Machiavellian otium

The period after Niccolò Machiavelli had lost his position as a secretary of the Seconda Cancelleria is often branded as “ozi letterari”: a phrase that designates a phase of political inactivity on the one hand, and one of prolific literary production on the other. Since there is certainly no doubt that Machiavelli himself wished to overcome his situation of forced otium, this period of ‘otiose leisure’ from 1512 until his death has usually been characterized ex negativo – i.e. in terms of deprivation – be it on the professional and economical level or with regard to political influence and social prestige. However, in the context of the Collaborative Research Center 1015 Otium, we have examined Machiavelli’s activities after his dismissal from public office from a somewhat different angle. Our goal was to scrutinize the political and literary policies of otium and leisure themselves, and not only as an obstacle, but also as a vehicle of an alternative, para-institutional political career and its transformations.

Seeing as this conception of Machiavellian otium involves intentional and conscious strategies, the concept of ‘retreat’ was of key importance for our project: the polysemy of this term, which — in similarity to the Roman notion of otium — has military and political as well as social, intellectual, and cultural connotations, opened up new approaches for the analysis of Machiavellian texts post res perditas. Just as in early modern military thinking, retreat is not to be put on the same level as defeat but calls for a change of strategy and tactics which is carried out by a deliberate movement in space and time: while it allows escape from a hopeless or dangerous situation, it paves the way for new and maybe even more effective interventions on military and political battlefields in the future.


By taking advantage of the extraordinary editorial work and the groundbreaking discoveries related to the recent publication of the three respective volumes of the letters in the Edizione Nazionale delle opere di Niccolò Machiavelli, we focused on Machiavelli’s epistolary writing. Shifting between carteggio and at least certain aspects of an epistolario and, hence, between functional and literary writing, the correspondence after 1512 is at the same time a product and an enactment and maybe even a generator of otiose leisure. It is beyond question that the letters Machiavelli writes to former colleagues, friends, and potential patrons follow pragmatic intentions. The former secretary aims at a quick return to political office and, hence, he writes letters as well as treatises, comedies, and dialogues in order to overcome his situation of forced leisure. Nevertheless, the very same texts also seem to explore and enable different and sometimes unusual forms of political action, thereby exposing otium and leisure as important resources not only for individuals, but also for communities and institutions. Thus, the study of Machiavellian otium provides important insights into interactions of the public and the private spheres. Moreover, it might reveal a microphysique du pouvoir of apparent inactivity which puts the long-familiar claims of autonomy and self-sufficient sovereignty of political players in the modern world – as often embodied by the Machiavellian figure of the principe nuovo and its interpretations – into perspective.


This website displays the results of our philological analysis of Machiavelli’s letters between 1512 and 1527. It is our ambition to document and quantify the relevance of the research questions of the CRC 1015 Otium for Machiavelli scholarship. The research presented here was conducted between 2019 and 2021 within a subproject of the CRC at the University of Freiburg. It is a result of interdisciplinary team work and brings together philological, historical, and editorial approaches (Judith Frömmer, Andrea Guidi, and Christian Feichtinger) as well as the expertise from the field of political sciences and intellectual history (Stefano Saracino). It is based upon a selection of ca. 75 texts chosen from a corpus of ca. 130 letters written after Machiavelli’s dismissal in 1512, which seemed of particular pertinence to our inquiry of the different forms of otium and leisure exposed by and in Machiavelli’s epistolary writing post res perditas. Yet, in order to get an adequate understanding of ‘otiose’ (in contrast to professional) letter writing we included some sample letters from Machiavelli’s diplomatic missions, which, most interestingly, sometimes disclose moments of leisure and otiose dreaming.


Accordingly, we hope that this website will not only be useful for professional researchers, but also allow for different, maybe even otium-oriented uses by offering new ways to experience Machiavellian letter writing and its complex networks between persons, texts, ideas and, last but not least, different historical realities. It is part of a work in progress and we will continue to add material and publish the results of our research. Through this website we invite you to enter the world of Machiavellian otium.

Explore and quantify otium-related aspects in a significant selection of letters taken from Niccolò Machiavelli’s correspondence.

The Database

This database is situated at the crossroads of literary studies, editorial philology, history, political thought, and computer science. Providing results of philological analysis as well as the tools for future research, it represents the application and further development of innovative methods from the Digital Humanities. The idea behind this interactive and internet-based platform is to explore and quantify otium-related aspects in a significant selection of letters taken from Niccolò Machiavelli’s correspondence. At the same time this website shall enable the study of social, spatial, temporal, and thematic aspects in the epistolary exchange. Accordingly, by means of summaries, annotations, categorization, and extensive commentaries the results of our research are documented to support our own philological analysis. Moreover, the relevant letters can be approached with specific research interests in mind, using interactive graphics, comparative analysis, and visualizations in order to identify significant patterns, potential links and substantial connections, and to illustrate processes that would otherwise be difficult to discern.

The results of our research on the epistolary corpus will also be available chronologically as well as arranged according to correspondents in order to spotlight mechanisms of epistolary exchange and chains of letters. In addition to the baseline data of the respective letter (date, place, sender and recipient), the entries include a sketch of key elements, a content summary, commentaries, and annotations as well as the relevant passages of the Italian text and their English translations. The commentaries on the selected letters reflect the questions of our subproject within the CRC 1015 Otium. Therefore, our research was dedicated to a deeper und innovative understanding of practices of otium and leisure, but at the same time it opens up fresh perspectives for Machiavelli scholarship.


Our insights on the crucial role of otiose leisure in Machiavelli’s correspondence are tracked via a research-friendly accordion view providing access to the basic data, the key elements, annotations, and more extensive commentaries on the selected corpus. Moreover, we have developed a system of categories and assigned them to the relevant letters in order to fan out the various aspects of our research questions. This differentiated system of links and cross-references allows for searches according to different subject matters and different displays of the results of our quantitative and qualitative analysis of the epistolary corpus. Our goal was to enable different forms of a structured search:

  1. In order to make visible larger intellectual, philosophical, political, or cultural contexts and debates within the letters.
  2. In order to grasp and visualize the complex epistolary network; to stress connections and links between the individual elements and thematic ‘threads’ of different letters or between the letters as such.
  3. To create links between the letters and other texts and artifacts.
  4. To embed the letters in different cultural and historical contexts, with an emphasis on aspects of otium and leisure.


The database thereby provides useful information on text-genetic processes (both on a philological and a historical and intellectual level). The overall aim of this website is to bring together various research results (our own and those of the CRC 1015 Otium as well as the prolific scholarship on Machiavelli and early modern Italy of the last decades) and arrange them according to different approaches and research interests. The database is complemented by both a bibliography and a glossary. By offering new forms of presentation beyond classical publications, we hope not only to further the knowledge regarding the different forms and functions of otium and leisure in Machiavelli’s correspondence, but also to enable new perspectives and experiences of research in epistolary networks.