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Machiavelli and Cesare Borgia: A Reconsideration of Chapter 7 of The Prince

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 October 2013


This essay questions the seemingly laudatory judgment of Cesare Borgia in The Prince, chapter 7, by highlighting its emphasis on Borgia's dependence on the arms of others, which Machiavelli equates with “fortune.” During their encounters in 1502–1503, Machiavelli became keenly aware of Borgia's dependence on his papal father, on France, and on mercenaries. The praise of the “foundations” Borgia allegedly laid to remedy this dependence (including a fantasized conquest of Tuscany) is not Machiavelli's own assessment but the voice of Borgia's self-dramatizing and self-deceiving exaggerations. Knowing the weakness behind Cesare's bravado, Machiavelli could not have considered him the model of the “new prince,” still less of the “redeemer” invoked in chapter 26. On the contrary, Borgia is the negative model of the new prince who depends on the arms of others, inevitably fails, and blames fortune misconstrued as malicious fate.

Research Article
Copyright © University of Notre Dame 2013 

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1 A particularly exuberant example is Anselmi, Gian Mario, “Machiavelli, i Borgia, e le Romagne,” in Machiavelli senza i Medici (1498–1512): scrittura del potere / potere della scrittura, ed. Marchand, Jean-Jacques (Rome: Salerno Editrice, 2006), 221–30Google Scholar. Marchand, Jean-Jacques, “L'évolution de la figure de César Borgia dans la pensée de Machiavel,” Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Geschichte 19 (1969): 327–55Google Scholar, acknowledges Machiavelli's changing views of Borgia, but contends that the “logically” constructed and “perfectly” coherent image of Borgia in Prince 7 allows Machiavelli to propose the duke as a “model for future princes.” James O. Ward rejects the view that Borgia was Machiavelli's model prince; see his Reading Machiavelli Rhetorically: The Prince as Covert Criticism of the Renaissance Prince,” California Italian Studies 2 (2011)Google Scholar,

2 Sasso, Gennaro, Machiavelli e Cesare Borgia: storia di un giudizio (Rome: Edizioni dell'Ateneo, 1966)Google Scholar, 92.

3 “Splendido” is an unusual word for Machiavelli. In Florentine Histories 1.11, he uses it with clearly sarcastic intent in explaining that the priests of medieval Rome “embellished” the power they “arrogated” to themselves in papal elections with the “splendido titolo” of “cardinal.”

4 Machiavelli, Niccolò, Legazioni, Commissarie, Scritti di governo, vol. 2, ed. Fachard, Denis and Cutinelli-Rèndina, Emanuele (Rome: Salerno Editrice, 2003)Google Scholar, 232, 240, 247. Translations of the Machiavelli texts are my own.

5 The most probing analysis of this puzzle is by Sasso, Gennaro, “Coerenza o incoerenza del settimo capitolo del Principe,” in Machiavelli e gli antichi e altri saggi, 4 vols. (Milan and Naples: Ricciardi, 1988–1997)Google Scholar, 2: 119–63.

6 Bradford, Sarah, Cesare Borgia: His Life and Times (New York: Macmillan, 1976)Google Scholar, 113, 132 (but no sources are cited).

7 Pepe, Gabriele, La politica dei Borgia (Naples: Ricciardi, 1945)Google Scholar, 180. The source is the miscellany titled Caos of Giuliano Fantaguzzi (1453–1521) of Cesena, but the passage on Borgia's army is printed in the early eighteenth-century revision by Ercole Dandini of a description of Cesena by Brissio, Cesare, Elchrei [Herclei] Dinundae in Caesaris Brixii Urbis Caesenae descriptionem adnotationes, in Thesaurus antiquitatum et historiarum Italiae, ed. Graevius, J. G., 10 vols. (Leiden, 17041725)Google Scholar, vol. 9, part 8. Bradford says the army Borgia took out of Rome in the fall of 1500 “numbered some 10,000 men—700 men-at-arms, 200 light horse, and 6,000 Spanish, Italian, Gascon and Swiss infantry” and lists the mercenaries who commanded the separate units (Cesare Borgia, 135). The Florentine chronicler Piero Parenti estimated that Borgia had 3,000 cavalry, 5,000 infantry, and 2,000 “venturieri” at the time of his incursion into Tuscany in May 1501 (Storia fiorentina [Florence: Olschki, 2005]Google Scholar, 2:438).

8 Legazioni, 2:246.

9 Soderini's dispatch is in Dispacci di Antonio Giustinian ambasciatore veneto in Roma dal 1502 al 1505, ed. Villari, Pasquale (Florence, 1876)Google Scholar, 1:499; cf. Bradford, Cesare Borgia, 180.

10 Legazioni, 2:349–50.

11 Larner, John, “Cesare Borgia, Machiavelli, and the Romagnol Militia,” Studi romagnoli 17 (1966): 257Google Scholar.

12 Larner, “Borgia and the Romagnol Militia,” 259–60.

13 Legazioni, 2:437, 439–40.

14 Legazioni, 2:465–66.

15 Legazioni, 2:515–17.

16 Machiavelli, Niccolò, Legazioni, Commissarie, Scritti di governo, vol. 3, ed. Marchand, Jean-Jacques and Melera-Morettini, Matteo (Rome: Salerno Editrice, 2005), 4546Google Scholar.

17 Dispacci di Antonio Giustinian, 2:81.

18 Cerretani, Bartolomeo, Storia fiorentina, ed. Berti, Giuliana (Florence: Olschki, 1994), 323–24Google Scholar.

19 Bradford, Cesare Borgia, 241.

20 Cerretani, Storia fiorentina, 325.

21 Bradford, Cesare Borgia, 247.

22 Cerretani, Storia fiorentina, 326.

23 Legazioni, 3:204–6; Sasso interprets the letter differently in Machiavelli e Cesare Borgia, 183n157.

24 Larner, “Borgia and the Romagnol Militia,” 267.

25 Cerretani, Storia fiorentina, 328.

26 Michael McCanles offers a compatible interpretation of the discourse of Cesare Borgia” in The Discourse of “Il Principe” (Malibu: Undena, 1983), 7085Google Scholar.

27 Cerretani, Storia fiorentina, 322; Guicciardini, Francesco, Storie fiorentine, ed. Montevecchi, Alessandro (Milan: Rizzoli, 1998)Google Scholar, 399.

28 Parenti, Storia fiorentina, 2:433.

29 Parenti, Storia fiorentina, 2:438, 441, 451. The Perugian chronicler Francesco Matarazzo commented that mercenaries flocked to Borgia because he allowed them to plunder the territories they occupied, so that they gained more in time of peace than in time of war” (Chronicles of the City of Perugia, trans. Morgan, Edward Strachan [London: J.M. Dent, 1905]Google Scholar, 244).

30 Legazioni, 2:437. Pandolfo Collenuccio said of Cesare that “he seems more eager to seize states than to keep and administer them” (quoted by Bradford, Cesare Borgia, 137).

31 Legazioni, 2:477.

32 Legazioni, 3:322, 330.

33 Parenti, Storia fiorentina, 2:463; Bradford, Cesare Borgia, 159.