Francesco Guicciardini - the true cynical writer of his time. His Storia d'Italia became the classic history of Italy, both a brilliant portrayal of the Renaissance and a penetrating vision into the tragedy and comedy of human history in general
Francesco Guicciardini, The History of Italy, Trans. by Sidney Alexander, Princeton University Press, 1984.
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In 1537 Francesco Guicciardini, adviser and confidant to three popes, governor of several central Italian states, ambassador, administrator, military captain--and persona non grata with the ruling Medici after the siege of Florence--retired to his villa to write a history of his times. His Storia d'Italia became the classic history of Italy--both a brilliant portrayal of the Renaissance and a penetrating vision into the tragedy and comedy of human history in general. Sidney Alexander's readable translation and abridgment of Guicciardini's four-volume work earned the prestigious 1970 P.E.N. Club translation award. His perceptive introduction and notes add much to the understanding of Guicciardini's masterpiece.
“I do not fight with religion, nor with those things that seem to depend on God, because this object has too much force in the mind of fools,” wrote Francesco Guicciardini, the great historian of the Italian Wars (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_Wars), who the Italian literary critic Francesco De Sanctis deemed the true cynical writer of his time, not the noble-hearted pragmatist (as De Sanctis portrays him) Niccolo Machiavelli.
De Sanctis paints Guicciardini, born 6 March 1483, as an opportunistic quisling, calling his Memoirs “the corruption of Italy codified and raised to the rule of life,” and points out that while both Machiavelli and Guiccardini believed in a united Italy and freedom for the Italian people, Machiavelli was willing to put his life on the line in the service of making that happen, while Guiccardini argued that only an idiot would risk his skin trying to fight against what can’t be changed. Instead, Guicciardini put himself in the service of one corrupt master after another, and (much like Thucydides) retired from public life to write history after his employers threw him to the curb.
However, even de Sanctis acknowledges the greatness of Guicciardini’s landmark work, The History of Italy (written 1537 -1540), writing that, “If we look at intellectual power, it is the most important work that has come out of an Italian mind.” Guicciardini pioneered the use of government documents, and analyzed the motives of the various historical actors of his time with unprecedented psychological depth. (Something he was able to do partly because he had had personal encounters with many of them.) “Marvellous above all,” says De Sanctis, is how Guicciardini doesn’t judge events by predefined rules, but rather “case by case, looking at each fact in its individuality, its own complex set of circumstances, which make it that and not another.”
Guicciardini’s sentences are a maze of what the modern day translator of his Hist of Italy, Sidney Alexander, calls “his Ciceronian periods, his Proustian longueurs.” Anyone who wants the challenge of reading an English translation that attempts to go toe-to-toe with Guicciardini’s winding sentences should sample the early modern translation of Geoffrey Fenton. Everyone else (mere mortals) should try the Alexander or the 18th century translation of Austin Parke Goddard, which is also a bit easier than Fenton. (This copy comes from John Adams’s personal library.)