Exiled, isolated, and depressed, Niccolo Machiavelli longs to return to power at any cost—but with the threat of torture still hanging over his head, Niccolo must bend to the will of the powerful Medici family.
As a university student, I read Machiavelli’s The Prince more than once. In my political theory class, we talked about his zero-sum view on politics. In a class on Renaissance Italy, we discussed his relationship with the Medici and Savonarola. I was so fascinated with Machiavelli that I wrote my undergraduate thesis on his assessment of the political uses of religion.
Some years later, I’m now a history professor, and I assign The Prince in my classes. Readers come to the text with preconceived notions: that Machiavelli was ruthless, lacked any moral code, and was, in short, “Machiavellian.” But consider the context. Less than a year earlier, Machiavelli had been arrested, thrown in jail for three weeks, and tortured multiple times. Upon release, he was exiled. And then he sat down to write The Prince, dedicating it to the very family that tortured and exiled him.
Yes, The Prince is cutthroat. But Machiavelli was writing for cutthroat rulers.
Just imagine Machiavelli in exile, waiting to hear what the Medici think of The Prince, still hating the family that ruined his life. Imagine one of the greatest political minds in history stuck in a small village, surrounded by “lice,” his brain molding (his words, not mine!).
As Machiavelli wrote in a letter to his friend Francesco Vettori, dated 10 Dec 1513, “these Medici princes should begin to engage my services, even if they should start out by having me roll along a stone. For then, if I could not win them over, I should have only myself to blame.”
To what lengths would he go to win over the Medici?
Those questions inspired my novel, , which is set just after Machiavelli finishes The Prince. Machiavelli wants to impress the family that abused him. What would he do if they asked him to investigate a murder? And what if the Medici family still suspected Machiavelli of plotting against them?
That hook allowed me to explore the world of Renaissance Florence through the eyes of a political exile, disillusioned with the bravado of young patrician rulers yet still dependent on their favors. I wanted to show a darker side of the Renaissance, one that often doesn’t appear in the rosy descriptions of Renaissance art. Clashes of honor, extravagant displays of wealth, and falls of fortune were parts of daily life in Renaissance Florence—as was the violence that could erupt at any moment.
I also wanted to create a rich and realistic role for Florence’s women by not only giving them a voice but also showing the power wielded by those forced to history’s margins. Although they were often treated like material goods to exchange on the Florentine marriage market, their value assessed by the dowry system, women were more than just wives, sisters, or daughters. In Florence, women used informal networks to get what they wanted. And in a city where nearly one in five women was a prostitute, brothels were big business, and most were run by women.
As a history professor, I challenged myself to think of history in different terms—and it taught me some lessons about the gaps in my historical training. What did it feel like to walk the streets of Renaissance Florence? What, exactly, did a courtesan wear in the early sixteenth-century? And if a dead body was found in the Arno River, where would it be taken?
If you’re wondering just how far Machiavelli might be willing to go—you’ll have to read the book!