Niccolò Machiavelli

Place Of Sender



Luigi Guicciardini

Place Of Destination


Relevance to the Project

very high

Type of Record

Standard (Letter text)

Type of Document


Main Subject

Leisure in free time: M.’s enigmatic description of an erotic adventure

M. shows his peculiar way of spending free time through an amorous adventure and its description.

Erotic Leisure

The question of the relevance and the meaning of this letter and its (potentially fictional) description of an encounter with a prostitute are controversial. Najemy argues that there might be a structural analogy between M.’s political and professional situation on the one hand and his sexual needs on the other, since both are rooted in forms of dependency:

“Guicciardini had perhaps encouraged him to write something as a way of passing the time in Verona, and the speculation about what sort of writing Machiavelli had in mind pointed in the direction of the Capitolo dell’ambizione. A poem in which “Machiavelli examines the origins of Ambition and Avarice and their influence on nations and governments,” Patapan, “I Capitoli,” 194] However, […] on 8 December, Machiavelli sent Guicciardini another letter containing an ‘account’ of his visit to a Veronese prostitute […] This is not a text that lends itself easily or comfortably to interpretation. As far as we know, Machiavelli wrote nothing else even remotely resembling it in his chancery years. Did it happen? Or was it experimental literary fun? […] In both letters [to L. Guiccardini], Machiavelli complains about feeling isolated, in the one case [see previous letter of 29-11-1509] from political action, conversation and information, in the other from the usual matrimonial remedies for his sexual needs. In both of these states of deprivation he is tempted, either by fantasy (‘vo ghiribizando’) or blindness (‘accecando’ and ‘al buio’), to impulsive acts from which he immediately recoils: in the first case, to writing those angry harangues to his dilatory and always fearful bosses back in Florence; and, in the second, to relieving sexual tension with a woman who disgusts him, causing him to feel disgust for himself and then punishing her for the humiliation and degradation he brings on himself. In both cases he resents his dependence on others (political superiors and women) for the satisfaction of what he takes to be basic needs” (Najemy, Between Friends, 69-70).

According to Ridolfi, however, this letter is just a literary extravaganza by M. (Vita, 178-79), and thus otiose leisure without a purpose.


Literary otium and Patronage

Nevertheless, writing little stories of this kind was not only M.’s way to occupy free time but also to promote himself as a poet and/or a novelist (on this aspect, see Bausi, “Politica e poesia,” esp. 383-84). More than a mimetic representation of real sexual activities, this letter, above all, bespeaks a well-known practice of literary otium. In particular, it exhibits characteristics of the genre of the novella and draws from a long ancient and medieval tradition (for a recent account on this tradition, cf. Bettella, The Ugly Woman). One of its distinctive elements is, for instance, the classical situation of eros and sex in the dark, and its comic effects (Bardazzi, “Tecniche narrative,” 1449). The letter’s central subject in particular recalls the literary topic of the descriptio mulieris: Bardazzi (“Introduzione,” 8) mentions Horace’s Epodes and Poliziano’s Latin poem In anum (e.g. see the image of “an old woman’s very large, pendent, and putrid breasts” in Poliziano’s poem, line 14; quote from Simons, “The Crone,” 294), and also Boccaccio’s description of Emilia in Teseida. The latter’s Decameron might also have been a key literary source for M.’s letters in this context, especially novella 8,4, in which the priest of Fiesole sleeps with the ugly Ciutaza, instead of Monna Piccarda as he had planned.

In any event, it is very likely that even when describing times of leisure, as in the letter from 29-11-1509, M. was concerned with politics as well as with the different, in this case somewhat enigmatic, modes of writing about it. Thus, the aim of this Machiavellian art of correspondence might also have been to build a potential alliance with a member of a prominent Florentine aristocratic family such as the Guicciardini and to expand his own patronage network. From this point of view, letters such as this might instrumentalize friendship in order to overcome the social and political differences between writer and recipient.




Giulio Ferroni, “Le ‘cose vane’ nelle Lettere di Machiavelli,” in La Rassegna della Letteratura Italiana 76 (1972): 215-64 (esp. 227-31); Giovanni Bardazzi, “Tecniche narrative nel Machiavelli scrittore di lettere,” Annali della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa. Classe di Lettere e Filosofia 5, no. 4 (1975): 1449; Roberto Ridolfi, Vita di Niccolò Machiavelli (Florence: Sansoni, 1978), 178-79; Peter Bondanella and Mark Musa, eds., The Portable Machiavelli, newly translated [from the Italian] and edited and with a critical introduction by Peter Bondanella and Mark Musa, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979), 58-60; Giovanni Bardazzi, “Introduzione,” in Niccolò Machiavelli, Dieci lettere private, ed. Giovanni Bardazzi (Rome: Salerno Editrice, 1992), 8; John M. Najemy, Between Friends: Discourses of Power and Desire in the Machiavelli-Vettori Letters of 1513-1515 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 69-70; Maria Luisa Doglio, “‘Varietà’ e scrittura epistolare: Le lettere del Machiavelli,” L’arte delle lettere: Idee e pratica della scrittura epistolare tra Quattro e Seicento (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2000), 81-2; F. Bausi, “Politica e poesia. ancora sulla cultura di Machiavelli.” Intersezioni, 23, (2002): 377-93; H. Patapan, “‘I Capitoli’: Machiavelli’s New Theogony,” The Review of Politics, Vol. 65, No. 2 (2003): 185-207; Patrizia Bettella, The Ugly Woman: Transgressive Aesthetic Models in Italian Poetry from the Middle Ages to the Baroque (University of Toronto Press, 2005), 168; P. Simons, “The Crone, the Witch, and the Library: The Intersection of Classical Fantasy with Christian Vice during the Italian Renaissance ,” in Receptions of Antiquity, Constructions of Gender in European Art, 1300-1600, ed. Marice Rose, and Alison C. Poe, Leiden: Brill, 2015.





Parallels in M.’s Comedies

Later, the comedies Mandragola and Clizia will draw from the same literary tradition and its motives in an even more obvious way. It does not come as a surprise, then, that there are several thematic correspondences between M.’s theater and his letters, such as Sofronia’s substitution of Clizia with the servant Siro in her husband’s bed (Clizia, act 4 sc. 8, act 5 sc. 2, and act 5 sc. 3; see also Decaria’s introduction to this letter in the Edizione Nazionale delle Opere’s edition).


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Cite as: Judith Frömmer, Andrea Guidi

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