In 1494, Charles VIII of France led an army into Italy. Though not the first instance of foreign interference, in retrospect it was an epoch-making event as none of the previous ones had been. It marked the beginning of the period of more or less continuous outside influence, and eventually, domination. The states chiefly involved, France and Spain, had by this time reached a stage in growth of their power and unity that enabled them to pursue their objectives over a long period of time. Italy was, because of its divisions and consequentweakness, the earliest battleground and victim of the emerging modern national states. The struggle between France and Spain, carried on in many places, was the first great problem of international relations in the modern sense, and the fight for control of Italy was only one part of it. The outcome was to be the loss of Italian independence until the second half of the nineteenth century. When Charles mounted his invasion, he was asserting the Angevin claim to the kingdom of Naples. As we have seen, he was encouraged by Ludovico the Moor of Milan. The invasion had profound effects. In Florence, it brought about the expulsion of the Medici and the reestablishment of the republic under the dominating influence of a Dominican friar, Savonarola. Arriving in Naples, Charles easily took over the government, as the king fled.

The French soon learned, however, how slippery was the ground they stood on. Charles's successes caused such alarm, both in Italy and elsewhere, that a league was formed against him. The pope, Venice, some foreign powers, and even Milan, which had called him in, took part. Faced by these forces, and far from his home base, Charles left a garrison in Naples and headed for the Alps and safety. He had to fight his way out of Italy, and had a close call at the battle of Fornovo (July 6, 1495). One reason for the failure of the allies to stop the French, perhaps, is that they were unable to enlist the help of Florence. The Florentines had made an alliance with France, to which they remained faithful. However, the French garrison in Naples was forced to surrender, and so the first French expedition into Italy proved a complete failure.

Ludovico the Moor seemed to be at the summit of his power and prestige. In 1494 he had been given the title of duke of Milan by the Holy Roman emperor Maximilian I. Shortly afterwards his nephew, the young duke whom he had supplanted, died, to the usual accompaniment of rumors of poison. Ludovico, having called in and then helped to expel the French, may have thought that his skill and cunning had enabled him to use the barbarians for his own purposes. He was soon to be undeceived; what he had really done was to help unloose forces that he could not control. Charles VIII died childless in 1498, to be succeeded by the duke of Orlans, who became Louis XII. One of his ancestors had married a daughter of Gian Galeazzo Visconti, and Louis determined to make good his claim to Milan as well as to Naples. In 1499, therefore, he invaded Italy, taking Milan and forcing Ludovico to flee. Though Ludovico Sforza later regained power, it was for only a brief period; he was taken captive and sent to France, where he spent the rest of his life in prison, dying in 1508. Before executing his designs on Naples, Louis had to come to terms with Ferdinand, king of Aragon, since the king of Naples was a member of the house of Aragon, and Ferdinand could not be expected to allow the French to take over the kingdom unchallenged. He was willing, however, to make a treaty in 1500 (Treaty of Granada) whereby France and Spain would divide Naples between them. There followed a successful joint invasion and occupation, which led to warfare between France and Spain. The Spanish troops were victorious, and by 1503 the French had been deprived of their hold on Naples, though the king did not abandon his claims. Now two opposing powers were established on the Italian mainland: France in Milan, Spain in Naples (as well as Sicily and Sardinia). By 1515 the French had even lost Milan, having been driven once more from Italy, this time by a league formed at the initiative of Pope Julius II. A member of the Sforza family became duke of Milan. The stubborn insistence of the French on pushing their Italian ambitions, even in the face of repeated disappointments, is shown in Louis's successor, Francis I (1515 47), who, in the first year of his reign, invaded Italy again. At the battle of Marignano (September 13 14, 1515), the French won a great victory and took Milan once more. The struggle for Italy went on. In 1516, with the death of Ferdinand, the latter's grandson became Charles I of Spain, and in 1519 he became Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. The conflict between Francis and Charles was to continue until Francis died, and to be carried on by their successors.

The trend of events was always against France, despite occasional successes. In 1525, at the battle of Pavia, not only were the French defeated, but also the king was captured and taken to Spain as a prisoner. In 1526, however, after signing a treaty in which he was forced to abandon his Italian claims and make other concessions (Treaty of Madrid), Francis was released and soon showed that he did not feel bound by his treaty obligations. In 1526, the League of Cognac was formed against Spain, in which the leading members were the king of France, eager to recoup his Italian position, and Pope Clement VII, alarmed at the growing Spanish predominance in Italy. Charles, as king of Spain, already ruled Naples and Sicily; after Pavia, he was also master of Milan. It was as a consequence that the Sack of Rome took place in 1527.

For a while the pope was a virtual prisoner of Charles in the Roman fortress of the Castel Sant'Angelo. In trying to loosen the Spanish grip on Italy, the pope had succeeded only in tightening it, bringing nearer the day when all of Italy, except Venice, would be either under direct Spanish rule or subservient to preponderant Spanish influence. Peace between Francis and Charles it was to prove only a truce came in 1529, at the Treaty of Cambrai, known as the Ladies' Peace, because the chief negotiators were the mother and sister of Francis and the mother of Charles. Francis's sister, Marguerite of Navarre was important in the religious and cultural history of France, and will concern us in future chapters. In the treaty, Francis again renounced his claims in Italy, but events were to show he had no intention of abiding by his renunciation.

FLORENCE 1494-1530

On the approach of the French in 1494, Piero de' Medici, son and successor of Lorenzo, had suffered a loss of nerve and had left the city to negotiate with Charles VIII. He extracted a promise from the French king to respect the freedom of the city, but only in return for handing over some of the most important fortresses protecting Florentine territory. When the news of this arrangement reached the city, it aroused a great wave of anger and resentment. Piero, forgetting the lessons of his ancestors, had already made himself unpopular by his arrogance and his flaunting of his position.

The consequence was an uprising that drove out Piero and his rule and restored a more popular government. The new government admitted the French to the city, and some tense negotiations took place, in which the Florentines feared that Charles would try to restore Piero and become their master. The determination of the citizens to resist these demands, by arms if need be, so impressed Charles that he did not press them, but departed leaving the city its freedom. He held on to the fortresses, including Pisa, which had thrown off Florentine rule at the approach of the French. To regain Pisa was a passion with Florence, and the hope of doing so with French help was one reason why Florence made an alliance with France and stuck to it faithfully during the next few years.

Among the men who had negotiated with Charles was the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, who was to be the dominant figure in Florentine politics for the next four years. (Illustration page 62) Born in 1452 in Ferrara, he was a member of a distinguished family. His grandfather, who was largely responsible for his education and early training, was a famous doctor who had become court physician for the ruling Este family. Girolamo manifested from an early age a strongly religious nature, and in 1475, without notifying his parents of his plan, he left home and entered the Dominican order. It took a few years for him to find his true vocation, which was preaching. He became a preacher of repentance, one of a line of such men who appeared periodically in the Middle Ages, calling on the people to turn from their worldly ways before it was too late. In time he developed a preaching style of great power and effectiveness, with a depth of earnestness and conviction that moved his hearers deeply. He first preached in Florence at various times in the 1480s, without much success in appealing to the general public. In 1490 Lorenzo called him to preach there again, and this was the start of his career as an important figure in Florentine public life. As prior of the Dominican house of San Marco, he at first gave sermons to the brothers, but his reputation became so great that he had to preach in the cathedral, to accommodate all those who wished to hear him.

Girolamo Savonarola

Savonarola's preaching was of the prophetic kind. He fiercely attacked church corruption and predicted God would send an avenger to purify it, and the avenger would come soon. The appearance of Charles VIII seemed to confirm his predictions; and Savonarola, therefore, enjoyed the immense prestige of a successful prophet. He also made no secret of his republican views in politics, being a good deal less courteous to Lorenzo than was customary. On the other hand, he visited Lorenzo on the latter's death bed, apparently amicably, although legends grew up around this meeting. It was said that Savonarola had demanded of the dying man that he restore liberty to Florence; this may have represented the friar's wishes, but the story seems not to be based on fact.

With the overthrow of the Medici, Savonarola became the leading political figure, as he was already the leading religious figure in Florence, though he did not hold public office. At his urging, a Great Council was adopted as the chief organ of government, in imitation of the Venetian example. The Venetian government was widely admired for its stability, but the stability could not be imported with the council, and fierce factional strife continued in Florence. One of the chief issues was Savonarola himself. Among his enemies were those who wished for a return of the Medici: the Franciscans, who were traditional opponents of the Dominicans, and those who opposed the strict regulation of morals and behavior that he imposed on the city. Striving to make Florence a city of Christ, he worked to suppress immoral and extravagant behavior. Bonfires of "vanities" were held for such things as ladies' cosmetics, immoral books, and works of art that might be regarded as harmful.

As the friar influenced Florence, so the city had its effect on him. Professor Donald Weinstein has shown how elements in the Florentine tradition were reflected in his preaching.3 The Florentines had long thought of their city as having a special mission as a center of reform and renewal, and Savonarola emphasized this theme. In addition, he appealed to somewhat more earthly motives by promising that Florence would experience a resurgence of power, prestige, and wealth. The friar's enemies were not confined to Florence. His condemnation of immorality in the church seemed to refer to Alexander VI, who was certainly a likely target, and the hostility of the pope was joined to that of his enemies at home. However, it is likely that the reason for the pope's opposition was chiefly political; he was working to create an anti-French coalition, which he wanted Florence to join. The Florentine government, led by Savonarola, however, clung stubbornly to the French alliance. It may have been a grave political mistake, because when they needed help from the French, they did not get it. The combination of enemies proved too strong for the friar and his adherents; he was excommunicated, forbidden to preach, and, in 1498, put to death after which his body was burned at the stake. The Florentine republic continued its existence, but it was weak from internal dissension and exposed to grave dangers from outside.

The Medici, with support from Spain, were preparing to recover the city. The Florentines had nowhere to turn but to France. From France, however, they received nothing but promises. With their situation becoming desperate, they turned to various expedients to strengthen themselves. One was to create in 1502 the office of Gonfaloniere a vita, which was given to Piero Soderini. Another innovation was the establishment of a body of citizen troops, or militia, an idea espoused by Niccol Machiavelli, a friend of Soderini, who detested mercenary troops. Machiavelli was put in charge of this body, which was established in 1506, working with indefatigable energy to recruit and train this new army. It scored one dazzling success in retaking Pisa in 1509, but it was no match for the seasoned troops of Spain. The decisive encounter came in 1512, at Prato, when the Spanish easily routed the militia, and Medici control over the city was reestablished.

The head of the family at this time was Cardinal Giovanni, the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, who in the following year became Pope Leo X. He remained the real ruler of the city and vitally interested in its affairs, but he needed someone on the spot. His first choice was his young nephew Lorenzo, son of the Piero who had been driven out in 1494 and had died in 1503. Lorenzo, however, died in 1519. The pope then sent his cousin Giulio, whom he had made a cardinal, to oversee the affairs of the city.

The new rulers, careful and circumspect, were able to retain their power successfully, though there was always an undercurrent of discontent. In 1513 a conspiracy against Medici rule was discovered and thwarted. Machiavelli was imprisoned and tortured, but released after a while on payment of a fine, since he was apparently innocent; the leaders of the plot were executed. After Giulio became Pope Clement VII in 1523, he continued to rule Florence. In 1527, the news of the Sack of Rome caused the Florentines once more to overthrow Medici rule and set up a republic. Three years later, with Spanish help, the pope again took control of the city. This time Medici rule became permanent and absolute; the pretense of a republic was abandoned, and the Medici, heretofore careful to avoid titles, became grand dukes of Tuscany. The days of Florentine republican freedom were over. During these years, Florence produced two of the keenest political observers and political thinkers of all time, Niccol Machiavelli and Francesco Guicciardini. Their work provides the best commentary on Italian politics of the Renaissance.


Machiavelli entered the service of Florence shortly after the fall of Savonarola and remained active until the return of the Medici in 1512. Though never in the highest ranks of government, he held responsible diplomatic posts and was sent on missions both to other Italian cities and outside Italy, to France and to the court of the Holy Roman emperor. His missions to Cesare Borgia have been mentioned already. After the return of the Medici, he was dismissed from his positions, along with others who had served the republic. He was banished from Florence, and lived on a small estate that he owned at San Casciano, not far from the city. In 1513, as we have seen, he was imprisoned, tortured, and released with a fine.

On December 10, 1513, he wrote a now-famous letter to his friend Francesco Vettori. He describes with disgust the petty pursuits and dull companions that fill his days. Then he tells how he solaces himself in his miseries:

On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day's clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.

And because Dante says it does not produce knowledge when we hear but do not remember, I have noted everything in their conversation which has profited me, and have composed a little work On Princedoms, where I go as deeply as I can into considerations on this subject, debating what a princedom is, of what kinds they are, how they are gained, how they are kept, why they are lost. And if ever you can find any of my fantasies pleasing, this one should not displease you; and by a prince, and especially by a new prince, it ought to be welcomed.4

The little book is The Prince. As a book of advice to rulers, it was one of a numerous species; many such books had been written in antiquity and in the Middle Ages. Some of the Italian humanists had produced such works, and in them had raised questions and expressed views which are continued in Machiavelli's book. For example, they had asked whether the Prince that is, the ruler is bound by conventional ethics, and they had tended to set up an exalted picture of the Prince as a creative figure, absolved from restraints and determining the form of the state. Yet Machiavelli claims to be doing something different from what his predecessors have done, for, while they were picturing ideal states that have never existed, he plans to deal with reality. His sources, he claims, are his own long experience and his constant study of the past. His aim is to tell monarchs how their states can be "governed and maintained." His chief interest, as he told Vettori, was in "new monarchies," as distinguished from hereditary ones; these new monarchies are those which a prince creates or acquires with his own abilities. The new princes to whom he devotes most attention are Francesco Sforza and especially Cesare Borgia.

His predecessors, in writing advice to princes, had concerned themselves with inculcating virtuous behavior, as did also many of his contemporaries, such as Erasmus; Machiavelli, however, tells the Prince how to gain and keep power. It is this sort of advice that has given his book its fame. The Prince should above all study the art of war, and should avoid the use of mercenary troops. More sensational is the counsel that a prince must "learn how not to be good." It would be praiseworthy, he admits, for the Prince to possess those qualities that are considered virtuous, but to survive in this world he must have "those vices, without which it would be difficult to save the state." This pessimistic conception of ruling is related to Machiavelli's pessimistic attitude toward human nature, which he expresses numerous times. For example, men forget more easily the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony. The prince should be willing to be called niggardly rather than liberal; he should be willing to be feared rather than loved by his people (but he must take care never to be hated by them); he should know how to be cruel.

One of his most famous remarks is that "in the actions of men, and especially of princes, from which there is no appeal, the end justifies the means." It is, therefore, unnecessary for princes to keep faith any longer than it serves their interests. At the same time, the prince must be able to feign and dissemble, appearing to have all the virtues even when just the opposite is true. Cesare Borgia is discussed at length, and his methods, ruthless and treacherous, were held up as examples for a new prince to follow. Yet Machiavelli had not always written thus about Cesare. He had witnessed the Borgia's fall ten years earlier at the hands of Julius II Machiavelli had been in Rome at the time and had written of him in a cold and contemptuous manner. Furthermore, Cesare hardly appears at all in Machiavelli's other writings. How are these seeming contradictions to be explained? The interpretation of The Prince has always been a difficult problem, and has led to numerous explanations over the years. The book has been called a satire. It has been represented primarily as an attempt to gain favor with the Medici (which was admittedly one of its purposes). It has been called a handbook for tyrants, and has been represented as thoroughly immoral or amoral. The puzzle is made more difficult by the contrasts between this little book and Machiavelli's other writings, which show him to have been a fervent republican. Machiavelli, as a believer in republican government, did not approve of one-man rule, whether a hereditary monarchy or a more or less disguised despotism like that of the Medici. So, in writing for princes, he was writing instructions for a type of government he did not trust or respect. He could say immoral acts were fitting for a prince, not because he approved of immoral acts but because he disapproved of princes. The Prince, which is his most famous book and has been widely read and commented on, gives a false view of Machiavelli when taken by itself. Against the background of his other writings, it seems a strange book, at variance with what he had to say elsewhere, but explainable considering his hatred and contempt for just the sort of state he was writing about. Why then did he write such a book? He did, of course, seek employment with the Medici; the book was dedicated to young Lorenzo, who paid no attention to it as far as is known. The last chapter may give some hint, for in it he appeals to Lorenzo to unite Italy and drive out the barbarians. He also states in his Discourses that one-man rule is necessary from time to time to reform a state and restore it to its first principles. One must also take into account the bitterness of his spirit when he wrote it. He had been deprived of office, imprisoned unjustly, condemned to exile, shut out from the city which, as he once wrote in a letter, he loved more than his own soul. It is ironic and sad that he has been so persistently misunderstood by those who have not taken the trouble to find out what he really said.

After writing The Prince, Machiavelli composed his Discourses, a much larger work and much more important for understanding his thought. The Discourses take the form of commentary on the first ten books of the history of Rome by the ancient Roman historian Livy, though Machiavelli is primarily concerned with contemporary affairs. At the outset he claims to be setting out on a new route not yet followed by anyone. What he wants to do is to help his contemporaries understand and emulate the political wisdom of the ancients; in this direction he saw the political salvation of his own time. As The Prince is a treatise on monarchy, the Discourses is a discussion of republics. It reveals that, for Machiavelli, a republic is the best form of government, and that the ancient Roman republic was the best of all. In the Discourses Machiavelli notes that the people have better judgment and are more to be trusted than princes and nobles: "...it is not without good reason that it is said, 'The voice of the people is the voice of God.'" With this admiration for republics he combines a bitter hatred for tyranny. He is particularly opposed to rulers who have taken over and subjected formerly free states. This had happened both in ancient Rome, at the hands of Caesar, and in Florence, at the hands of the Medici. Caesar had ruined Rome; the coming to power of Cosimo de' Medici had been the ruin of Florence. A good prince is one who founds a free state or reforms it when it needs reform, as will periodically be the case. Once he has done so, however, he should leave his authority not to one individual but to many. Not every people is capable of maintaining a republic, as the Romans did; peoples who are corrupt cannot do so. Machiavelli felt that in his day the French, the Spanish, and especially the Italians had become corrupt. For Italy the need is for a strong man who shall reform this corruption and set Italy on the road to freedom. Yet he is not optimistic about the prospects for Italy, because when cities have long been corrupted by tyranny, they become incapable of regaining their freedom. He cites, as an example, the futile effort of the Milanese to restore their republic after the death of Filippo Maria Visconti, only to fall under another tyrant, Francesco Sforza.

Human nature, he repeats, is bad, but it is also plastic and may be molded. The faults of peoples arise from the faults of their rulers; but good men, good laws, and good education can make people better and establish a sound state. Religion is an important factor in government. It reduces people to obedience, as the Romans found, and makes military discipline possible. The Roman religion encouraged civic virtues and helped strengthen the state. The Christian religion, by encouraging humility and patience under provocation, has been a source of weakness. Machiavelli saw the corruption and ambition of the Church of Rome as a source of the decline of Christianity and the division and weakness of Italy.

In both The Prince and the Discourses, Machiavelli discusses Fortune. According to Machiavelli, Fortune is a woman and favors the bold. She is mistress of half our actions. Men may further her designs but cannot defeat them. The concept, as he uses it, is rather puzzling; it may refer to those circumstances that are given and cannot be changed and within which the statesman has to act. He also emphasizes that success goes to those whose character and actions conform to the time in which they live; the boldness and impetuosity of Pope Julius II were fitted to his times and problems, whereas under other conditions they might have failed.

Though Machiavelli frequently advocates methods of government similar to those found in The Prince, there are passages in which he exalts the power of the virtues. A benevolent and human act, he says, is always more influential than violence or ferocity. Most striking, because of its contrast with the doctrine of The Prince, is his condemnation of that perfidy that breaks faith and violates treaties. Only in war is deceit laudable. But when the safety of one's country is at stake, no considerations of justice, humanity, or glory should prevail.

In 1521 Machiavelli published The Art of War, which was an attempt to bring about a reform of Italian military methods by copying the organization and discipline of the Roman armies. In this book he shows an unbounded contempt for the Italian princes who neglected their duties, partly by hiring mercenaries, and for the mercenaries whom they employed. Francesco Sforza illustrates the evils of both mercenaries and princes; he betrays the people of Milan who had employed him, deprives them of their liberties, and makes himself their sovereign. In spite of his general pessimism and disillusionment, Machiavelli expresses some hope that Italy, which has raised from the dead poetry, painting, and sculpture, may revive true military discipline and gain freedom. Eventually, Machiavelli began to achieve some success in his attempts to gain favor with the Medici. Cardinal Giulio asked him, among other Florentines, to write his opinions on the best way to reform the Florentine government and to send them to Pope Leo X. In reply Machiavelli proposed the restoration in Florence of a republican form of government, based on that of Savonarola's time, after the death of Pope Leo and the cardinal.

In 1520 he was commissioned by the University of Florence, apparently at Giulio's wish, to write a history of Florence. By the time The Florentine History was finished, the cardinal had become Pope Clement VII. Machiavelli dedicated the work to him and presented it to him in Rome in 1525. It was published in 1532, after the author's death. It consisted of eight books, ending with the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1492. Some fragments exist which were to be incorporated into succeeding books but those books were never written. Machiavelli was influenced both by the classical historians and by the humanists who had written histories of Florence. His interests are political and military. He puts into the mouths of his characters speeches that often seem to be expressions of his own views; they often condemn tyranny and extol freedom. His familiar opinions of the harmful effects of mercenary troops can be found, together with his criticism of the papacy for keeping Italy divided. He also emphasizes the evils of factional strife in Florence, without which there is no level of greatness the city might not have reached. He even manages, in this book written under Medici patronage, to convey his antagonism toward the Medici for having destroyed Florentine freedom, though he also acknowledges that the Florentines were unable to live as free men and threw away their liberty. He is not always accurate, but is capable of exaggerating, distorting, or even inventing material to prove his point, for example, the uselessness of mercenary soldiers. Nevertheless, the Florentine History is one of the great historical works, because of the vigor of its style, the swiftness of its narrative, and the penetration of its observations of political life. It is also outstanding because of Machiavelli's desire to penetrate beneath the surface of events and uncover underlying causes and connections. His other writings include the letters and reports he wrote on his diplomatic missions. These give valuable information about the political life of the time, as well as his own experiences and the development of his thought. He also wrote plays and stories, which are important in the history of Italian literature. Because of his style, his political writings alone would make him important as a literary figure. He is one of the great masters of Italian prose. He also wrote a little poetry, including some sonnets and some political poems.

After the battle of Pavia in 1525, Machiavelli, like many other Italians, was aware of the danger that Charles V would dominate Italy. Still trusting in an armed citizenry, Machiavelli was able to interest the pope in the idea of a national militia for Italy, but nothing came of the plan. Later he was given an important position in preparing the defense of Florence. In 1527, when the news of the Sack of Rome brought the restoration of the republic in Florence, Machiavelli sought a position in the new government. Because of his identification in the minds of the Florentines with the Medici, "the great republican" was refused employment. This blow perhaps hastened his death, which came on June 22.


Although Guicciardini is now recognized as one of the most important historians and political thinkers of the Italian Renaissance, this recognition has been slow in coming. None of his works was published during his lifetime, most of them did not appear in print until the nineteenth century, and several have been discovered and published only in the twentieth. He was a member of one of the most distinguished families in Florence, one which had long been accustomed to holding the highest offices in the state and wielding great influence. Guicciardini himself, eager from an early age for power and prestige, was trained as a lawyer and even as a young man was given positions of great honor and responsibility. The return of the Medici to Florence in 1512, and the elevation of one of them to the papacy in the following year, gave him and many other Florentines a chance to enter papal service. For many years he held responsible posts, as governor of territories in the Papal States and, under the second Medici pope, Clement VII, as a close adviser. In his governorships he proved firm, sometimes harsh, devoted, incorruptible, and very courageous. His performance of his duties was sometimes brilliant, but his harshness tended to antagonize the inhabitants of the territories entrusted to him. During the republican interval of 1527-30 in Florence, Guicciardini, as an adherent of the Medici, was subjected to humiliating treatment and confiscation of property. With the restoration of Medici rule in 1530, the tide turned; as an official of the pope, Guicciardini was granted great authority in Florence and found himself in a position to get revenge on the republican leaders who had made him suffer. He took full advantage of the situation, showing himself merciless and vindictive. In his last years, he was set aside and deprived of all authority by Cosimo I, the young Medici duke of Florence, whom he had helped raise to power. It was during this period of enforced idleness that he wrote his masterpiece, the History of Italy, covering the period from 1494 to 1534.

He had already, in his twenties, written a Storie fiorentine, which deals with the years from 1378 to 1509. He worked on this book apparently in 1508 and 1509 and left it incomplete. Much later he started another Florentine history, which was discovered and edited by Roberto Ridolfi, who called it Cose fiorentine and published it in 1945. Among his numerous other writings are his reminiscences of his early life, his political maxims and reflections, and a number of other works, all dealing with political questions. Like Machiavelli, who was his good friend, he was interested passionately and exclusively in politics. Like Machiavelli also, he loved Florence and its republican traditions. In spite of his many years of service to the Medici, he was not a believer in one-man rule or despotism. His governmental ideal was a mixed form, with monarchical, popular, and aristocratic elements, but with the aristocratic predominating. He always felt that the best and most capable people should be entrusted with the major responsibilities of government, and this meant for him the members of the class to which he himself belonged. It was his conviction that men should govern their affairs by reason, but he was aware that the power of reason to determine the outcome of human events is limited by fortune. These two forces, fortune and reason, explain all historical events for him. The calamities that had overtaken Italy since 1494 a year he, like Machiavelli, recognized as a turning point had convinced many Italians that force is the determining factor in human affairs and had induced a hopelessness arising from the feeling of being in the grip of vast, uncontrollable forces. Guicciardini was also impressed with the influence of folly, shortsightedness, and self-defeating greed.

Therefore, his comments on politics are thoroughly disillusioned. In 1530 he wrote his unfinished Considerations on the Discourses of Machiavelli, in which he took Machiavelli to task for exaggeration and overstatement and for his tendency to derive general laws from specific instances. Guicciardini preferred to examine carefully each case, being more distrustful of large generalizations. This insistence on the specific, particular, and individual is one of the qualities that make him a great historian. In this field he is even superior to Machiavelli and deserves to be called the first modern historian. His historical writings, particularly the History of Italy, opened a new era in historiography. No earlier historian had based his account so thoroughly on documentary sources. He strove always for the highest possible accuracy. But this alone was not enough; he also searched for underlying causes. These he found in human motivations, and he was skilled in examining the motives of his narrative's principal actors.

Between the time of his youthful Florentine History and the great History of Italy, his outlook had broadened from the local to the universal. In the earlier book he viewed events from a narrowly Florentine point of view, but in the later one he more clearly saw the affairs of Italy as belonging to a wider European context and involving many non-Italian factors. His work is notable also for its objectivity. Writing about events that affected his feelings deeply, and in which his ancestors as well as he himself had been involved, he did his best to eliminate all traces of personal opinion or bias. He adhered strictly to human factors in dealing with cause and effect; the theological preconceptions of earlier historical writers are absent.

Machiavelli and Guicciardini were not the only outstanding historians in Renaissance Italy. Some of the humanist historians will be discussed in the following chapter.