All hail ‘The Prince’: Italian Embassy hosts exhibit on Machiavelli’s signature work

‘The Prince” is one of the most influential books published in Western literature, and people have been getting it wrong for five hundred years.

British philosopher Bertrand Russell, for example, dismissed Machiavelli’s canonical work as “a handbook for gangsters.”

A typical misconception, according to Giuliano Amato, a former prime minister of Italy, who this week opened an exhibition at the Italian Embassy entitled “Niccolo Machiavelli: The Prince and its Era, 1513-2013.” In reality, according to Mr. Amato, “like him or not, Machiavelli was the creator of political science” and “The Prince” a seminal political essay that remains relevant today.

Well, in a way. Machiavelli’s work is a treatise on how to achieve absolute power and retain it. That’s why it’s called “The Prince” and not “The Democratically Elected Leader.” Its main theme (though never actually stated) is that the end — no matter how immoral — justifies the means. Its impact lies in the fact that it presents the most important questions of politics and morality in stark terms.

British political theorist Isaiah Berlin said Machiavelli “helped cause men to become aware of the necessity of making agonizing choices between incompatible alternatives in public and private life.”

For example, Machiavelli writes that “it is desirable to be loved and feared, but it is difficult to achieve both, and if one of them has to be lacking it is much safer to be feared than loved.”

He also said, “The promise given was a necessity of the past — the word broken is a necessity of the present.”

A diplomat, philosopher, playwright and poet, Machiavelli wrote “The Prince” while under house arrest. He had occupied high office when his native Florence was a republic, but lost his post and his personal freedom when the Medici family was restored to power as rulers of the Renaissance city state. He dedicated his most famous work to Lorenzo de Medici, it is said, in the hope of further employment.

As a job application it failed: Machiavelli didn’t find employment with the powerful Medicis. But “The Prince” became the most famous book in the Italian language and the most widely translated. (The second in the translation category is Carlo Collodi’s “Pinocchio.”)

Today, “The Prince” is available in practically all the languages of the world, and some of the foreign versions are in the exhibition — as are some of the fakes, apocryphal versions, plagiarisms and reworked versions that it has attracted.

The author’s original manuscript has been lost, but this compact and slightly quirky exhibition does include one of the 19 existing handwritten copies of the work — all of them scattered among leading libraries around the world. (The one on display comes from the Augusta Library in Perugia, Italy.)

The exhibition — originally mounted in Italy earlier this year to mark the fifth centenary of the book’s publication — includes the most famous portrait of Machiavelli. Painted by Antonio Maria Crespi, known as “il Bustino,” it shows him in profile, staring gravely out of the frame against a dark, featureless background which, like the exhibition itself, sheds no light on the author’s intentions in writing the work.

In its day, it attracted attention as a radically new approach to political thought, both because of its simple, forthright language and the absence of the usual deference in discussing figures in authority.

In 1559, “The Prince” was condemned by the Catholic Church and, together with all the author’s works, put on the infamous Index of Prohibited Works. The ban has never been revoked. The official reason for the ban was that Machiavelli had contravened a new papal ban on books written in the vernacular instead of in Latin, but church authorities doubtless saw it as irreverence toward authority.

The ban transformed it into an underground best-seller. Sales jumped, despite the risk of seizure, fines or arrest.

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