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. writes in a playful and jocular manner in relation to his rather ‘otiose’ mission to the Minorite Friars at Carpi, where he had been sent by the Otto di Pratica of Florence in order to negotiate for installation of a new governor and administrative reforms for the Order. In this letter to Francesco Guicciardini he reflects on religion, writing, and his own role as a citizen and diplomat of Florence and as a writer.

During his mission at the chapter general meeting of the Minorite Friars at Carpi, M. fills his free time with otiose letter writing, satirical contemplation, and jests. His reflections on the selection of an adequate preacher for Florence demonstrate his ironic and disenchanted view on religion and its representatives. By characterizing his mission at the Franciscan convent as a form of idleness, M. stages his own epistolary writing as a human comedy, which brings together religion, politics, and the materiality of everyday life. In response to Guicciardini’s comment on the alleged hypocrisy of the friars, M. reflects on truth and mendacity. He also makes jokes on the effects his correspondent’s messengers have on his host, Sigismondo Santi, and the friars. With Guicciardini’s help, he performs a kind of comic role play by exaggerating his personal and political importance and, thus, playing with the difference between appearance and reality. By doing so, he manages to gain further respect and hospitality of the Carpians, who believe him to be an important diplomat.

Otium, Contemplation and Diplomacy

Compared to the important diplomatic missions conducted by M. during his time as a secretary of the Florentine republic, minor commissions such as this one were obviously not too demanding and contained many moments of inactivity, waiting time, and otiose leisure, which he filled with jocular writing and burlesque modes of contemplation. These include M.’s reflections on who would be a suitable preacher for the Florentine republic, or his phantasy of stirring up a fight between the friars in order to make them attack each other with their wooden clogs (“che facessino […] alle zoccolate”). Guicciardini will get back to several elements of M.’s ironic reflections on this ‘otiose’ mission to the friars (see letter from 18-05-1521).


“Otio religioso”, Satire and Contemplation

By stressing the otiose character of his diplomatic (in)activity, M. might also take up the topos of the “otio religioso” (as analyzed by Petrarch for instance) within the context of a satire on religious communities and their members. On the other hand, the remoteness and the moments of leisure during his mission provide an occasion for contemplation and literary activity. Guicciardini will return to this aspect by stressing the benefit that “these three days’ idleness” might have for M’s political thinking, albeit in a highly ironic manner (see letter from 18-05-1521).


Revaluation of Otiose Leisure

While the term ‘ozio’ in Machiavelli’s political work Discourses on Livy almost always refers to socio-political realities or communities and therefore is associated with a negative example as in the case of the Venetians (see letter of 30-3-1513. In this, as well as other letters, the consequences of political and military inactivity are subject to a significant, although ambiguous revaluation. Being a former diplomat of the Florentine Republic now commissioned with low-profile legations, M. still deplores inactivity, yet it is also associated with fun and leisure and might even have enabled him to discover new modes of expression, writing, and political contemplation. Moreover, his epistolary writing during the mission to Carpi not only was a way to occupy free time, but a way to further promote himself as a poet and/or a novelist (on this aspect, see F. Bausi, “Politica e poesia,” 383-84, and cf. M.’s letters of 29-11-1509 and 8-12-1509.


Otiose Letter Writing and Human Comedy

The letters from Carpi, such as this one, provide fine examples of a kind of epistolary writing which stages a sort of human comedy with M. as its tragicomic protagonist. It recalls earlier sections of his correspondence that were written during free time and breaks of his work as a diplomatic agent (for another example, see letter of 9-12-1509), and that are characterized by a similar interplay of facts and fictions. In the case of the correspondence from Carpi the sending and receiving of letters becomes itself part of the comedy enacted by M. and Guicciardini. Through their frequent exchange of letters, and their use of the personal couriers of the governor, they make the friars believe that M. is an important political figure and diplomat – as he once was before he lost his post as secretary.

In a similar line of argument, Giulio Ferroni (“Le cose vane,” 257-64) characterizes this part of the correspondence as a refined technique of reversal, which is characteristic not only of M.’s epistolary writing, but also of his political thinking. In the letters that were written during the mission to Carpi, M. develops a comic strategy of oppositions: between “cose vane” and serious matters; between the crude banalities of everyday life and the political responsibility of the citizen; between M.’s current situation and his former diplomatic activities; and between reality and appearances. While sitting on the toilet, M. thinks about choosing a suitable preacher for the Florentine republic. While condemned to the idleness of a mission of scarce importance, M. makes his host treat him like a high-ranking diplomat who is involved in international politics. On a more implicit level, the comical effects of the politics of reversal in the present letter also draw a kind of self-portrait: one of a wise man who was mistaken in his political predictions, but whose grotesque situation is only a mirror of a corrupt reality, i.e. the wise becomes the fool in order to unveil the foolishness of political reality. By hiding the inanity and sadness of his personal situation, M. disguises a concept of himself as a prudent diplomat who is in disarray and not rewarded by his fellow citizens by means of a comic masquerade. Ultimately, this implies a fierce critique against a certain conformism of the Florentines, against which M.’s profession of selfless love for his native city stands out even more in this letter.


Writing Scenes

Apart from the description of receiving Guicciardini’s letters, the letter contains also one of the rare passages on M.’s writing practice available in his œuvre. However, in this letter M. stages his writing as a spectacle for the friars, who watch him as if he were a demoniac (cf. the comments of Inglese in his edition of Machiavelli, Lettere a Vettori e Guicciardini, 293). M. presents himself in the guise of an “inspired” or “possessed” writer surrounded by a group of friars who are staring at him with their mouths open and their caps in their hands while he pens down his response to Guicciardini. This grotesque writing scene does not only, as De Grazia (Machiavelli in Hell, 373) highlighted, demonstrate “the subject’s [i.e. writing] importance, while treating it irreverently”. It also puts all forms of inspired writing (whether of prophets, poets or ‘diabolic’ authors such as M.) into an ironic perspective, while at the same time enhancing the status of the ‘otiose’ letter by a conspicuous leveling of genres and styles: a literary technique which is characteristic of Machiavellian writing and its ambiguities.

Magnifice vir, maior osservandissime, io ero in sul cesso quando arrivò il vostro messo, e appunto pensavo alle stravaganze di questo mondo, e tutto ero volto a figurarmi un predicatore a mio modo per a Firenze, e fosse tale quale piacesse a me, perché in questo voglio essere caparbio come nelle altre oppinioni mie. E perché io non mancai mai a quella repubblica, dove io ho possuto giovarle, che io non l’abbi fatto, se non con le opere, con le parole, se non con le parole, con i cenni, io non intendo mancarle anco in questo. Vero è che io so che io sono contrario, come in molte altre cose, all’oppinione di quelli cittadini: eglino vorrieno un predicatore che insegnasse loro la via del paradiso, e io vorrei trovarne uno che insegnassi loro la via di andare a casa il diavolo;


Io sto qui ozioso, perché io non posso esequire la commessione mia insino che non si fanno il generale e i diffinitori, e vo rigrumando in che modo io potessi mettere infra loro tanto scandolo che facessino, o qui o in altri luoghi, alle zoccolate;


e mentre che io scrivo ne ho un cerchio d’intorno, e veggendomi scrivere a lunga si maravigliano, e guàrdommi per spiritato; e io, per farli maravigliare più, sto alle volte fermo su la penna, e gonfio, e allotta egli sbavigliano; che se sapessino quel che io vi scrivo, se ne maraviglierebbono più.


Source: Edizione nazionale delle Opere di Niccolò Machiavelli

Magnificent One, my most respected superior, I was sitting on the toilet when your messenger arrived, and just at that moment I was mulling over the absurdities of this world; I was completely absorbed in imagining my style of preacher for Florence: he should be just what would please me, because [I am] going to be as pigheaded about this idea as I am about my other ideas. And because never did I disappoint that republic whenever I was able to help her out – if not with deeds, then with words; if not with words, then with signs – l have no intention of disappointing her now. In truth, I know that I am at variance with the ideas of her citizens, as I am in many other matter. They would like a preacher who would teach them the way to paradise, and I should like to find one who would teach them the way to go to the Devil.


Here I languish because I cannot execute my mission until the general and the assessors are chosen, and in my mind I am turning over some way in which I might stir up such strife among them – either here or somewhere else – that they might start going after one another with their wooden clogs;


And even as I am writing this, I have a circle of them about me; to see me write at length, they marvel and gaze at me as at one inspired; and I, to make them marvel even more, sometimes pause writing and breathe deeply; then they absolutely begin drooling – if they knew what I am writing you, they would marvel all the more!


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

On M.’s Appointment as Historiographer: L. Passerini, Introduction to N. Machiavelli, Opere, vol. I, Istorie fiorentine, ed. by G. Milanesi and P. Fanfani (Florence: Tipografia cenniniana, 1873), LXXXIX; R. Black, Machiavelli (London/New York: Routledge, 2013), 242–262.


On the Relationship Between M. and Francesco Guicciardini: R. Ridolfi, Vita di Niccolò Machiavelli (Florence: Sansoni, 1978), 293, 489; Simonetta, Tutti gli uomini di Machiavelli (Milan: Rizzoli, 2020), 97-105.


Sources and Literature on M’s Commission as an Envoy to Carpi: N. Machiavelli, Legazioni. Commissarie. Scritti di governo, vol. 7 (1510-27), “Edizione Nazionale delle Opere”, ed. by J.-J. Marchand, A. Guidi & M. Melera-Morettini (Rome: Salerno editrice, 2012),151f. English ed. available online in N. Machiavelli, The Historical, Political, and Diplomatic Writings of Niccolò Machiavelli, translated from the Italian by Ch.E. Detmold [Boston: J.R. Osgood, 1882], vol. 4, 317-24 – see External links); R. Ridolfi, Vita di Niccolò Machiavelli (Florence: Sansoni, 1978), 291-303; F. Stermieri, Machiavelli, Guicciardini e la Repubblica degli zoccoli (Carpi 1521) (Modena: Colombini, 2016); E. Benner, Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli In His World (New York: Norton, 2017), 277–286.


On this Letter: and the Carpi Correspondence: G. Sasso, “Il «celebrato sogno» di Machiavelli,” in Id., Machiavelli e gli antichi, vol. 3 (Milan-Naples: Ricciardi, 1988), 211-300, esp. p. 278; Id., Niccolò Machiavelli, vol. I, Il pensiero Politico (Bologna: il Mulino, 1993), 423-29; G. Ferroni, “Le cose vane nelle Lettere di Machiavelli,” La Rassegna della Letteratura Italiana LXXVI (1972): 215-64 (esp. p. 257-61); S. De Grazia, Machiavelli in Hell (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990), 373; E. Cutinelli-Rèndina, Chiesa e religione in Machiavelli (Pisa-Rome: IEPI, 1998), 272; F. Bausi, “Politica e poesia. Ancora sulla cultura di Machiavelli.” Intersezioni, 23, 2002, 377-93, especially p. 383-84; S. Larosa, Una metamorfosi ridicola. Studi e schede sulle lettere comiche di Machiavelli (Manziana: Vecchiarelli, 2008), 265-66; J. Frömmer/A. Guidi, “Machiavellian Missions: vita activa and vita contemplativa in the Carpi Correspondence between Niccolò Machiavelli and Francesco Guicciardini,” in Between vita activa and vita contemplativa: Epistolary Forms of otium in Early Modern Italy, ed. by J. Frömmer and A. Guidi, (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2023).


For the Petrarchan Model of ‘otio religioso’ Quoted in the Entry: F. Petrarca, De otio religioso, ed. by G. Goletti (Florence: Le Lettere, 2007) [see External Links for an online edition].


M.’s Mission to Carpi

M. was sent to the General Meeting of the Minorite Friars by the Otto di Pratica. The purpose of the mission to Carpi was to reform the statutes of the Franciscan congregations in Tuscany according to the Florentine attempts at a coincidence of political territory and the administration of the religious order (see the comment of Inglese in Machiavelli, Lettere, 288–89). The architect behind this mission, however, was cardinal Giulio de’ Medici (see M.’s letter concerning his commission, sent to Giulio on 20-5-1521, in Machiavelli, Legazioni, vol. 7, 156-60, English ed. available online in Machiavelli, Historical, 321-24). Most likely, the main purpose of the mission was to bring the Franciscans of Carpi under Florentine control. Although this task was perhaps demeaning and below M.’s qualifications and experience, he was obviously eager to be of service to the Medici (cf. Ridolfi, Vita, 291–303 and the introduction to this part of M.’s correspondence in Atkinson/Sices, Machiavelli and his friends, 332; pace Benner, Be Like the Fox, 277–286). During the course of this mission to Carpi, M. was also asked by the Wool Guild to find a preacher for the Lenten service at the Duomo (cf. the letter from Guicciardini from 17-5-1521). Corresponding to the wishes of the Wool Guild M. had opted for the friar Giovanni Gualberto, known as “il Rovaio” (cf. M.’s reply to Guicciardini from 18-5-1521).


M. and Francesco Guicciardini

The town of Carpi is located not far from Modena, where Francesco Guicciardini was installed as Governor at this time. The two men had known each other for years, as it is documented by M.’s letter to Francesco’s brother Luigi of 29-11-1509, in which he asks the same Luigi to recommend him to his brother (Ridolfi, Vita, 293, 489). Nevertheless, their hypothetical encounter at Modena before the official beginning of M.’s mission to Carpi and their subsequent correspondence, which emerged from this episode, mark an important step in their complex friendship (on Guicciardini’s relationship with M. see also: Simonetta, Tutti gli uomini, 97–105).


The Selection of a Preacher for Florence

In a previous letter from the same day, Guicciardini had expressed his amazement that M. had been selected to go to Carpi and choose a suitable preacher for Florence for the forthcoming Lent (see External Links for an online version of this letter). Guicciardini jokes about M. being the wrong choice, like when Pachierotto (a person known for his homosexuality) had been asked to find a beautiful and gallant wife for a friend (“di trovare una bella e galante moglie a uno amico”).


M. on Religion and Truthfulness

Burlesque elements aside, the letter is evidence of M.’s ethical and religious statements, sometimes expressed in a deliberately provocative form. Equally irreverent is the Machiavellian affirmation of being a liar, who never tells the truth except by hiding it among many lies: a self-portrait, which can be connected to the bitter and sarcastic one that M. paints of himself in the Prologue of the Mandragola. Additionally, this maybe also attributed to his literary technique as a historiographer of the Medici, for who he has just taken up his appointment after years of forced otium (see the official commission given to M., dating 8 November 1520, in Passerini, Introduction, LXXXIX).


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Cite as: Judith Frömmer, Andrea Guidi

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