Niccolò Machiavelli

Place Of Sender



A noble lady (“una gentildonna”) / Alfonsina Orsini (or Isabella d’Este)

Place Of Destination


Relevance to the Project

medium – low

Type of Record

Standard (Letter text)

Type of Document


Main Subject

M.’s description of the collapse of the Soderini government and the return of the Medici after the atrocities committed by the Spanish army during the sack of Prato.

M. reports the latest political and military events in Tuscany with the intention of winning over new patrons to help him in his desperate situation after the former head of the Florentine republic Soderini was forced to leave his office and flee from the city.


Female Addressee and Otiose Letter Writing

While there are very few letters written for or received from women in M.’s correspondence, one such example is the letter written by his wife Marietta Corsini (from 24-11-1503) during the absence of her husband in Rome. A further example is this anonymous letter written to a noble lady (“una gentildonna”). By omitting the name but only mentioning the female gender of the (alleged) addressee (as a person who is qua sex not directly involved in daily politics) the letter might highlight its own more or less ‘otiose’ situation of writing after the sack of Prato and the return of the Medici (although officially M. was still holding his position as secretary). The enigmatic addressee of the “gentildonna” might also evoke a rich literary tradition of appealing to women as (fictional or factual) target group of texts (e. g. dedication of Boccaccio’s Decameron to the “vaghe donne”, i. e. “alle oziose e non all’altre”).  The noble (or ‘gentle,’ in archaic Italian vernacular) origin of the addressee points to epistolary writing and especially the reading of letters as an aristocratic practice of otiose leisure as well as of social networking.


Identity of the Addressee

There has been considerable scholarly debate on the identity of the addressee. It is highly probable that the letter was addressed to the then most powerful woman of the Medici-clan, Alfonsina Orsini, widow of Piero de’ Medici and resident in Rome. Another potential addressee that scholars identified was Isabella d’Este (for further suggestions cf. the comment of the Vivanti edition of the Opere, II, 1542).


Political Context and Strategy

This letter, the attribution of which has provoked considerable scholarly debate, was written only a few days after the downfall of the government of Piero Soderini, of which M. had been a protégé. If the attribution to Orsini as the addressee is correct, it has to be interpreted as a desperate last minute attempt to switch sides in the middle of the regime change and to offer himself as a client to the Medici (as M. would also obstinately continue to do in the years to come). In this case, the letter was intended to reach out not only to Alfonsina, but also to other members of the Medici family. Most probably, it was, like other letters of Machiavelli, conceived for multiple recipients. This might also explain the numerous changes and corrections within the autograph, especially those concerning the return of the Medici to power, and the description of Soderini’s actions, that reveal an effort to be accredited as an expert and reliable official of the state and not as a partisan linked to the previous regime.

M. announces to the addressee of the letter, who, in the case of Alfonsina, sojourned in Rome, that he wants to narrate all the events connected to the restoration of the rule of the Medici in Florence in order to satisfy her curiosity (or even a potential request of hers), to celebrate the successes of her friends and to offer his service to them (“queste nostre novità di Toscana […] io liene narrerò volentieri, sì per satisfarle, sì per avere e successi di quelle onorati li amici di V. S. Ill.ma e patroni miei”).

Hence, the narration of contemporary events in the letter might at the same time be provided for purposes of information and leisure and as a panegyric auto-promotion of its writer. The course of the events that are described in the letter culminated in the collapse of Soderini’s popular government on 1st September 1512, and the narration focuses on the atrocities of the sack of Prato, which led to a change of the public opinion towards the Gonfaloniere.


Situation of Writing

Especially as a text that, being written in an ambivalent situation, oscillates between otium and negotium in various senses (as to the political situation between war and peace, but also as to the personal situation of its writer between employment and the loss of his position as secretary), this letter is emblematic of both the political context in and for which it was written and the highly ambiguous strategical character of M.’s writing after 1512.


Illustrissima Domina

Poiché Vostra Signoria vuole, illustrissima madonna, intendere queste nostre novità di Toscana seguite ne’ prossimi giorni, io liene narrerò volentieri, sí per satisfarle, sí per avere e’ successi di quelle onorati li amici di Vostra Signoria Illustrissima e patroni miei; le quali dua cagioni cancellano tutti li altri dispiaceri auti, come nello ordine della materia Vostra Signoria intenderà.


Avete adunque, Illustrissima Madonna, il particulare successo de’ casi nostri, nel quale non ho voluto inserire quelle cose che la potessero offendere, come miserabili e poco necessarie; nell’altre mi sono allargato quanto la strettezza di una lettera richiede. Se io arò satisfatto a quella, ne sarò contentissimo; quando che no, priego Vostra Signoria Illustrissima mi abbia per scusato, que diu et felix valeat.


Source: Edizione nazionale delle Opere di Niccolò Machiavelli

Most Illustrious Lady. Since Your Ladyship, my Most Illustrious Lady, wishes to know about these changes of ours in Tuscany, which lately occurred, I shall gladly tell you about them both to please you and because the successes of these changes have honored the friends of Your Most Illustrious Ladyship and my patrons; these two reasons cancel out all the inconveniences experienced, as Your Ladyship will understand from the way in which the material is set forth.


There, Most Illustrious Lady, you have a detailed account of our events, into which I did not want to interpolate any of those matters that might offend you as being lamentable and redundant. I have expatiated on the other matters as much as the limits of a letter permit. If I have satisfied you, I shall be quite content; if not, I pray Your Most Illustrious Ladyship to forgive me. Long and prosperously may you live.


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

B. Richardson, ‘La «lettera a una gentildonna» del Machiavelli’, La Bibliofilia 84 (1982): 271-276; C. Vivanti, Niccolò Machiavelli. I tempi della politica (Rome: Donzelli, 2008), 67; N. Machiavelli, Opere, vol. 2, Lettere, legazioni e commissarie, ed. by C. Vivanti (Turin: Einaudi, 1999), 1542; R. Black, Machiavelli (London: Routledge, 2013), 140; M. Simonetta, Volpi e leoni. I Medici, Machiavelli e la rovina d’Italia (Milan: Rizzoli, 2014), 87f.


Historical and Biographical Situation of Writing

The letter is written during the small hiatus in M.’s biography soon after the return of the Medici in August 1512 and shortly before M. will officially lose his position as secretary of the Seconda Cancelleria in November of the same year.


Alfonsina Orsini as Potential Addressee

“Alfonsina Orsini, Piero de’ Medici’s widow was entertained by Zanobi Buondelmonti” – to whom M. dedicated his Discourses and whose fictional alter-ego is one of the discussants of M.’s dialogue Dell’Arte della guerra – “at his country villa in the summer of 1519” (Black, Machiavelli, 140).


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Cite as: Judith Frömmer, Andrea Guidi

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