Relatively little is known for certain about Machiavelli’s early life in comparison with many important figures of the Italian Renaissance (the following section draws on Grazia 1989 and Viroli 2000). He was born 3 May 1469 in Florence and at a young age became a pupil of a renowned Latin teacher, Paolo da Ronciglione. It is speculated that he attended the University of Florence, and even a cursory glance at his corpus reveals that he received an excellent humanist education. It is only with his entrance into public view, with his appointment as the Second Chancellor of the Republic of Florence, however, that we begin to acquire a full and accurate picture of his life. For the next fourteen years, Machiavelli engaged in a flurry of diplomatic activity on behalf of Florence, travelling to the major centers of Italy as well as to the royal court of France and to the imperial curia of Maximilian. We have letters, dispatches, and occasional writings that testify to his political assignments as well as to his acute talent for the analysis of personalities and institutions.
Florence had been under a republican government since 1484, when the leading Medici family and its supporters had been driven from power. During this time, Machiavelli thrived under the patronage of the Florentine gonfaloniere (or chief administrator for life), Piero Soderini. In 1512, however, with the assistance of Spanish troops, the Medici defeated the republic’s armed forces and dissolved the government. Machiavelli was a direct victim of the regime change: he was initially placed in a form of internal exile and, when he was (wrongly) suspected of conspiring against the Medici in 1513, he was imprisoned and tortured for several weeks. His retirement thereafter to his farm outside of Florence afforded the occasion and the impetus for him to turn to literary pursuits.
The first of his writings in a more reflective vein was also ultimately the one most commonly associated with his name, The Prince. Written at the end of 1513 (and perhaps early 1514), but only formally published posthumously in 1532, The Prince was composed in great haste by an author who was, among other things, seeking to regain his status in the Florentine government. (Many of his colleagues in the republican government were quickly rehabilitated and returned to service under the Medici.) Originally written for presentation to Giuliano de’Medici (who may well have appreciated it), the dedication was changed, upon Giuliano’s death, to Lorenzo de’Medici, who almost certainly did not read it when it came into his hands in 1516.
Meanwhile, Machiavelli’s enforced retirement led him to other literary activities. He wrote verse, plays, and short prose, penned a study of The Art of War (published in 1521), and produced biographical and historical sketches. Most importantly, he composed his other major contribution to political thought, the Discourses on the Ten Books of Titus Livy, an exposition of the principles of republican rule masquerading as a commentary on the work of the famous historian of the Roman Republic. Unlike The Prince, the Discourses was authored over a long period of time (commencing perhaps in 1514 or 1515 and completed in 1518 or 1519, although again only published posthumously in 1531). The book may have been shaped by informal discussions attended by Machiavelli among some of the leading Florentine intellectual and political figures under the sponsorship of Cosimo Rucellai.
Near the end of his life, and probably as a result of the aid of well-connected friends whom he never stopped badgering for intervention, Machiavelli began to return to the favor of the Medici family. In 1520, he was commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de’Medici to compose a History of Florence, an assignment completed in 1525 and presented to the Cardinal, who had since ascended the papal throne as Clement VII, in Rome. Other small tasks were forthcoming from the Medici government, but before he could achieve a full rehabilitation, he died on 21 June 1527.