book cover imageDialogue on the Government of Florence
by Francesco Guicciardini,
edited by Alison Brown.
Cambridge University Press, [1527] 1994.
Paperback, 256 pages, $40.

The city of Florence rocks with political agitation. Just a few months earlier, her citizens had endured an occupation by the French army under the command of that self-aggrandizing drooler, Charles VIII. He had marched down the Italian peninsula to vindicate his claim to the Neopolitan throne but did not see anything wrong with extorting what he could from the other city-states along his path. The Florentines had risen up and overthrown the regime of Piero de’Medici—whose nickname, “the Pumpkinhead,” testified to his countrymen’s contempt for his character—in their fury at his inept handling of the French threat. This ended the nearly century-long control of Florentine politics by the Medici family, which had reached its apogee of glory and influence in the person of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Piero’s father, a mere four or five years prior. Now the citizens of Florence, determined to regain the ancient republican liberties they had long forfeited under the Medici, are establishing a “broad” government, the controlling body of which—the “Grand Council”—would be comprised of three and a half thousand men. They are galvanized in this work by the vehement sermons of the Dominican friar, Girolamo Savanarola, who had prophesied the end of Medicean rule, and who assures the Florentines that their attempt to regain popular freedom is satisfactory to God’s will. Amid this extraordinary tumult, four of Florence’s leading citizens gather in a villa perched on one of the cypress-crownedhills ringing the city to discuss these affairs and their significance.

Such is the setting of the Dialogue on the Government of Florence (1527) by Francesco Guicciardini, who is best known today (when he is known at all) for his compendious History of Italy, a record of that calamitous period between the invasion of the French in 1494 and the sack of Rome under Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1525, a period that witnessed the definitive decline of the great medieval and Renaissance city-states—Milan, Florence, and Venice, among others—and their final subjection to the influence of the larger European powers. Friend to Machiavelli (and commentator on his works), Guicciardini (1483–1540) was in many respects far more cynical than the notoriously cynical author of The Prince, admitting, in his Ricordi (or “Maxims”) the revulsion he felt for the various rulers he served (including two popes) out of pure self-interest. But the Dialogue, although it is filled with reflections on the authentic and often unseemly tendencies of human political behavior, can hardly be labeled as “cynical.” Rather, it presents us with a sober, earnest consideration of the way that justice and prosperity are secured for a community, against the relentless pressures of ambition, greed, envy, and the continual mischief of fortune.

The conversation begins with the four men discussing the recent revolution and its prospects for success. The substantial debate is initiated by Piero Guicciardini (the author’s father) pondering the academic distinction between government of one, of the few, and of the many, admitting that government of the one, when good, is the best form of government, but when bad it is the worst. What he wishes to know is, why is it so often bad? He is answered by Bernardo del Nero, whose thoughts comprise the greater portion of the Dialogue, and who, as a result, is generally regarded as the spokesman for the author’s genuine views. Bernardo dismisses Piero’s academic formalism—“leaving aside all reference to philosophers and speaking naturally”—and asserts that the only sensible grounds for judging political regimes are their success in administering justice, and not in their correspondence to any a priori formulation of a just political order:

But when we descend to details and existing governments and ask which is better, the government of this particular city, or that one, the one that was in Florence at the time of the Medici, or the one that was there before, then to give a firm answer I would look not so much at their type as their effects. I would consider where men are best governed, where laws are better observed, where there is better justice, and where there is more respect for the good of all, distinguishing each person according to his rank.

He even claims that an illegitimate regime (“uno governo usurpato”), which rises to power in defiance of the people’s inclinations, is to be preferred, if it rules well, to a legitimate regime that rules poorly: “if it were possible to have an illegitimate regime that was governed as agreeably and well as a loving regime, the fact of its being illegitimate would not alone make it worse than the other.” Applying this pragmatic reasoning to the rule of the Medici, he concludes that although their regime was a tyranny, although they ruled the city as bosses (“padroni”), in the course of their reign “they were very eager and enthusiastic to make the city more powerful, and they have done much good and little evil, apart from what they were forced to do.” Anyone who has studied Florentine history knows that Bernardo has sufficient grounds for this claim, as the Medici rulers in fact did usher in a period of relative stability after centuries of almost uninterrupted civil disquiet and violence, and guided the city, particularly under the hand of Lorenzo, toward unprecedented prosperity, preeminent influence in the diplomatic concourse among the Italian states, and a cultural efflorescence that has seen few rivals in the history of man.

Bernardo’s reasoning is easy to caricature as unprincipled and malign, adequately captured by the notorious maxim, “the ends justify the means.” And Piero Capponi, another of the parties in the conversation, interprets Bernardo’s position in just this way. When Bernardo commends the Medici for the mildness of their government, Capponi responds that this was merely a matter of expedience, an expedience which might very well have dictated other measures:

From this evidence one can infer that had it become useful to the Medici to dispense with the mildness with which you have saidthey lived … they would have done so. For anyone who proposes as his ultimate objective his own greatness regards as an enemy everything opposed to it, and to preserve it he would whenever necessary utterly destroy the riches, the honor, and the lives of others.

And indeed, Bernardo has already justified the mildness of the Medici on prudential grounds:

They wanted to be in control of the government, but in as civilized a way as possible, using humanity and modesty … they knew that the nature of their regime and the condition of the city were such that they could scarcely afford to behave differently, and that if they had ever attempted to resort to blood and violence … it would in Florence have destroyed their greatness more than it increased it.

And he does confess that though, according to the speculations of philosophers, “it is worse to depart from moral rectitude than expediency,” when we “judge by the considerations that normally influence cities,” we may conclude otherwise. It would certainly appear that Bernardo (and Guicciardini?) is advocating a form of consequentialist thinking, which is always liable to the objection that it condones the performing of evil that good may result.

What preserves Bernardo’s position from degenerating into such an amoral calculus is his firm insistence upon a politics of justice, as opposed to a politics of liberty. Soderini, the fourth interlocutor, pronouncing what he considers the last word of condemnation upon the Medici regime, declares that a legitimate government is “based on the natural appetite of all men who by nature relish liberty.” Bernardo, in reply, is quick to dismiss such optimism:

[T]his word “liberty” is frequently used more as a disguise and an excuse by those who want to conceal their cupidity and ambition than because men in fact have a natural desire for it.

He specifies that he is referring to liberty “in governing a city, not the liberty of individuals,” but in such cases, appeals to liberty simply mask the “cupidity and ambition” of their declarers. Far from being marked by a “natural appetite” for liberty, man is, in Bernardo’s eyes, almost universally consumed by a lust for domination, and when they act in bodies to throw down a tyranny, they are less often motivated by a desire to regain equal liberty for all citizens, than by a thirst to enjoy the spoils of arbitrary power for themselves.

When Soderini tries to restate his argument, by claiming that since the majority of men desire political equality, the establishment of such equality becomes a matter of their liberty, Bernardo goes on to distinguish between types of political equality. Equality of property is beyond the power of government to ensure. And an equal distribution of political offices is an “unreasonable desire,” since such offices should only be distributed among those capable of exercising their duties properly.

The only type of equality remaining is what he calls “parity and security,” or the condition in which “everyone should be equally subject to the law and no one should be oppressed by anyone else.” It is that state which he referred to earlier, “where men are best governed, where laws are better observed, where there is better justice and where there is more respect for the good of all.” Such a just order can be equally nurtured by uno governo usurpato as it can be by a republican form of government—sometimes, better nurtured—and in this fact lies the justification of such apparently illegitimate regimes. The ends justify the means only insofar as justice is the great and overriding end, or telos, of all political power, and any claim to political liberty inconsistent with a just order of things is illicit and void. One might say that the ends and means of a political regime—its prevailing goals and the policies that it enacts to achieve those goals—are precisely the things which determine its legitimacy or illegitimacy, and not its correspondence to any presupposed ideal of government.

The virtue of Guiccardini’s treatise lies in the clarity with which it presents these fundamental political questions. In exposing the insufficiency of mere a priori political reasoning, he teaches us to avoid a lazy reliance on legal and constitutional forms, and to rest our assessment of political power on its consequences for the people when their lives come in contact with that power. It is a lesson we are sorely in need of absorbing, given our recent foreign-policy misadventures in the name of spreading “democracy” and “freedom” around the world. Guiccardini reminds us that “justice” too is a political good, one not discerned primarily in our textbooks on political science, but in the day to day actualities of governing and being governed. 

Mark A. Signorelli is a poet and essayist. More of his work can be found at his personal website: