the circumstances that he found himself in that
Prof. VIROLI: Because they found a note.
LAMB: Who's they?
Prof. VIROLI: The prosecutors of the Medici regime. They discovered
a note in the pocket of one of the conspirators that they captured and
there was a list of names, 18 names, and one of the names was the name
of--the name of Niccolo Machiavelli. So the prosecutors--prosecutors
were people loyal to the Medici--implied that Niccolo Machiavelli was
part of the conspiracy. So they seized him, they put him in jail and
they tortured him, in order to obtain a confession, because the legal
system at the time was based on the confession. It was not based on
LAMB: How long was he in jail?
Prof. VIROLI: From January--ah, it was easy--through March 10. He
LAMB: Of what year?
Prof. VIROLI: 1513. Bec--he was liberated, thanks to the amnesty
because a member of the Medici family became pope with the name of Leo
X. So there was great--there were great festivities in Florence and
they--and of course, the election of the Medici pope meant that the
regime of the Medici Florence were felt to be much safer. Therefore,
it could afford...
LAMB: Was he religious?
Prof. VIROLI: That's a new--that's a--a question that--on which tons
of ink have been that--which tons of ink has been--have been used in
order to try to answer. Some scholars maintain that he w--had
ideologies of his own, not Catholic. He disliked the Roman church.
He despised Christianity, the ethos of Christianity. He writes in the
"Discourses on Livy," his major work, he says that Christianity has
the great responsibility of having made the world weak, because
Chris--Christian religion teaches human beings to be humble, to
suffer, that there is dignity in suffering, that their sufferance will
be rewarded in the afterlife. I don't think Niccolo was religious
in--as a Christian or as a Catholic. Did he entertain a Christian or
religious hope for salvation? My answer is that he didn't. In fact,
if there is one figure, one name that is remarkably absent from his
works, and from his letter is Jesus. Can you be a Christian without
taking Jesus, the figure of Jesus, the Redeemer, the Savior?
I think that he never became religious, not even in his last years.
And there--here I enter in a very difficult terrain because there are
scholars who have claimed that Niccolo, in--at the end of his life,
had a moral and religious crisis. He became religious. I think on
the contra--on the contrary that certainly until 1521, that is to say,
six years before his death, he showed no sign of religious conversion.
And we have evidences that he was still Niccolo, the irreverent, the
anti-Christian. And the evidence is a letter from a man who knew
Niccolo very well, intelligent, astute, cold, powerful,
Guicciardini--Francesco Guicciardini, one of the greatest Italian
political thinkers of the time. And Guicciardini says, `Now that
you're in Carpi'--he was involved in a strange mission in a monastery,
having to do with monks all day. Guicciardini says, `Be careful not
to become devout, because you are dealing every day with monks.
Because since you have lived all your life as a non-religious person,
if you now become--if you now convert yourself and you become a
devout, people will say that your conversion is not the result of the
fact that you're good. It's the result of your senility. People will
think that you have turned senile.' And what he did in Carpi to the
monks, shows that he was not very keen to become religious. In fact,
he spent most of his time plotting jokes against the monks, hilarious
Then we have the story of Niccolo's dream. Friends--it's a--it's a
story--there are some evidences, but not compelling evidences that on
his death bed Machiavelli described the dream that he had, and the
moral of the dream was that Machiavelli openly said to his friends
that when he--he said, `When I die, I don't want to go to paradise. I
want to go to hell, because it's much more interesting a place. And
in hell, I can talk to the great people of antiquity,' the people he
loved. My last remark on your question, `Was he religious?' is the
following: I think Niccolo did not believe in God, though he spoke a
lot about God from political point of view, because Niccolo did not
need God in order to attain a kind of transcendence, infinity. For
him great pages, thinking about grand political ideas, composing books
that would last was his way of attaining glory. And glory means that
you survive time. He didn't need God.
LAMB: Do you teach Machiavelli at Princeton?
Prof. VIROLI: I do. I do.
LAMB: What do your students think of him?
Prof. VIROLI: Teaching at Princeton has been, for me, a spectacular
experience, a spectacular experience. What students in the--I teach
large courses, courses like political theory. This year I have about
300 students. What do they say about Machiavelli? Some of them say,
`No, Professor Viroli, you're wrong.' You know that American students,
they do not hesitate to question the professor, which would be a
scandal by Italian standards. Some say, `No, Professor Viroli,
Machiavelli is a teacher of evil. He is immoral.' But others say,
`Niccolo deserves admiration because he was courageous. He said what
the other political theorists did not want to say about politics. He
has uncovered to us the real meaning of political action, both the
greatness of politics and the horrors of politics. In any case,
Machiavelli has showed us with the ambivalent--the ambivalent
greatness of politics in bad terms and in good terms.' So I get, as
you would say, mixed comments from the students.
LAMB: Machiavelli worked for a government how often? How long? How
many years? How many different princes?
Prof. VIROLI: Niccolo Machiavelli served as a secretary of the
Republic of Florence from 1498 through November 1512. That is about
15 years. Then he was dismissed when the new regime replaced
the--the--a regime controlled by the family of Namidici replaced the
republic for which Machiavelli was working. Machiavelli never had
direct political power. He was an adviser. He--his job was to, say,
go to France, go to Rome and meet the king of France or meet the pope
and report back in writing. So when people say Machiavelli was a
politician, it's not correct. He was--he could not make a single
decision. Other--other leaders, other committees were deciding on the
basis of his letters, but he had no political power whatsoever. Then
from 1512 until very late, until 1525, he was in disgrace. He had no
relevant political positions. None. And...
LAMB: How did he make money?
Prof. VIROLI: He had ve--he was penniless. In order to make
money--well, he was living out of his possessions. He had some land
south of Florence in Sant'edrine Pucacina, some land, so he had wood,
the products of--he had chicken. He--he was--he says in a letter, `In
the evening, when I sit with my family, we eat the little that we can
afford.' All his letters to his family are letters that end with
recommendation, try to spend as little as possible.
LAMB: Do you have a family of your own?
Prof. VIROLI: Yeah. I have--I live with a companion in Italy.
Prof. VIROLI: No. I do not have children of my own.
LAMB: How much time do you spend in Italy and how much time in the
Prof. VIROLI: I spend a lot of time in Italy, because I am involved
in some kind of civic activities. Because I think that the duty of a
scholar is not simply--scholar who studies political theory, is not
simply to write books and to teach, but also to be active. By being
active, I mean taking position on political and moral issues. In my
case, on political and moral issues in Italy, speaking up, trying to
LAMB: Do you belong to a party in Italy?
Prof. VIROLI: No, I don't belong to a party. I belong to a cultural
association that dates back to the old days of the resurgemente. It's
a secular, liberal association, small, prestigious, not powerful.
What do we do? Our goal has always been to try to keep alive a civic
culture. By civic culture, I mean, a culture or a mode of life based
on the idea that to be a citizen does not simply mean to have rights,
but also to have duties, responsibilities, doesn't simply--to be a
citizen does not simply mean that they owe something to you. It also
means that if you want to remain free, if you want to live in a decent
society, you have to be prepared to give something, give your
intelligence, your time, your strength, your courage. And in order to
do that, I go to Italy. I write for a newspaper. I'm a columnist.
LAMB: Which one?
Prof. VIROLI: La Stampa of Turin.
LAMB: You say you're a Communist?
Prof. VIROLI: No, no. A columnist.
LAMB: Com--I'm sorry. Because Communists are active in Italy, aren't
Prof. VIROLI: They were. They were. And I--I, too, was a member of
the Communist Party. That's a funny story. I think another time I
might reveal it.
LAMB: We are about out of time, but I want to ask you, you dedicate
this book to the former mayor of Ravenna?
Prof. VIROLI: Ravenna.
LAMB: Ravenna? And who is the mayor and when did he live?
Prof. VIROLI: The mayor of Ravenna was my great friend, Pier Paolo
D'Attorre. He was few years older than me; he died some years ago.
He was a brilliant historian and at certain time in his life he
decided to become the mayor of his own city, Ravenna, on the Adriatic
coast. And for me, Pier Paolo D'Attorre remains the example of a
person who entered in politics in order to do some good to his own
city, to his own people, to build a city that is beautiful because it
is just, that is pleasant because it's dignified and it is dignified
because it is a city that takes care above all of those who are weak.
Pier Paolo D'Attorre, in my mind, my judgment is the best example of
what a democratic politician should be.
LAMB: Here's the cover of the book. It's called "Niccolo's Smile."
Maurizio Viroli has been our guest. Thank you very much.
Prof. VIROLI: Thank you.
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