Machiavelli, Guicciardini, and the Papal State

Machiavelli, Guicciardini, and the Papal State  (1992) 
by Adrian Comollo

This article was presented by the Author at the 1992 annual convention of the American Association of Italian Studies in Chapel Hill, NC.

The eight centuries of Italian literature, starting with St. Francis of Assisi, Jacopone da Todi and Dante, are strewn with major and lesser writers who show a lively interest in Christian values and in the Roman Catholic church, which claims to be the standard-bearer and promotor of such values.

A fair number of these writers were in the clergy itself: we think of Petrarch, Boccaccio in his later years, and Ficino, Bembo, Sarpi, Campanella, Muratori, Parini, just to mention the most well-known. Many are found also among devout laity, such as Galileo Galilei, Manzoni, and Fogazzaro.

Many of them, aware of their social duties both as Christians and as writers, do not hesitate to censure, more or less rigorously, the distance between the church of their times and the evangelic model. Some even suffered severe sanctions by the powerful ecclesiastical hierarchy.

Dante, for instance, in the Divine Comedy, often hurls himself against the thirst for power of the Holy See and the Pope, who, as shepherds, turned themselves against the Christian fold like hungry wolves. For this reason his poem has been looked upon with suspicion by ecclesiastical authorities until recently.

The specific object of this research is to analyze Niccolò Machiavelli and Guicciardini's attitude towards the Holy See's administration and behavior, two centuries after Dante.

Machiavelli lacks Dante's philosophical disposition and for these reasons he doesn't show any interest in writing a treatise on principles like the Monarchia. However, in various passages of his works one can notice a strongly critical attitude towards the Papal State of his times. His criticism is directed toward three main areas: political, religious, and social.

Even though he doesn't want to dwell too much on the origin and lawfulness of the Pope's temporal authority (a prickly subject for one who had to maintain friendly diplomatic relations with Rome)[1] he condemns him anyway for representing the main obstacle to his political dream: a united Italian state as strong as France and Spain, able to oppose the expansionist disposition of those countries. The very cause of the peninsula's political division is the church. This is what the clearly expresses in the well known passage from the Discourses: "The church has kept, and still keeps, this province (Italy) divided . . . She is the reason why Italy . . . has not a republic or a prince to govern her, only the church . . . not strong enough to occupy the whole of Italy, and not allowing anyone else to do so, caused her not to come under one leader. . . ."[2] For Machiavelli the unity of a nation is the summum bonum and the basic condition for a Country to prosper. [3]

With bitter humorism he invites those who don't share his point of view to try an experiment: transfer the Roman court "in the land of the Swiss," a people he considers extremely upright and disciplined, "and they would see how in a short time the evil morals of the court would create more confusion in that province than any other accident that could arise." [4]

When it comes to religion Machiavelli is not the cold time-server that some would have people believe. Echoing Savonarola, he complains how the Christian religion had decayed from "its principles," coming close, "without any doubt, to ruin or punishment."[5] The common belief that Machiavelli considers Christianity to be inferior to the classical religions is not founded. With great care, he makes a distinction between original Christianity and the corrupted one of his times. He says: "If from the beginning of the Christian republics the Christian religion would have maintained itself according to its giver's order, the Christian state and republic would have been more united and happy that they are presently."[6]

An indirect but clear hint of the origin of his religious skepticism is given us by this affirmation: "those people who are closer to the Roman church, head of our religion, have less sense of religion." To explain the reason for the slack and conformist religiosity of his fellow citizens, he adds: " . . . For the evil examples of this court, [Italy] has lost all devotion and all religion." He sadly concludes that peace, every nation's greatest good, fails to be achieved if religion is missing, because without religion "unlimited troubles and unlimited disorders" arise, instead,"where there is religion you expect all good." [7] That's why, at the time of the first Popes, religion was kept in high esteem and social order received great benefit from it: " . . . the first [Popes] after Saint Peter, because of their holy lives and their miracles, where honored by men; their example enlarged the Christian religion so that the princes needed to obey it in order to eliminate all the confusion existing in the world." [8]

Talking about these "unlimited troubles and disorders" of a nation fallen into irreligion, the situation in La Mandragola comes to mind. In the play it's only Fra Timoteo's (who betrays his own "spiritual daughter" for money) diabolic malice that induces Lucrezia to commit adultery, the sin symbol of subversion of family and society. The greed of Fra Timoteo, who is considered a typical representative of the clergy, lies at the root of the whole society's ruin. The cynicism of La Mandragola is only apparent. In the light of the passages quoted above it only makes a deeper discomfort: the smile of Machiavelli's famous bust is, above all, the bitter smile of a man who sees the basic virtues trampled down by those who should make them be observed.

We are then justified in noticing in Lucrezia's story an autobiographic reference telling how Machiavelli lost his original trust in religion because of the hypocrisy of those authorities placed to guard its values. Since then he directed his research towards civic values, becoming an admirer of republican Rome. Let's not forget that the name Lucrezia has for Machiavelli a double meaning. It may refer to the virtuous Roman matron as well as to the corrupted daughter of Alessandro VI: in La Mandragola this metamorphosis takes place.

Once Machiavelli lost his hope of finding a strong foundation in the official religion, he organized his own hierarchy of values on strictly secular, political and earthly bases, and concentrated his efforts on his dream of a strong Italian state and on this altar he sacrificed everything. He even gets to the point of advising Lorenzino de Medici to seek the support of Pope Leo X -- he too a member of the Medici family -- forgetting what he had previously written about the harmful effects on Italy of the Pope's political power.[9] But at this stage Machiavelli's urge to act was so strong that theoretical considerations could no more restrain him.

As we draw conclusions, we notice how Machiavelli's criticism of the Pope's government heads in one direction: to denounce the dramatic distance of the hierarchy of his times from the original one and the consequent decay of the people's religious and social customs. [10]

Though Guicciardini wasn't as convinced, as Machiavelli was, on the advantages of a powerful and united Italian state, he surely agreed with him in diagnosing the extreme degradation of the Roman Catholic church and the political and social damages that come from these conditions. He describes this situation to us with abundant detail in several passages of his writings. It's not surprising that his Storie d'Italia was immediately included in the Index of Forbidden Books, and published in the Catholic countries only after a complete cancellation ("Amendment," with a technical-euphemistic meaning) of the incriminated passages. Of course, such passages were emphasized and publicized by Protestants just as they had previously done with Dante's Monarchia. [11]

Being a perfect diplomat and aware of the personal danger he would have been exposed to, Guicciardini was wise enough not to publish his writings while living. The Ricordi, with its particularly sharp observations, not only were given to the press after his death, but also under a false name, since his sons didn't want to be looked upon as irreligious in a society where respectability depended a lot on having good relations with the church. [12] Like many other publications too explicit for those days, the Ricordi came to light in liberal Venice. The twenty-eighth chapter of the Ricordi is the most famous. In this chapter Guicciardini bitterly criticizes the Roman clergy and explains also, as an extenuating circumstance his reasons for not taking a stand: "I don't know who more than I find displeasurable the priest's ambition, greed and slackness . . . however, the position I held under several popes has forced me to love, for my person's sake, their greatness: if it wasn't for this respect I owe, I would have loved Martin Luther as myself . . . to see this mass of scoundrels reduced to the proper manner, that is to be or without vice, or without authority."[13]

Obviously our writer is too involved with, we could even say, compromised, by the Roman court to be able to go beyond an outburst of wholesome anger, but through this thought we see a noble soul and a certain moral vigor. He has to hide his feelings under a form of nicodemism, but at the same time he doesn't give up handing down to posterity a powerful accusation that might stir up someone to make justice. The failure of the experiment of Savonarola, "the unarmed prophet," is still vivid in his mind and for this reason, as a prudent politician (and, it has to be said, unlike Savonarola and Luther, he had a wife and several daughters to settle), he doesn't want to venture into actions with no chance of success and no coming back. But at the same time, he wishes to disassociate himself from the corruption of the Roman court and justify himself before history's tribunal. Some could liken his attitude to Pilate's, but I prefer to talk about nicodemism, an access of prudence rather than a lack of courage.

While the passage quoted above from the Ricordi illustrates Guiccardini's dramatic position, forced to revere those who deep inside he despised, other passages in Storia d'Italia and other works (all published post-mortem) illustrate the start and development of the Pope's temporal power. They vividly paint some scenes of this corrupted court and explain the reason for the author's indignation. We quote here some of the most important parts.

Guicciardini follows the development of the church's temporal power echoing Dante's "Ah Constantin!" in the Comedy. The confusion in distinguishing between scepter and crozier is evident in the fact that the church, "established at first merely for the administration of spiritual matters, has become as the worldly states and empires." [14] As Dante before, Guicciardini compares the church before Constantin to the one after that is in gradual and clearer antithesis with the gospel teachings: the Supreme Pontiffs before Constantin were, following Peter's example, "great for charity, humility, patience, spirit and miracles . . . stripped of temporal power," [15] while the ones who followed "dismissed little by little the care for the well being of souls and the divine precepts, and turned all their attention towards worldly grandeur, not using their spiritual authority if not to serve their temporal power. They started to resemble secular princes rather than Popes." The consequences of this complete perversion were:" . . . armies . . . wars against Christians . . . deceit to collect money from all over" and then simony, luxury, lust, nepotism.[16]

Guicciardini has serious doubts pertaining to the authenticity of the Donation of Constantine, and he even insinuates that its authority comes principally from the fact that "some time the pontiffs have forced men to believe it through edicts and censures." [17] But even if this was no the case, (as an historian he bases his ideas only upon unquestionable facts) history shows how, throughout the centuries, the relationship between papacy and empire changed according to acts of force and not to solid and unchangeable juridical principles. For several centuries after Constantin "the pontiffs were not only obsequious but subject to the emperors," [18]and were by them elected directly or at least not without their consent, according to the laic custom of the roman order. Charles the Great was the first emperor who deviated from this tradition as he recognized the Pope as having some authority and gave him some land concessions. In reality, the coronation of Charles officiated by the Pope, did not have any clear juridical premises: "Since Charles in no other way could give his empire a juridical appearance, he agreed to have the emperor crowned by the pontiffs, who, to me seem to have interfered in this matter not with spiritual authority, but as head of the Roman people," and at this pace both authorities were carried "more because of the circumstances than because of reason."[19] But even under the Carolinian emperors, the pontiffs "even though they were closer to them as associates and no more in total subjection, they still consented to wait for their confirmation and to be subject to their judgment."[20] A change took place when the empire went to the Germans. Because the emperors were not powerful, they couldn't be obeyed by the pontiffs who "started getting strong without the empire's protection" and this confusion of powers started many wars.[21]

When it comes to the Popes that he frequented and served directly, Guicciardini's invectives couldn't be more explicit and wounding. As an example, let's consider the election and the moral standing of Alessandro VI: "Raised to the pontificate because of the disagreements between the cardinals . . . but even more because . . . he openly bought, some with money, others with promises . . . many of the cardinal's votes; who, despising the gospel teachings didn't feel ashamed . . . for trading . . . the sacred treasures, in the highest place of the temple." And further on he adds: "Alessandro VI had a remarkable diligence and sagacity . . . but these virtues were overwhelmed by vice: obscene morals . . . insatiable avarice, unrestrained ambition, and more than barbarian cruelty, fervid desire to extol his children, who were many."[22] Talking about his "obscene morals," the passage in the Storie where Guicciardini accuses Alessandro VI of incest is famous: "It was said . . . that not only her two brothers competed for Lucrezia's love, but even her father". This sad reputation of the Borgia family was to spread out that also Pontano wrote against Lucrezia the epigraph: "Hoc hiacet in tumulo Lucretia nomine, sed re /Thais, Pontificis filia, sponsa, nurus"--"In this tomb lies one who's name was Lucrezia, but in deed was Taide, of the pontiff daughter, wife, and daughter-in-law." [23] It seems that Guicciardini is not exaggerating since, besides Pontano, Egidis from Viterbo also wrote: "Every night, from sunset to one o'clock (after midnight), over 25 women are brought to the Pope, who always has his illicit flock, and the whole palace is turned into a brothel of shame." [24]

Leo X would have been a real Pope if "the diligence and care he had in extolling the church with temporal greatness with wars, would have been used to extol it with peace and in the spiritual matter," but he lived in an age where the true concept of religious authority was lost and he thought that it was "the pontiff's duty to add greatness to the apostolic seat with wars and Christians' blood, rather than with good example . . . for the salvation of those souls of whom, they boast, Christ has established them as His vicar."[25] His accusations against the contemporary Popes went beyond their private obscenities, but Guicciardini gets to the point of accusing them of laying waste the whole of Italy: "Because of their greed suggesting them to raise their relatives from private positions to princes . . . they have been causing, for a long time, new wars and disorders in Italy."[26]

As we draw conclusions, we can say that both Machiavelli and Guicciardini strongly criticize the Pope's temporal power, as a matter of principle, and even more as a reality. Even though they have several ties with the Roman court, they don't sell themselves to adulation like any other courtesan, but, as true nobles, they find the strength to denounce the scandal following Savonarola's example. What do they propose as an alternative? Machiavelli, totally disappointed with the present, reproposes the old Roman model, where the state controlled religion and the religious callings were done by the senate. Guicciardini too is against the church's interference with political matters and reproposes, even if he doesn't quote him directly, Dante's solution: reciprocal respect and independence of state and church. It's interesting to notice how the following centuries' writers refer themselves to the two solutions proposed by Machiavelli and Guicciardini regarding jurisditional problems between church and state. There would be Sarpi who followed closely Machiavelli's statalism, and Cavour, who with his formula "a free church in a free state," was inspired by Guicciardini's thesis. If we consider the present juridical situation of the church in Italy, the result, as we well know, of a pure compromise, our two authors would both be very unsatisfied.


  1. The tolerance for diversity of opinion, inherited from the Humanism was still alive in the Rome of the first sixteenth century: both of Machiavelli's Discourses and The Prince were published with the Pope's favor. Still it is evident how certain limits could not be surmounted even in this relatively liberal atmosphere: Savonarola and Pico's examples clearly prove it.
  2. See the introduction of C. Vivanti to the Discourses, Einaudi, 1983, p. xli
  3. See Discourses I, 12, 2. Along with this passage there are several others from the Istorie Fiorentine, one of which we quote : " . . . following those days [Charles the Great's], all the wars fought by the Barbarians in Italy were, for the most part, caused by the pontiffs . . . who's course of action has not changed in our day; this kept and keeps Italy divided and sick." (Istorie Fiorentine I,9).
  4. This is a recurring theme in the Principe, but it gets more dramatic in the famous last chapter (XXVI).
  5. Discorsi I, 12, 2.
  6. Discorsi I, 12, 1
  7. Ibidem.
  8. Discorsi I, 12, 2. Bonfantini comments on this subject in his introduction: "The profound theme of the Discorsi is every citizen's inward religiosity, necessary for a strong social organization . . ." Ricciardi, 1963, p. xxxi.
  9. Ist. Fior. I, 9.
  10. Principe chapter XXVI. His position follows, in its general concepts, Dante’s Comedy which the author knew well("Machiavelli," in Encicl. Dantesca).
  11. See: V Luciani, Francesco Guicciardini e la Fortuna dell'Opere Sue, Firenze, Olschiki, 1949, pp. 208-222.
  12. See E. Pasquini's introduction to the Ricordi, Garzanti, 1988, p. XLI
  13. F. Guicciardini, Ricordi, M 28 in Opere, compiled by V. De Capranus, Ricciardi, Milano-Napoli, 1961, p. 103.
  14. Storia d'Italia, III, 12 in Opere, p. 556.
  15. Ibidem.
  16. Ibidem, p. 564-565.
  17. Cose Fiorentine, in Opere, p. 351.
  18. Ibidem.
  19. Ibidem.
  20. Ibidem, p. 353.
  21. Ibidem, p. 354.
  22. Storia d'Italia, I, 2 in Opere, Ricciardi, p. 376.
  23. See: V. Luciani, quoted, p. 436, note 4.
  24. Quoted by M. Firpo in: E. Garin,L'Uomo del Rinascimento, Laterza, 1988, .p. 80
  25. Storia d'Italia, XI, 8, Ricciardi, pp. 808-809.
  26. Storia d'Italia, IV, 12, Ricciardi, p. 565.