I just finished a very interesting and entertaining book, The Artist, the Philosopher, and the Warrior by Paul Strathen. This covers the intersecting careers of Leonardo da Vinci, Niccolo Machiavelli, and Cesare Borgia in the years around 1500. Borgia was the son of Pope Alexander VI, who spent the income of the papacy helping his son carve out a kingdom in central Italy, so that his temporary ascendancy as pope could be translated into lasting eminence for the Borgia family. At that time Machiavelli was an administrator and diplomat in the service of Florence, and among other things he was for years their chief envoy to the court of Cesare Borgia. At a time when Florence was trying to cultivate Borgia as an ally, they sent Leonardo to become his chief military engineer. (It was probably the experience of serving under the ruthless Borgia that turned Leonardo from an avid designer of fearful machines into a pacifist.) For several months the three of them were together, Borgia trying to conquer himself a kingdom, Machiavelli trying to ascertain his intentions, Leonardo overseeing the repair of Borgia's fortresses and building siege machines for him, while probably serving as Machiavelli's spy. Our chief source on this period is Machiavelli's own very detailed dispatches to his superiors in Florence. It is a great story and Strathen tells it well.
While Italy around 1500 was a fascinating place, it was not really the center of European affairs, and Borgia's career was really just another bid for power by a clever adventurer, little different from hundreds of others. And yet somehow these small events in this little place have become central to western civilization's imagination of its own past. What villains are more famous than the Borgias, what genius more celebrated than Leonardo, what politician more esteemed for his cunning than Machiavelli? Like Greece of the 5th century BC, Renaissance Italy has claimed for itself a share of our history enormously greater than its size, wealth, or power would suggest. Why? I think it is because our imaginations are captivated by style, and especially by art that seems to express beautifully the style of a brilliant people. Among the the stunning cities of Italy, in the opulent palaces and churches, admiring the fabulous paintings of the Renaissance, it is easy to be swept away by the glory of the place. Other Europeans have had this reaction since the time these events occurred. So our minds linger on the stories of that tumultuous time, seeing even the petty deeds of petty tyrants in the colors of the great painters, admiring the confidence of men like Borgia, like Machiavelli, like Leonardo, who believed that theirs was the greatest age and themselves the greatest men, and have managed to convince many others that they were right.