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SIX STUDIES IN ITALIAN LITERATURE,
The name of Guicciardini looms large in this period of Italian Literature, and some eminent writers, including Roscoe, have not scrupled to claim for him the splendid rôle of premier historian of Italy. This, we fancy, will come as a surprise to some people, who, with their thoughts full of Machiavelli,* may find it difficult to reconcile his superior renown, and his admitted triumphs in the field of history, with the secondary position which it has been sought to allocate to him. A moment's reflection will show that this is not impossible. Machiavelli's versatility, though it may excite our admiration, is in itself rather a presumption against, than in favour of, his being everywhere supreme; and Guicciardini may well have outstripped his rival in one direction, without being in a general way, his equal. To this let us add that the source of Machiavelli's fame is not his History of Florence, but his very equivocal lucubration-The Prince. Even as a historian, however, Guicciardini's title to precedence cannot be accepted as absolutely proven, any more than the votaries of Mr. Freeman can be said to have finally dislodged Mr. Froude (the similarity between the two cases being, indeed, greater than the reader may at first suppose). But the discussion strikes us as unprofitable, and so, in the language of the old philosopher, 'adieu to these things, for they are somewhat irrelevant.' One word, however, the fact that such a claim has been advanced for him measures, as nothing else could do, the eminence of Guicciardini. It has never been pretended that Machiavelli indulged in the study as a pastime, yet this king in intellect must bow, they say, as regards history, to Francesco Guicciardini.
Who, then, was this man ? The first thing to note about him * It must be borne in mind that the praises of Machiavelli as a writer of
are purely æsthetic. The Mandragora is fitted neither for drawingroom nor schoolroom.
is that he was a Florentine, and as the dates of a writer's nativity and decease give completeness to a biography, it is expedient to add that he was born on the 6th of March, 1482, and died on the 17th of May, 1540. Guicciardini, who was of honourable descent, was bred to the law, which for twenty-three years was literally his meat and drink, seeing that he lived by teaching it. Wiser in his generation than the followers of Savonarola, he attached himself to the Medicean party, on whose victory he received divers important offices, including the lord-lieutenancy of the Romagna ; but having made himself, by his importunate counsels, a bụgbear to the young and impatient Cosimo, that graceless person hastened to give him his congé, and Guicciardini, loth to abdicate the sense and reality of power, composed in his solitude at Arcetri a number of weighty works, some of which have only been put into print during the present century.
His principal compositions are the following: a History of Florence, written before that of Machiavelli ; a History of Italy, which may be described as a continuation of Machiavelli's work ; some Considerations on Machiavelli's Discourses ; a Dialogue on the Government of Florence, which, it is needless to say, owes little to Savonarola's tract; and Political and Civil Letters and Instructions, relating to his lieutenancy in the Romagna.
vriter, Guicciardini was infinitely painstaking-a trait which in his case amounts almost to a disease. In his earlier work, the Storia fiorentina, his besetting sin, prolixity, is successfully kept at bay ; but with the Storia d'Italia it is different. It would be disrespectful to explain the change by the garrulousness of age. Rather, one should say, the immensity of the theme has influenced the mode of treatment, to which only a minority of readers—the initiates or high-priests of learning-have been able to accommodate themselves. His periods have been compared to a surging sca, of which there appears no end, and of which it is impossible to take in the form and contour. Profound wisdom and vast experience inform his pages; but these eminent merits have failed to shield him from the irreverent attacks of the wits. Foremost among these mockers is Boccalini, who purged himself of his humours by inventing the following apologue :
An unlucky Laconian man of letters had expressed in three words a thought which the senate of the Laconians were persuaded might have been expressed in two. Such extravagance was held to deserve far more than capital punishment, and after being kept in prison for eight months and five days,
he was sentenced, as an expiation of his fault, to read once through Guicciardini's War of Pisa. With agony and deadly sweat the Laconian read the first page ; but so insupportable was the weariness caused by that long twaddle that the poor wretch ran and cast himself at the feet of the same judges who had condemned him, beseeching them, with the utmost importunity, to order him to row all the days of his life in a galley, to immure hiin between two walls, or in mercy to flay him alive, since the reading of those endless discourses, those tedious counsels and frigid orations, was heart-break, surpassing all the tortures that tyrant ever inflicted or imagined.
Guiccardini's political theories were mainly these. Whilst favouring the sovereignty of the Medici, he did not wish it to be absolute. A prince, restrained by a body of nobles—this was his panacea for dislocated and distracted Florence. With regard to Italy as a whole, he did not consider the scattered governments an evil. On the contrary, he held that the high state of civilisation to which Italy had attained was greatly due to her city-republics. But Guicciardini was far too wise a man to ignore or underrate the heavy forfeit which his country had had to pay for proficiency in the arts and the joys and elegancies of life. During the Middle Ages, Italy had been to the nations what Mysia was reputed to be in Grecian eld-an easy prey for a league of valiant freebooters. The Germans and French had both in their turn-notwithstanding the native courage and genius of the people—set their yoke on the necks of the Italians ; but now the enemy whom Italy had most to fear was Spain. Against the encroachments of this active and insidious power, Guicciardini could devise no better safeguard than the elevation of the Medici and of others like them, which would provide for the strength and stability of the several cities, while the independence of the nation was to be assured by a general federation. This, it may be remarked, was very much Petrarch's solution of the problem, but history has pronounced for Machiavelli's remedy—the election of a prince.
Owing to the part which he played in the restoration of the Medici, Guicciardini was held in cordial detestation by the Florentines; but he was not disposed to indulge the padroni in all the excesses which caprice or interest might suggest. He would have them remember that they are but mortal, and that their very exaltation exposes them to mutations of fortune greater than can befal the humble and poor. Those who are
acquainted with the classical writings will be reminded by this of the Age of the Tyrants in Greece and Herodotus' story of the Ring of Amasis.
One of the best judgments ever passed on Guicciardini is that of the great French essayist, Montaigne. Montaigne found, as most of us do, that after reading a book he could keep in memory only a small part of what it contained. It sometimes happened, he says, that works which he had read carefully a few years before, and scored with his notes, seemed, when he took them up again, 'new and to him unknown.' He therefore made it a practice, in the case of all books which he did not mean to peruse more than once, to set down at the end the time of his finishing them and the sort of impression they had made upon him. In this way he was able, though the particulars might escape him, to seize and retain the general idea he had conceived of an author in reading him.' In his essay on · Books, Montaigne presents us with some of these summings up, the writers treated of being Phillipe de Comines, Monsieur du Bellay, and Guicciardini. As his criticism of the last is important and may be out of the reach of some readers, I make no apology for transcribing the entire passage:
* Voyci ce que je meis, il y a environ dix ans, en mon Guicciardin (car, quelque langue que parlent mes livres, je leur parle en la mienne): Il est historiographe diligent, et duquel, en mon advis, autant exactement que de nul aultre, on peult apprendre la verité de son temps ; aussi, en la plus part, en a il esté acteur luy mesme, et en reng honorable. Il n'y a aulcune apparence que par haine, faveur ou vanité il ayt desguisé les choses : de quoy font foy les libres jugements qu'il donne des grands, et notamment de ceulx par lesquels il avoit esté avancé et employé aux charges, comme du pape Clement septiesme. Quant à la partie de quoy il semble se vouloir prevaloir le plus, qui sont ses digressions et discours, il y en a de bons et enrichis de beaux traicts; mais il s'y est trop pleu ; car, pour ne vouloir rien laisser à dire, ayant un subject si plein et ample, et à peu prez infiny, il en devient lasche, et sentant un peu le cacquet scholastique. J'ay aussi remarqué cecy, que de tant de mouvements et conceils, il n'en rapporte jamais un seul à la vertu, religion, et conscience, comme si ces parties là estoient du tout esteinctes au monde ; et de toutes les actions, pour belles par apparence qu'elles soient d'elles mesmes, il en rejecte la cause à quelque occasion vicieuse ou à quelque proufite. Il est impossible d'imaginer que, parmi cet infiny nombre d'actions de quoy il juge, il n'y en ayt eu quelqu'une produicte par la voye de la raison : nulle corruption peult avoir saisi les hommes si universellement que quelqu'un n'eschappe de la contagion. Cela me faict craindre qu'il y ayt un peu du vice de son goust; et peult estre advenu qu'il ayt estimé d'aultruy selon soy.'
Cynics and pessimists, beware!
Besides Machiavelli and Guicciardini, Florence could boast of a number of lesser historians, of whom two, Jacopo Nardi (1476-1555) and Donato Giannotti (1492-1572), were the uncompromising foes of the Medici, and two, Bernardo Segni (15041558) and Benedetto Varchi (1502-1565), were like the Vicar of Bray, being at first supporters of the Republic and then the humble obedient servants of his Excellency Cosimo. Filippo Nerli (1485 and 1556), author of certain Commentarj on Florence, extending from 1215 to 1537, was a poor beadle or chattel of the same illustrious personage. Giovambattista Adriani (1512-1575) and Scipione Ammirato (1531–1601) were historiographers of some note. By the time they came to write, Cosimo was firmly seated on the Ducal Throne ; and as they were able to supplement the works of their predecessors by means of official records supplied to them by Cosimo, their accounts are fuller, and, in some respects, more accurate than those of the partisans.
The tendency of the age, however, was hopelessly opposed to severe, impartial veracity. Machiavelli is, in this sense, a fitting representative of the Italian historians of his day. The mining and counter-mining which went on in connection with the alternate expulsion and restoration of the Medici, may explain this phase, partially-as regards Florence ; but the evil was widespread, and the most flagrant offender, who, we regret to say, was a Churchman, received his training in another seminary. It would take too long now to investigate the causes of this degeneracy, this eclipse of the moral sense, and there is the less need of our doing so that a large part of Lord Macaulay's brilliant essay on Machiavelli is taken up, as it happens, with the consideration of this very point. The effects of sheer intellectualism on the literature of the period are very apparentsometimes facts are distorted; sometimes motives are misrepresented ; and always there is a marked inclination to deal with the past subjectively, according to the prejudices, or predilections, of the author.
One very pernicious habit which characterised the historians of this epoch was that of concocting purely imaginary speeches and putting them into the mouths of persons, who, if they had been alive, might have vehemently repudiated the sentiments ascribed to them. This practice was borrowed from the writings of the ancients. Whether or not it is defensible in their case, is not our business to decide, though it is certainly a relief to come upon a speech, after being told, with painful iteration, that on such a day