Niccolò Machiavelli

Place Of Sender



Francesco Vettori

Place Of Destination


Relevance to the Project


Type of Record

Standard (Letter text)

Type of Document


Main Subject

The letter briefly informs F. Vettori of M.’s release from prison and then stages the first of M.’s numerous and persistent requests for help to return to public service under the rule of the Medici. M. thus expresses his wish to resume his political activity as soon as possible. This subject will inform most of the correspondence between M. and F. Vettori.

On the occasion of celebrating the election of the Medici Pope Leo X, which involved a general amnesty, M. was released from prison, where he had been incarcerated and tortured on the basis of allegations of conspiracy against the Medici. With this letter, however, M. acknowledges the support of the Vettori brothers – Francesco (the addressee) and especially Paolo – during time of his imprisonment, and their efforts to have him released. In the subsequent sections of the letter, M. makes his first request to Francesco to intervene on his brother Totto’s as well as on his own behalf with the Medici pope and his court.

Involuntary otium

It is notable that, as soon as M. is released from prison (on 12 March, the day before writing this letter), he immediately begins seeking F. Vettori’s support in order to return into political service. The conspicuous urgency of the letter is part of the careful self-fashioning of the former secretary, who seems to despise inactivity, and therefore mounts a clever campaign intended to restore him to (public) office as soon as possible. The expression “crederrei fare onore a voi e utile a me” (“I believe I shall do honor to you and do something useful for me”) in particular highlights M.’s skill in negotiating the pragmatic aspects of social relationships.


Otium and Action

The verbs ‘operare’ and ‘adoperare’ might also call to mind Machiavelli’s military background. He uses these lexemes in his Libro dell’arte della guerra, for instance, whereby M. most likely planned to recommend himself as a military advisor to the Medici. Especially in the proem, M.’s narrating subject stages the composition of his Art of War as, on the one hand, a way “not to pass these my idle times without doing anything” (“per non passare questi mia ociosi tempi sanza operare alcuna cosa,” emphasis added) and, on the other, as contrasting his potential errors while writing (“gli errori che io facessi scrivendo”) with those of others “fatti operando.” The wording might also evoke a performative contradiction of sorts, i. e. the context and the preconditions of an utterance undermine its content. For the author M. had indeed been responsible for the Florentine militia whose failure (perhaps also due to his own errors) caused the downfall of the Soderini government, in which he himself had served as secretary. In the proemio to Art of War, paradoxically, writing is a way of “operare” and, at the same time, opposed to “operando” in the military sense. The same holds true for otium, as it were, as the “ociosi tempi” give way to another kind of action, negotium or ‘operare,’ both literary and military. To some extent, the fictional setting of the dialogue on the Art of War in a situation of collective otium in the tree shade of the Orti Oricellari corresponds to the paradoxical structure of Machiavellian notions of otium, leisure, and idleness: Otium is, on the one hand, the conditio sine qua non of a dialogue that, on the other, exposes the dangerous consequences of times of peace and leisure for the soldiers (cf. Book I, p. 19 et passim).

The semantic parallels between the vocabulary used in the letters and that in the military dialogue might already hint at Machiavelli’s conception of the correspondence with F. Vettori as a new kind of military campaign on the battlefield of letters.


Epistolary Strategies of Otium

The letter from 13 March 1513 corroborates the hypothesis that the humanist tradition of letter writing is used strategically. Within the context of retreat as a military practice, the art of the epistolary, which is both conceived as a product of and designed to create otiose leisure for the reader, is significantly transformed into a social and political tool. M.’s complex reasoning on the potential opposition but also interactions(s) between literary and military operations anticipates several topoi of the long debate on the relationship between military theory and practice, and, more specifically, on the question of whether, in battle, field experience should count more than the reading of ancient theory. From the perspective of otium as retreat, this problem is inherent in military culture as such: spaces of otium and leisure (of pausing, waiting, retreat or cease-fire as well as of reading and writing) are an essential part of warfare and not necessarily its opposite.



Magnifice vir, come da Pagolo [Vettori] vostro arete inteso, io sono uscito di prigione con la letizia universale di questa città, non obstante che per l’opera di Pagolo e vostra io sperassi il medesimo; di che vi ringrazio. Né vi replicherò la lunga istoria di questa mia disgrazia, ma vi dirò solo che la sorte ha fatto ogni cosa per farmi questa ingiuria; pure, grazia di Iddio, ella è passata. Spero non incorrere più, sì perché sarò più cauto, sì perché i tempi saranno più liberali, e non tanto sospettosi.

Voi sapete in che grado si truova messer Totto nostro: io lo racco­mando a voi e a Pagolo generalmente. Desidera solo, lui e io, questo particulare, di essere posto intra i familiari del papa, e scritto nel suo rotolo, e averne la patente; di che vi preghiamo.

Tenetemi, se è possibile, in memoria di Nostro Signore [Leo X], che, se possibile fosse, mi cominciasse a adoperare, o lui o ’ suoi, a qualche cosa, perché io crederrei fare onore a voi e utile a me.


Source: Edizione nazionale delle Opere di Niccolò Machiavelli

Magnificent One. As you must have learned from Paolo Vettori, I got out of prison amid this city’s universal rejoicing, despite the fact that I had hoped for it because of action by Paolo and you – for which I thank you. I shall not repeat the long story of my disgrace to you but shall merely say that Fate has done everything to cause me this abuse. Anyhow, thanks be to God, it is over. I hope not to come up against it anymore both because I shall be more wary and because the times will be more liberal and not so suspicious.

You are aware of the condition in which our friend Messer Totto exists. I implore both your favor and Paolo’s together for him. He seeks, he and I, only this one thing: that he may be appointed and enrolled among the pope’s household and be certified for it – we ask for your help in these matters.

If it is possible, remind Our Lordship [Leo X] about me in order that, if it should be possible, either he or his family might start engaging my services in some way or another, because I believe I shall do honor to you and do something useful for me.


Source: Atkinson/Sices: Machiavelli and his friends. Their Personal Correspondence.

On M.’s release from prison, see: Bartolomeo Cerretani, Ricordi, ed.  Giuliana Berti (Firenze: Olschki, 1993), 301. For the classic pair of “honor and usefulness/advantage” in this correspondence, cf. John M. Najemy, Between Friends: Discourses of Power and Desire in the Machiavelli-Vettori Letters of 1513-1515 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 116. On these two terms in general literature, see Amedeo Quondam, Forma del vivere: L’etica del gentiluomo e i moralisti italiani. (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2010), 349, 518-520. On M.’s strategic use of friendship and patronage, see Stefano Saracino, “Private or Political Friendships? Machiavelli’s Sociability after 1512 and his Strategies of Retreat and Rehabilitation,” in  Vera Amicitia. Classical Notions of Friendship in Renaissance Thought and Culture, ed. Patrizia Piredda and Matthias Roick (Oxford et al.: Peter Lang, 2021), 151-180. On the debate between practical experience and ancient military theory, see Andrea Guidi, Books, People and Military Thought: Machiavelli’s Art of War and the Fortune of the Militia in Sixteenth-Century Europe (Leiden: Brill, 2020).


For specific bibliography on this letter, see: Roberto Ridolfi, Vita di Niccolò Machiavelli (Florence: Sansoni, 1978), 220-21, 504; Maria Cristina Figorilli, “Il ‘vivere senza faccende’ tra Machiavelli, Vettori e Guicciardini,” in Visitare la letteratura: Studi per Nicola Merola, ed. Giuseppe Lo Castro, Elena Porciani, and Caterina Verbaro (Pisa: ETS, 2014), 264; Judith Frömmer, “Out of office? Machiavellische und machiavellistische Muße im Briefwechsel mit Francesco Vettori,” Comparatio 14:1 (2022), 27-51.

Libro dell’arte della guerra, Proemio.

Libro dell’arte della guerra, Libro primo.


‘operare’ / ‘adoperare’

The expression “mi cominciassino adoperare,” which refers to the Medici who might profit from his services, will reappear in the famous letter of 10-12-1513, in the context of M.’s self-portrayal as “roll[ing] a stone” (“appresso al desiderio arei che questi signori Medici mi cominciassino adoperare, se dovessino cominciare a farmi voltolare un sasso”), as well as in the letter of 16-04-1513.

The use of the term ‘adoperare’ in this letter might also recall similar uses in the first book of M.’s Art of War, where we find the expression “adoperare il ferro” (“use iron [weapons]” or, as Lynch translates it, “work a tool”; Book I, 141, p. 57).



Share this with your Community

Cite as: Judith Frömmer, Andrea Guidi

copy link