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Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power (Eminent Lives) Hardcover – Deckle Edge, May 29, 2007

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Editorial Reviews Review

The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli's handbook on power—how to get it and how to keep it—has been enormously influential in the centuries since it was written, garnering a heady mixture of admiration, fear, and contempt. Its author, born to an established middle-class family, was no prince himself. Machiavelli (1469–1527) worked as a courtier and diplomat for the Republic of Florence and enjoyed some small fame in his time as the author of bawdy plays and poems. Upon the Medici's return to power, however, he found himself summarily dismissed from the government he had served for decades and exiled from the city where he was born.

In this discerning new biography, Ross King rescues Machiavelli's legacy from caricature, detailing the vibrant political and social context that influenced his thought and underscoring the humanity of one of history's finest political thinkers. Ross King's Machiavelli visits fortune-tellers, produces wine on his Tuscan estate, travels Europe tirelessly on horseback as a diplomatic envoy, and is a passionate scholar of antiquity—but above all, a keen observer of human nature.

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From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. It was easy to find oneself on the wrong side of the ruler-du-jour in 16th-century Italy, which was controlled by corrupt families and defended by contract soldiers whose loyalties were readily purchased. Machiavelli ventured into this world with his diplomatic acumen, then, when he fell out of favor, turned his ambitious mind to brutal political writings, satirical plays and the occasional courtesan. A theoretician of conspiracy and duplicity, he was also a brilliant observer of his times. Sympathizing with Machiavelli, King provides a convincing portrait of one of the most misunderstood thinkers of all time. Machiavelli's writings shed a dark light on the man, but less so when set against the tapestry of Florence's Palazzo della Signoria. King's book is everything a short biography should be and more, due to King's sharp wit and zesty anecdotes: As the document was being signed, a dove came through the window and flew over the heads of the Ten. The dove then crashed into a wall and fell dead at the feet of the Ten, but its appearance was still considered a good omen. It provides a strong sense of the history of both the man and his times and a nice introduction to Machiavelli's writings. Moreover, like one of Machiavelli's bawdy plays, it is a riveting and exhilarating read, full of salacious details and brisk prose. (June)
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Product Details

  • Series: Eminent Lives
  • Hardcover: 245 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers; First Edition edition (May 29, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060817178
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060817176
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 1 x 7.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #685,774 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Ross King is the author of the bestselling Brunelleschi's Dome and Michelangelo & the Pope's Ceiling, as well as the novels Ex-Libris and Domino. He lives in England, near Oxford.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

39 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Robert Morris HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on November 12, 2007
Format: Hardcover
This is one of several volumes in the HarperCollins Eminent Lives series. Each offers a concise rather than comprehensive, much less definitive biography. However, just as Al Hirschfeld's illustrations of various celebrities capture their defining physical characteristics, the authors of books in this series focus on the defining influences and developments during the lives and careers of their respective subjects. In this instance, Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli (1469-1527).

Obviously, this is not a definitive biography nor did Ross King intend it to be. However, for most readers, it provides about all of the information they need to understand the meaning and significance of this excerpt from the final chapter in King's biography: "The key to some of the ambiguities may lie in the nature of the man himself. Machiavelli's numerous undertakings - diplomat, playwright, poet, historian, political theorist, farmer, military engineer, militia captain - make him, like his friend Leonardo, a true Renaissance man. Yet, like Leonardo, who denounced the 'beastly madness' of war while devising ingenious and deadly weapons, Machiavelli is awash in paradoxes and inconsistencies...Probably his greatest contradiction was that he understood better than anyone else in the sixteenth century how to seize and maintain political power - and yet, deprived of power himself in 1512, he spent many long years in the political wilderness, making a series of bungling and fruitless attempts to regain his position."

With remarkable precision, concision, and eloquence, King examines not only Machiavelli's life and career but also the cultural, political, and religious environment in which he was so actively involved more than 500 years ago.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Steven Peterson TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on November 15, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
If you want a detailed analysis of Machiavelli and his work, this is not the book for you. If you want a brief, accessible introduction to the man and his life, then this will be a nice addition to your library. Personally, I tend to like detailed biographies that place the person in his or her context. But I also appreciate works such as this.

The narrative begins with Niccolo Machiavelli, age only 29 (young for the role he would play), becoming a player in Florence's political apparatus. He was a humanist, and had a good education when young. He came from a good family, albeit one that was not wealthy. Shortly after his accession to a good post, he became Second Chancellor. As a part of his position, he also was assigned diplomatic tasks.

He maintained this position until Florence was taken under the authority of the Medici family. In the process, Machiavelli lost his position (and may have been tortured in the process). The book portrays well the frustration Machiavelli felt, as he did many things to ingratiate himself with the powerful Medici family. Indeed, his famous "The Prince" was dedicated to a Medici. After, essentially, realizing that he would not soon regain his position, he began writing, whether histories, political analyses, or plays. Ironically, one of his plays was performed for the Pope (a Medici) and well appreciated by him.

The book continues by depicting his life, including a last moment opportunity to play the role of diplomat--with the backing of, you guessed it, the Medici family. One thing the book does nicely, even though it is rather superficial, is to demonstrate the crazy quilt pattern of shifting alliances.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By J. Moran VINE VOICE on October 11, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Whether you should read this book depends on what kind of information you're looking for. The book is part of the "Eminent Lives" series, which is designed to allow well-known writers to relate the basic facts of an eminent person's life briefly together with the author's take on the eminent person's life and work. The publishers tout the series as consisting of "succinct" essay-like books intended to be "short biographies for an age short on time." No book in the series (that I have seen) has any significant scholarly apparatus. The series is aimed at readers who are new to the subjects covered. The books are similar to the serious essays you can find in magazines like the "New Yorker" but longer. This book fits the series's pattern.

Author King briskly and briefly narrates the basic facts of Machiavelli's varied life as politician, official of the Florentine Republic, diplomat, playwright, poet, political theorist and writer, husband, father, and inveterate womanizer. He also makes very basic comments regarding Machiavelli's most prominent writings (such as The Prince, The Discourses, The Art of War and others). King's narrative is brisk, engaging and informative and contains a number of insights concerning Machiavelli's character and his career. King gives the reader some context by briefly outlining the violent and troubled politics of late Renaissance Italy.

The book, however, has no index, few notes and a bibliography consisting of only seven titles (three of which are three volume sets). The book appears to contain little or no new research. King makes no effort at deeper analysis of Machiavelli's thought, its reception then or later or the endless wars, invasions, plots, upheavals, religious controversies and other miseries of the early 16th century.
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