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4.0 out of 5 stars Unique biography of a key philosopher, 12 Sep 2013
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This review is from: Niccolò Machiavelli: An Intellectual Biography (Hardcover)
Corrado Vivanti is unquestionably one of the foremost world-leading authorities on Machiavelli of recent times. The Italian academic, who passed away in September of last year, dedicated large swathes of his academic career to uncovering the biographical details and academic works of one of the most famous philosophers in the history of philosophy. His project here though is very ambitious: weave through the mystery and complexity to explain Machiavelli's key works, lifetime events and how one influenced the other. Nonetheless, Vivanti does a sterling job and with the help of the seamless translation from Italian into English, Niccolo Machiavelli: An Intellectual Biography is a highly lucid, entertaining and informative account of the influential, audacious and intellectually gifted Italian.

The intellectual biography - a term used to signal that a persons thought will be given room in and amongst the biographical details, is clearly structured into three sensibly split parts. Part I 'The Florentine Secretary' is virtually exclusively dealing with the fascinating twists and turns of Machiavelli's private life. Although, as Vivanti points out, barely anything of substance is known about Machiavelli prior to his ascent as secretary of the Florentine chancery, Vivanti does manage to compile a brief but interesting opening chapter on the first half of Machiavelli's life, mainly focusing on his education and potential early influences. The remainder of the first part vividly describes the chaos of the society which Machiavelli was born into; imbued with political and religious conflicts and the way Machiavelli managed to utilize and navigate through such chaotic and volatile circumstance to suit his own purposes.

Whilst the first part is mainly historical, the second part 'Exile in his Homeland' contains a real gem of a chapter midway through, entitled 'The Myth of The Prince'. Whilst readers should be aware that Vivanti does not in this publication provide a comprehensive overview and analysis of Machiavelli's controversial and oft-cited work, he does in this chapter provide an innovative and nuanced approach to the most famous of Machiavelli's works, and easily one of the top ten most heard of philosophical treatises. Vivanti's unique selling point is his wealth of contextual knowledge, enabling him to adopt and develop a position that Machiavelli's 'entire thought...is cloaked in history'.

The final part, entitled 'Niccolo Machiavelli, Historian, Comic Writer and Tragic Writer' supplies a grand finish to this unique biography. Here, Vivanti analyses the plays and works authored by Machianvelli towards the end of his life such as, 'The Art of War' and the five-act comedy 'The Mandrake' which he used to criticise the incumbent power. We also get a fascinating insight here into Machiavelli's friendship with Francesco Guicciardini revealing significant details of Machiavelli's personality since he was one of his few confidants.

Overall, Niccolo Machiavelli: An Intellectual Biography will appeal to a wide audience, since the style is easy-to-read and the content broad but focused. Anyone interested in this period of history (15th and 16th century Europe) or political philosophy will find Vivanti's work a useful guide and a stimulating read.
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