Note on Translation and Selection of Texts
The selection of texts presented in this translation is intended to guide the reader through the arc of Machiavelli's political and literary life: from his early years as a civil servant for the Republic of Florence to his fall from favor upon the return of the Medici to Florence in 1512, and his subsequent efforts to return to participation in the political life of his beloved city. These phases in Machiavelli's career are signaled, in broad strokes, by the inclusion of selections from his personal correspondence at three distinct moments: his early letters (1498-1513); his midcareer letters (1517-24); and his late letters (1525-27). These clusters of letters serve to orient the reader to important events and relationships in Machiavelli's life, setting the stage for the translations of his political and literary works that follow between them.
By 1513 Machiavelli, who had experienced torture and exile from his beloved city, was at work—from his farm outside Florence—on ThePrince, a treatise he hoped would restore him to favor with the Medici, as well as on the Discourses on Livy; by 1520, having found success with literary compositions such as The Mandrake, he was tasked with writing the history of his native city. This work, the Florentine Histories, translated less frequently than The Prince, was Machiavelli's final major undertaking and is a centerpiece here: the reader is offered, through the inclusion of a substantial selection of chapters, the opportunity to observe not only how Machiavelli's political thought and theory of history come together as he attempts to make sense of Florence's past and future, but also how he continues to navigate the delicate and frustrating nuances of his uncertain position with respect to the Medici, whose own history is integral to that of the city.
The excerpts offered in this translation, moreover, have been chosen to reflect some of Machiavelli's most famous and enduring ideas: for example, the concepts of virtù—a combination of political and military skill—and fortuna, represented as a furious river apt to overrun cities unprepared for flood, or personified as a woman who must be violently subdued; the importance of appearances—a prince must appear to be good, but to succeed, he must know how to do evil; the cyclical nature of history. The variety of texts, which include letters, political treatises, literary comedy, and history—some well-known, others familiar primarily to specialists—is intended to offer a broad picture of Machiavelli's range as a writer. He is analytical, complex, and precise in works such as The Prince and Florentine Histories; adept at manipulating literary tropes and transposing political observations onto mercantile society in The Mandrake; by turns incisive, witty, reflective, and warm in his familiar correspondence.
The translation strives in its style to convey the meaning and spirit of Machiavelli's works to the modern reader while remaining as close as possible to Machiavelli's own vocabulary and prose. In a very few cases where no single English term can convey the necessary nuance of a concept (for example, Machiavelli's wholly original use of the term virtù; or terms for certain ranks or political offices) the Italian has been retained, but in general, I have endeavored to find appropriate and evocative equivalents in English. Key terms central to Machiavelli's political philosophy are identified and discussed in the glossary.
Overall, then, this translation retains as much as possible of the original grammatical structures, sentence breaks, and rhythm of Machiavelli's style. My intention has been to provide a fluid, accurate, and accessible translation without sacrificing Machiavelli's distinctive idiom.
Translations are based on Niccolò Machiavelli, Opere, 3 volumes, edited by Corrado Vivanti (Turin: Gallimard, 1997-2005) with reference to the Edizione Nazionale delle opere di Niccolò Machiavelli (Rome: Salerno, 2001-). A full list of editions and translations consulted is included in the bibliography.