Niccolò Machiavelli

Place Of Sender



Francesco Guicciardini

Place Of Destination


Relevance to the Project


Type of Record

Standard (Letter text)

Type of Document


Main Subject

M. explains idiomatic and proverbial expressions from his Mandragola, which were unclear to Guicciardini. He provides a report on the state of the preparations in Florence as to the performance of this comedy in Faenza.

In his (now lost) letter from 13-10-1525 Guicciardini had asked M. to give some clarifications and explanations on several proverbs and phrases, which M. had used in the Mandragola and which were obviously rooted in the Tuscan linguistic tradition. Evidently, an audience in the Romagna would have had difficulties understanding them. M. translates the idiom “fare a’ sassi pe’ forni” from Siro’s monologue in Mandragola II,4 (which means to do something that is foolish). He gives a more detailed account of the provenience and use of the proverbial expression “come disse la botta all’erpice/what the frog said to the harrow” –  which suggests to someone to leave and to never come back – (Mandragola III,6). M. informs Guicciardini about the agreements taken in Florence concerning the performance of the Mandragola in Faenza. He reports that the singer Bàrbera (Barbara Salutati) and her ensemble had confirmed their participation [in the performance] and that Lodovico Alamanni would take arrangements for their accommodation during their stay in the Romagna. M. says that he himself will compose “canzonette” to be performed as intermezzi between the acts of the play.

Humanist Practice and Otiose Punning

This letter provides insight into the linguistic awareness that M. and his correspondents display. Reflecting on the uses and origins of idioms and proverbial expressions seems to be part of an otiose pleasure of letter writing in early modern Italy. M.’s explanations and philological comments on two Tuscan expressions used in his Mandragola prove his erudition and especially his expertise in the humanist technique of derivation at the same time as his sense of irony due to the subtle use of language, expressions, and different styles. The comic intention behind M.’s ‘display of erudition’ reveals itself in the digression on the proverbial idiom of the toad and the harrow. M. says to have consulted – like the character Timoteo (cf. Mandragola III,11) – many books in order to resolve the philological problem of the meaning and the origin of this expression for an unwelcome return. For the sake of tracing the sources and the tradition, he quotes poets such as Burchiello as well as non-existing reference works, such as the Second Decade of Titus Livius’ History, known to be lost (on intertextual references to Burchiello and other Italian authors in M.’s texts and the letters of his friends and chancery colleagues see Ferroni, “Cose vane”, 218, esp. n9 and Puppo, “Machiavelli e gli scrittori italiani”, 157–158; on intertextuality and imitatio in M. see Najemy, Between Friends, 257, esp. n24).


Theatre and Leisure

M.’s remarks on the careful preparations for the staging of his Mandragola in Faenza exposes his artistic creativity not only as a product of forced otium, but rather as a significant part of early modern leisure practices in the Italian communes: a kind of festival which needs careful preparation for its perfection (“Sì che vedete se noi attendiamo a menare perché questa festa abbia tutti i suoi compimenti”). Although the theatrical event, which had been scheduled for the carnival period, was in the end not realized (see entry on the letter from 03-01-1526), the respective correspondence provides us with interesting insights into the entanglement of friendship, patronage, and otiose leisure. The theatrical effects of the Mandragola were not limited to its actual performances, even more so as the comedies were, so to speak, also staged by M.’s correspondence and other paratexts, which might even have expanded the otiose experience of theatrical play (e. g. by discussing and translating its vocabulary). In this and other letters (e. g. 26-04-1520, 01-08-1520, 17-05-1521, 06-09-1525, 16-10-1525 to 20-10-1525, 03-01-1526 and 28-02-1526), Machiavellian comedy is presented as a multifaceted performance art which comprised textual and diverse non-verbal elements such as body language and music. The intriguing role of its protagonists such as the singer and actress Barbara Salutati was not limited to the realm of art. Apart from the economic and professional factors involved in Renaissance comedy, it was a social and political, as well as sensual, event and, hence, a collective practice of otium, which embraced both the body and the intellect of communities. M.’s correspondence presents us his comedies as a sort of “traveling form” (cf. Levine, Forms, 4–5 et passim), which, thanks to processes of translation and transfer, can be moved not only from Renaissance Tuscany to the Romagna, but also between very different political and social contexts such as the papal court in Rome or the Venetian carnival. Therefore, the comedies imply different forms of (potential) leisure.


E veramente io ho scartabellato, come fra Timoteo, dimolti libri per ritrovare il fondamento di questo erpice, e infine ho trovato nel Burchiello un testo che fa molto per me, dove egli in un suo sonetto dice:

Temendo che lo imperio non passasse

si mandò imbasciatore un paiol d’accia,

le molle e la paletta ebbon la caccia,

che se ne trovò men quattro matasse,

ma l’erpice di Fiesole vi trasse.

Questo sonetto mi par molto misterioso, e credo, chi lo considererà bene, che vadia stuzzicando i tempi nostri.


Il Burchiello allega l’erpice di Fiesole per il piú antico che sia in Toscana, perché li Fiesolani, secondo che dice Tito Livio nella seconda deca, furono i primi che trovarono questo instrumento. E pianando un giorno un contadino la terra, una botta, che non era usa a vedere sí gran lavorío, mentre che ella si maravigliava e baloccava per vedere quello che era, la fu sopraggiunta dallo erpice, che le grattò in modo le schiene, che la vi si pose la zampa piú di due volte, in modo che, nel passare che fece l’erpice addòssole, sentendosi la botta stropicciar forte, gli disse: « Senza tornata ». La quale voce dette luogo al proverbio che dice, quando si vuole che uno non torni: « Come disse la botta all’erpice ». Questo è quanto io ho trovato di buono, e se Vostra Signoria ne avesse dubitazione veruna, avvisi.

Mentre che voi sollecitate costì, e noi qui non dormiamo; perché Lodovico Alamanni e io cenamo a queste sere con la Bàrbera e ragionamo della commedia, in modo che lei si offerse con li suoi cantori a venire a fare il coro infra gli atti; e io mi offersi a fare le canzonette a proposito delli atti, e Lodovico si offerse a darli costì alloggiamento, in casa i Buosi, a lei e a’ cantori suoi. Sí che vedete se noi attendiamo a menare, perché questa festa abbia tutti i suoi compimenti.


Source: Edizione nazionale delle Opere di Niccolò Machiavelli

And to tell the truth, I have delved through a great many tomes, just like Fra Timoteo, in order to discover the source for this harrow; at last I came across a passage in Burchiello that I think is quite germane; it is in one of his sonnets where he says:

Fearing that the empire might invade

A linen kettle was sent as ambassador,

The tongs and the paddle were given the chase,

For four skeins were found missing,

But the harrow of Fiesole dragged there…

This sonnet seems quite mysterious to me, and I think that, for anyone who scrutinizes it carefully, it is going to annoy our modern world.


Burchiello brings up the harrow of Fiesole as being the most ancient in Tuscany because, according to the Second Decade of Titus Livy, the people of Fiesole were the first to invent this implement. And one day, when a peasant was making his land even, a toad, which was not accustomed to seeing such a big implement, watched in amazement and amusement what was going on; the harrow ran over the toad and scraped its back severely, and the toad rubbed the spot with its foot more than once. So, after the toad felt itself scraped hard by it, the toad said to the harrow as it passed over its back, “Don’t bother to come back!” This cry gave rise to the expression that goes “as the toad said to the harrow” – used whenever you do not want someone to return. This is all I have found that is of any use; if Y[our] L[ordship] still has any uncertainty about this, let me know.

While you are working hard there, we here are not sleeping; Ludovico Alamanni and I have been dining these last few evenings with Barbera and discussing the play; hence, she has offered to come with her singers and sing the songs between the acts. I have offered to write lyrics consistent with the action, and Ludovico has offered to provide her and her singers with lodging at the Buosi’s house. So, you see we are applying ourselves diligently so that this celebration will have all it needs for perfection.


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

R. Ridolfi, Vita di Niccolò Machiavelli (Florence: Sansoni, 1978), 339-41, 572; R. Black, Machiavelli (London/New York: Routledge, 2013), 280; J. M. Najemy, Between Friends. Discourses of Power and Desire in the Machiavelli-Vettori Letters of 1513-1515 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 257.


For intertextual references in M.’s correspondence see: G. Ferroni, “Le cose vane nelle Lettere di Machiavelli”, in: Rassegna della letteratura italiana 76, Ser. 7 (1972), 215–264; M. Puppo, “Machiavelli e gli scrittori italiani,” in: Cultura e scuola 33/34 (1970), 148–159, here: 157–158; J. M. Najemy, Between Friends. Discourses of Power and Desire in the Machiavelli-Vettori Letters of 1513-1515 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 257.


For the relationship between theatre and leisure see also: K. Fest, “Dramas of Idleness: The Comedy of Manners in the Works of Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Oscar Wilde,” in Idleness, Indolence and Leisure in English Literature, ed. M. Fludernik and M. Nandi (Basingstoke/New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 154–173; ead., “Bless me Papa! What a strange place this is: Muße und Professionalität im englischen Metadrama des 18. Jahrhunderts,” in Muße im kulturellen Wandel, ed. B. Hasebrink and P. Riedl (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2014), 152-167; R. Bizzocchi, “La frenesia dell’ozio: Sociabilità, teatro, politica,” in Ocio y ociosidad en el siglo XVIII español e italiano/Ozio e oziosità nel Settecento italiano e spagnolo, ed. R. Fajen, and A. Gelz (Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann, 2017), 167-184.


Share this with your Community

Cite as: Judith Frömmer, Andrea Guidi

copy link