Last Tuesday, Prof. Michael Corgan delivered a lecture to the students of CC201: The Renaissance, on the topic of The Prince by Machiavelli. To provide context for his lecture in the intellectual arc of the course, Prof. Jennifer Formichelli introduced Prof. Corgan with the following remarks.
Last week Professor Ricks made a salient distinction between Petrarch and his adjective, Petrarchan. A man cannot be his own adjective, said Prof Ricks; and as we are studying Machiavelli, whose adjective, like Petrarch’s, garnered arguably more power than the work of the man himself, we might keep the dictum in mind. “No one,” said T.S. Eliot, ‘was ever less Machiavellian than Machiavelli’.
Professor Kennedy asked us to think last week about Petrarch as a professional. Yet, although he refrained from attachment to those institutions so valuable to medieval life, he yet skirted their edges: he had a sinecure in the Church, an education in the universities, a life of research in the libraries and scriptoriums of Europe, and a presence in prominent courts.
If Petrarch raised in his lifetime the stature of poetry amongst the arts, and revived in his own honours the tradition of the laurel crown of the classical world, he did so as an innovator in feeling, if not in form. For Petrarch wrote in the classical forms—epic, letter—and in the courtly forms inherited from Dante and the Italian poets of the Trecento, themselves the heirs of the Provençal love poets of the generation before them. What Petrarch inherited were the forms of courtly love, the vernacular romance poems of sonnet, canzoniere, and sestina, which had become even by his time the conventional vehicles for expression of courtly love, a posture and practice had originated in the life of the Provençal courts in the 12th Century, a practice itself already perhaps fading away in Petrarch’s day, and which was , C.S. Lewis tells us, marked by ‘courtesy, humility, adultery, and the Religion of Love.’
Petrarch is therefore an artist on ‘that borderland of fading and change’, a place where the old forms remain, though the feelings which produced them are gone. This is one reason why the adjective ‘Petrarchan’ has a power that Petrarch sometimes lacks: for those new feelings cast in old forms took on a new life in another language, English, onto which they were grafted, and from which they gained a force of vivacity that came from a new way of thinking and speaking in verse: the crucial innovation, which you heard in Professor Ricks’s reading, was not in fact a new form, but a new twist on the old, achieved by Wyatt, Surrey and Shakespeare, by alternating the line patterns from 4-4-3-3, or 8/6, to 4-4-4-2, a change which shifted the turns of the verse and gave birth to the closing couplet, whose force has not yet left our tongue or mind.
Petrarch then may not have belonged to any institution; instead he belonged to every institution of medieval life; but his greatest artistic debt — both financial and literary — is to the court, from which world he turned and returned, in both life and imagination, vacillating always between the life of action and the life of contemplation.
In 1469, just shy of a 100 years from Petrarch’s death in 1374, came another man who was a peripheral participant and studious observer of the world of the courts; though what enchanted Machiavelli was not courtly love, romances, poetry, or patronage, but statesmanship, the very ways in which rulers governed and people were governed.
A Florentine who was provided with a new humanistic education , an education which emphasized rather than theology the study of ‘grammar, rhetoric, poetry, moral philosophy and history’, and at whose heart was a study of the best achievements of the classical past, Machiavelli came of age in a volatile Florentine city-state, first under the reign of Lorenzo Medici, early patron of Michelangelo, after whose death came Savonarola, the charismatic Dominican friar who led the city in its infamous ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’. In 1498, the year of Savonarola’s execution as a heretic, Florence became a ‘republic’ under the watch of a gonfalionier, and the young Machiavelli was elected to a decently prominent government post, Chancellor of the Second Chancellory, a position in which he also served as Secretary to the Council of Ten, whose mandate was war and foreign affairs.
Machiavelli not only fully joined the life of the court and state (for in those days they were inseparable), but got the opportunity to observe the courts of others on his mandated diplomatic missions. Four such visitations made an indelible impression: his visit to the court of Louis XII in France, 1500; his many visits to that of Cesare Borgia, Duke of Romagna, 1499-1503; his visit to that of Pope Julius II, 1507; and, that same year, to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian.
In 1513, the political winds changed, and Machiavelli was forced on pain of death into exile from Florence. Outside the court, he was made to resort to the life of contemplation, a life which however much Petrarch may have prized it, suited Machiavelli not at all; ‘in the company of bumpkins’, as he put it, ‘I keep my brain from turning moldy’. This he did by writing, and writing a work which combined his astute powers of observation with his study of ancient history into a remarkable, frightening and perpetually living analysis of the ways in which power is got, kept and lost in human history.
And for that, we turn to our very own Professor Corgan of International Relations.