February 23, 2009


Machiavelli, Leonardo & Borgia: A Fateful Collusion: What happened when a philosopher, an artist and a ruthless warrior – all giants of the Renaissance – met on campaign in northern Italy? (Paul Strathern, March 2009, History Today)

Leonardo’s tendency to leave works unfinished and to flit from one subject to another in his notebooks, his inability to order this work into separate topics, or execute any overall extensive plan, all these minor traits became exaggerated to almost pathological proportions after his work with Borgia. Despite Leonardo’s later attempts to order his voluminous notebooks, nothing whatsoever came of this project except a comparatively brief treatise on painting (which was probably put together by his faithful assistant Melzi). As a result, Leonardo’s scientific legacy – to say nothing of the groundbreaking anatomical investigations that took him so much effort and caused him so much trouble – would play no part whatsoever in the advancement of science.

All those ingenious devices, the working machines (from helicopters to submarines), the screws, the gears, the ‘hodometer’ (for the precise measuring of distances, invented for Borgia), all this came to nothing. In the event, the notebooks would be sold off after Leonardo’s death, sometimes a few separated sheets at a time, to rich collectors. These souvenir hunters had no conception of what Leonardo’s notebooks were about and regarded them merely as curiosities of genius. They could not even read the mirror-written Latin instructions beside the drawings, a simple code whose secretive crabbed script was not fully deciphered until well over a century later. The waste is inestimable. If Galileo (born less than half a century after Leonardo’s death) had been able to peruse Leonardo’s notebooks, entire new branches of science might have come into being, while others would have made significant advances, in some cases centuries before they in fact did so.

How did Borgia contribute to this psychological flaw in Leonardo? And why did Machiavelli make Borgia the exemplary hero of his notorious political treatise The Prince? Ironically, the reason for these two disparate effects is the same: Borgia’s duplicitous ruthlessness. A supreme example of this was witnessed by both Machiavelli and Leonardo on the occasion when Borgia charmed his treacherous commanders into meeting him for a reconciliation at the town of Sinigallia, assuring them that he could not fulfil his ambitions without them – then had them all murdered. Some were garrotted in his presence, others transported in cages and slaughtered later.

Machiavelli’s initial despatch to Florence describing these events indicates that he was almost out of his wits with terror. News of the betrayals spread fast and Sinigallia was in mayhem as Borgia’s troops went on the rampage, beyond the control of even their redoubtable commander. We can only imagine how this must have affected the sensitive mind of Leonardo, who was with Machiavelli on this occasion. The oblique, ever-secretive Leonardo makes no mention of this event in his notebooks. Such an omission is not unusual; he often simply shut out from his mind any upsetting reality he could not face. But this horrific event would have its effect nonetheless – almost at once it would accentuate what might be termed his ‘intellectual stutter’. The meticulous details of his observations would lose any semblance of overall fluency as the intensity of his mind darted from one idea to another. It was at this time that he attempted to explain this curious mental tic (to himself?) by writing beside a diagram in his notebook that he would not complete this project because of ‘the evil nature of man’.

The more resilient and realistic Machiavelli would eventually take a diametrically different attitude. Indeed, he even went so far as to embrace the ‘evil nature of man’. If a prince was to conquer a territory, rule it and continue to govern it amid the treacherous politics of Renaissance Italy, then Borgia’s ruthless lack of moral concern was the only way he could succeed. All this Machiavelli would later set down in The Prince, whose amorality would inspire indignant outrage across Europe and beyond.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 23, 2009 7:43 AM
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