Machiavelli in Love

Something of a historical villain, Niccolo Machiavelli is one of history’s most enduring characters.  A staple in high school history books and a standard question on the European History Advanced Placement exam, Machiavelli is forever remembered for his political commentary, The Prince, and its amoral philosophy that “the ends justifies the means”.  Modern scholarship has done little – if anything – to refute Machiavelli’s reputation as a Renaissance bad boy.  For instance, in the index to his book Machiavelli’s Virtue, Harvey Mansfield indexes the word “Machiavellism” as  “See also evil” (366). Furthermore, in his text Mansfield tries to explain that Machiavelli never actually wrote the exact phrase “the ends justifies the means” by instead writing,  “…he said worse: that the end makes the means honorable, and that moral men believe this” (27).   While it’s useless to refute Machiavelli’s amoral attitude in The Prince, it’s not fair to judge Machiavelli, the man, as merely sinister and heartless.  In fact, to call him heartless would indeed be a grave error, for just as much as he was a critic and anticleric, Machiavelli was an experienced and passionate lover. 

Consider this sonnet written to Francesco Vettori in January 1515:   

Many times the young Archer

had already tried to wound my breast

with his arrows, because he takes pleasure

in showing contempt for and inflicting injury on others;

  and although those arrows were sharp and fierce,

so much so that a diamond couldn’t have withstood the blow,

nonetheless they found such a resistant target

that he had little regard for all their power.

  So he, full of indignation and fury,

In order to give proof of his exalted excellence,

Changed quiver, changed arrow and bow;

  and he fired one with such violence

that I still grieve over my wounds,

and I confess and acknowledge his power.   (Najemy 326)


Whether or not this is a specific reference to a single love of his own, by writing this poem Machiavelli is acknowledging the overwhelming power of Cupid’s arrow.  Love’s power over Machiavelli and his dependence on it is evident time and time again throughout many of his writings – most notably his personal letters. This paper will attempt to dissect five various love relationships of Machiavelli’s, namely that between Machiavelli and his wife, Marietta; Machiavelli and his courtesans; Machiavelli and his male family members, Machiavelli and his friends, and, finally, Machiavelli and Italy.   Ultimately ideas will emerge to answer the questions who did Machiavelli love, why did he love them, and how did he benefit from this love.



            Given the widely held notion that love precedes marriage, it seems a logical place to being understanding Machiavelli and love is through his relationship with his wife, Marietta Corsini.  However, as Sebastian De Grazia describes in his book Machiavelli in Hell, love before marriage is a relatively modern idea.  Marriages in the Renaissance were usually arranged by a marriage broker who matched couples on the basis of family status and dowry.  No doubt Machiavelli and Marietta’s marriage was no exception.  Machiavelli married Marietta in 1501 when he was 32, and, although his parents were dead, De Grazia writes  “we may be sure that the dowry and other arrangements were negotiated by members and agents of the Machiavegli and Corsini families” (124).   

Very little detail is known about the relationship between Machiavelli and Marietta.  Of the more than 300 letters collected and translated in the volume Machiavelli and His Friends, there are no letters written from Machiavelli to Marietta and only one survives from Marietta to Machiavelli.  In this particular letter from 1503 Marietta writes that she misses her husband and expresses concern over his health.  She describes their new son as looking like Machiavelli and writes that “Since he looks like you, he seems beautiful to me” (Atkinson 93).  Marietta says she wishes had more letters from Machiavelli and that she plans to write more herself.  She ends her letter, “Remember to come home” (Atkinson 93).   

Marietta’s concern for Machiavelli’s health, her requests for more letters, and her comments about her baby reminding her of him, all denote an obvious affection for Machiavelli.  Nevertheless, her letters raise a lot of questions about how Machiavelli felt about his wife.  For instance, what kind of wife has to ask for her husband to “remember to come home”? If love is so powerful that it “wounds” Machiavelli, why isn’t he voluntarily going home to see his wife (Najemy 326)?  It will be noted later that he went out of his way to see his mistresses.

Another question that arises after reading Marietta’s letter is, “Why didn’t Machiavelli write her more often?” It’s obvious that Marietta wanted more letters from her husband, so why didn’t she get them?   One possibility is that Machiavelli did eventually write more letters, it is just that they don’t exist anymore.  Also, in his chapter about Renaissance Epistolary, John Najemy notes that extensive correspondence between husbands and wives was unusual (20-1).  Thus, the lack of letters does not necessarily mean lack of love.  In fact, there are several other letters from family members that suggest Machiavelli cared for Marietta.  For instance, in a 1527 letter to his son Guido, Machiavelli writes:

Greet Madonna Marietta for me and tell her I have been expecting-and still do-to leave here any day; I have never longed so much to return to Florence as I do now, but there is nothing else I can do.  Simply tell her that, whatever she hears, she should be of good cheer, since I shall be there before any danger comes.  (Atkinson 413-4)

Although this letter is not directly to his wife, Machiavelli still acknowledges Marietta and her concerns for his safety. 

Having quickly exhausted all obvious sources of information about the relationship between Machiavelli and Marietta, perhaps more information about Machiavelli’s views on his marriage and marriage in general can be found through a close examination of the marriages in his plays Mandragola and Clizia.    Interestingly enough, both plays depict dysfunctional marriages void of romantic love and lust.  

First, in Mandragola, Callimaco, a young Florentine, masterminds a plan to sleep with the most beautiful women in Italy, Lucrezia, who happens to already be married to a lawyer.  However, sly gentleman that he is, Callimaco successfully manipulates Lucrezia’s husband, Nicia, to devising a plan to sleep with Lucrezia for one night.  Callimaco not only fulfills his goal, but Lucrezia in turn falls in love with Callimaco and invites him stay in the same house as she and her husband ( Hale 1-62). 

 In Clizia, Nicamaco, who has fallen in love with his adopted daughter, Clizia, attempts to marry her off to a dunderhead and have them live next door so he can sleep with his daughter as he pleases.  Although the plan is ultimately thwarted by the arrival of Clizia’s real father, Nicamaco had wanted to tamper with two marriages: his own and his daughter’s (Hale 63-120).

Neither one of these plays describes what could be called a wholesome passionate marriage. The characters have to look outside their marriage to find love. Given that Machiavelli uses this situation twice, one can more seriously question if Machiavelli also had no love in his marriage and looked for it elsewhere.  

Another interesting aspect of these plays is the language in which husbands refer –or are thought to supposed to refer- to their wives in. It is at once overbearing and pretentious.  For instance, in Mandragola, Callimaco tells Nicia,  “But I should not pretend to the name of husband if I couldn’t make my wife so as I wanted” (Hale 26).   In Clizia, Nicomaco constantly refers to his wife, Sofronia, as mad and irrational (Hale 92).  Once again, perhaps this is how Machiavelli felt relationships should be between men and women.  Maybe in his marriage he made the rules and Marietta simply stayed at home waiting for Machiavelli to tell her what to do next.  In De Grazia’s words, in the Renaissance, “Women are the domesticators of men” (230)  Perhaps Machiavelli loved Marietta only for the home stability she provided him with.  When he lost his job, she was always there as the passive wife hanging on the husband’s every word.  Maybe Machiavelli only loved Marietta for her constant companionship and domestic upkeep.  

One caveat before moving on: While these plays may hold Machiavelli’s true


views about marriage, one must be careful not to infer too much.  Consider what


Machiavelli tell’s readers in his preface to Clizia:


Comedies are written to please and delight the spectators…You have, therefore, to present characters who are ludicrous, slanderous or in love, and the plays that have plenty of these three sort of dialogue will raise plenty of laughs.  Those that have none won’t find a smile in the house. (Hale 68)


While there is little evidence that Marietta and Machiavelli had a passionate love affair, there is also not much evidence to prove that they didn’t.  Yes, Machiavelli did not brag to his friends about his beautiful wife as he did other women, and, yes, he wrote plays about finding love outside of marriage – but is this enough to assume that Machiavelli did not love Marietta at all? 

            Sebastian De Gazia suggests that there was love in the marriage, but it was more of a fraternal love-perhaps like that between brothers.  Obviously Machiavelli had some interest in the marriage because he fathered five children by Marietta.  Also, Machiavelli tried his best to provide for his family before and after died he died.   In his will he left Marietta, “his dear spouse”, a farm, a farmhouse, and two houses (De Grazia 125).  If Machiavelli had truly loved another woman, he could have given her something in the will because he would already be dead and Marietta couldn’t kill him for it. It seems that even if Machiavelli found love outside his marriage-which his plays and the next section suggests-he still could have loved Marietta, even if it was only for the constancy and domestication she offered him.   


The Mistresses

            In a 1523 letter Francesco Vettori writes Machiavelli, “You would never have married if you had really known yourself.” (Atkinson 348). What Vettori is no doubt referring to is Machiavelli’s weakness for women other than his wife.  Unlike with his marriage, Machiavelli’s personal correspondence is just littered with references to various mistresses and affairs.

The first of Machiavelli’s affairs we know about took place in 1510.  Giovanni Girolami writes Machiavelli that “Jeanne in Lyons is devoted to you” (Atkinson 207).  The next letter in the collection Machiavelli and His Friends mentions Jeanne again and yet another courtesan named La Riccia. 

            La Riccia’s name appears in at least six letters.  It seems that Machiavelli went to see her on numerous occasions. De Grazia reports that as Secretary, Machiavelli was accused before the Eight of committing an act of sodomy with La Riccia (140).  Incidentally, the incident did no harm to Machiavelli’s career and he kept visiting La Riccia-so much so that he writes that she calls him a “House Pest” (Atkinson 278).

Again, in August 1514, Machiavelli writes Vettori, “I have met a creature so gracious, so refined, so noble-both in nature and in circumstance-that never could either my praise or my love for her be as much as she deserves.” (Atkinson 292-3).  At the present time, Machiavelli is living in Florence with his family. This unnamed mistress “may have been a friend’s sister whose husband had deserted her to live in Rome.” (De Grazia 129).

            Finally, the last and by far the most significant of Machiavelli’s extramarital loves was the actress Barbera Raffacani Salutati.  It was for Barbera that Machiavelli penned both Clizia and Mandragola.  While there are no letters to or from Barbera in his personal letters, much information about Barbera can be gathered from letters between Machiavelli and his friends – most notably Vettori and Guicciardini.

Machiavelli has an overwhelmingly obvious desire for Barbera. For example, he writes Guicciardini that “Barbera is there in Rome; if you can do her any service, I commend her to you, for she gives me far more concern than does the emperor” (Atkinson ).  This is an important statement because politics seemed really to be Machiavelli’s passion.  Shortly after being expelled from Florence, Machiavelli laments “… I have to talk about politics.  I need to either take a vow of silence or to discuss this” (Atkinson 225). 

Barbera’s feelings for Machiavelli are also evident in letters to Machiavelli from his friends. Guicciardini writes Machiavelli in 1525 that Barbera “would season an entire city for you.”(Atkinson 361).    In a particularly fascinating letter, Jacopo di Filippo Falconetti writes Machiavelli,  “she did some occasional discourtesies to see if you love her.”  It seems as if Barbera was testing Machiavelli’s devotion to her by trying to make him jealous.  Given that Machiavelli wrote plays for her, visited when he could and sent friends to check on her, it can be assumed that Machiavelli was indeed devoted (Atkinson 361).  

            Having briefly described some of Machiavelli’s steamier relationships, a good question to explore is, was this lust or love?  After all, casual sex was not unusual in Renaissance Florence (De Grazia 127).  Francesco Vettori, a married man, often preached of the necessity of lust to Machiavelli. In 1515, explaining his boredom, he writes, “..of necessity one must endeavor to think of pleasant things, but I know of nothing that give me more delight to think about and to do than fucking.” (Atkinson 311). Did Machiavelli also view sex as merely a non-emotional extracurricular sport?

There are several indications that Machiavelli also liked to sleep around for pleasure.  In a most famous letter describing his isolation outside Florence, Machiavelli writes “...I have neither slept nor fooled around” (Atkinson 265). This suggests that “fooling around” was a practice he was used to doing.  Also, it is worth noting a 1509 letter that Machiavelli wrote to Guicciardini describing an incident he had with an old woman.  Suffering from “conjugal famine” Machiavelli is tricked into having sex with a disgusting looking hag.  Machiavelli takes great care in describing the woman’s vulgar appearance and concludes,“I’ll be damned if I think I shall get horny again” (Atkinson 190-1).  While the truthfulness of this letter has been questioned, it really doesn’t matter. The point is, Machiavelli probably did have casual sex without love. Nevertheless, as will next be discussed, Machiavelli most certainly did love some women.  The biggest indicators of this love are Machiavelli’s letters on love to Vettori. 

Machiavelli and Vettori had a unique relationship.  What started a political union  spread to friendship, and arguably love itself.  In addition to carrying on a political dialogue, Vettori fairly consistently wrote Machiavelli asking for advice about a certain woman he had fallen in love with.  Machiavelli, being the good friend that he was, advised this married man to follow his own example and let go of his heart and follow love.  In February 1514 Machiavelli writes: 

And since my own precedent causes you dismay, remembering what Love’s arrows have done to me, I am obliged to tell you how I have handled myself with him.  As a matter of fact, I have let him do as he please and I have followed him through hill and dale, woods and plains; I have discovered that he has granted me more charms than if I had tormented him.  So the, take off the saddlepacks, remove the bridle, close your eyes, and say “Go ahead, Love, be my guide, my leader; if things turn out well, may the praise be yours, if they turn out badly, may the blame be yours-I am your slave”. (Atkinson 277-8)


As suggested by this quote, Machiavelli sought after love with the reckless abandonment of Nicamaco in Clizia and Callimaco in Mandragola.   

Machiavelli’s passionate writing about love sharply contrasts his persuasive letters about politics.  In a political context, Machiavelli uses fact, logic, and history to support his opinion.  When writing about love, Machiavelli refers to authors like Ovid and uses a more abstract tone.  Examine this 1514 letter written to Vettori:

I ought to tell you, as you did me, how this love began, how Love ensnared me with his nets, where he spread them, and what they were like; you would realize that, spread among the flowers, these were nets of gold woven by Venus, so soft and gentle that even though an insensitive heart could have severed them, nevertheless I declined to do so. (Atkinson 293).

In their respective books, both John Najemy and Sebastian De Grazia attempt to make some link between Machiavelli’s love of politics and love of women.  This is an important link because, as suggested earlier, politics was supposedly Machiavelli’s life.  De Grazia contends Machiavelli thought “Love of woman seems to be a force withdrawing men from politics; if interfered with, it becomes a danger to civil life” (132).  De Grazia comes to this conclusion based on the chapter in the Discourses called How a State is Ruined Because of Women. Interestingly enough, if this is true, Machiavelli didn’t follow his own advice.  He obviously showed no restraint in his affairs and gave love free reign. Machiavelli’s country love in particular muted his love for politics.  Of this woman Machiavelli wrote, “No longer to I delight in reading about the deeds of the ancients or in discussing those of the moderns; everything has been transformed into tender thoughts, for which I thank Venus and all of Cyprus” (Atkinson 293). In this quote, love appears to be such a powerful influence that it has overtaken the importance of politics in Machiavelli’s life.      

Najemy writes that Machiavelli equates politics and love by strategizing about them both in the same way.  Of the quote used earlier giving Machiavelli’s advice to Vettori, Najemy writes it “assumes the necessity of strategy and negotiation in confronting the power of desire.” (298).  Najemy explains that the desire of a Prince to maintain control of his land parallels the struggle men have against love.   Najemy writes on man and love that “only by relinquishing all attempts at control could he establish limits on Love’s ability to harm him.” ; but he continues that “Similarly, if the desire and the will to control (love) are often self-defeating (either because the object of desire will not let itself be possessed, or because, if possessed, it reduces the possessor to submission), conversely submission might actually be the source of power.” (169).  Substituting the word Fortune for love in this sentence reveals a sentence similar to one found in chapter XXV, On Fortune’s Role in Human Affairs and How She can be Dealt With, in The Prince (269). He concludes, “that since Fortune changes and men remain set in their ways, men will succeed when the two are in harmony and fail when they are not in accord.” (162).  Again though, Machiavelli did not follow his own advice.  He was defeated by love.  Accentuating this contradiction is Machiavelli’s closing words in the chapter. 

I am certainly convinced of this: that it is better to be impetuous than cautious, because Fortune is a woman, and it is necessary, in order to keep her down, to beat her and to struggle with her. (Bondanella 162) 


Apparently love was too strong for Machiavelli because he let love overtake him.  If Machiavelli can’t heed his own advice, then is it possible that really love was more important to him than even politics?     

There is no denying that love was a powerful force for Machiavelli.  He continually surrendered himself to his passions for women throughout his life. But how is his love for his mistresses different than his love for Marietta?   Machiavelli used ripe and luxurious language to explain his affairs to his friends where as he rarely made mention of his wife.  Furthermore, Machiavelli’s correspondence expressed a certain kind of hopeless and inability to resist love. In the case of his mistresses, if love was a power relationship, love had the power-perhaps a greater power than politics.  Contrastingly, in Machiavelli’s views on marriage, the husband had the power.    Machiavelli obviously loved his mistresses in a different way than Marietta.  To Marietta, Machiavelli, the husband, was acting out a social norm.  In the case of his mistresses, Machiavelli was a slave to love and unable to take the advice he gives to Princes.   












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Bondanella, Peter and Mark Musa, ed.  The Portable Machiavelli.  New York: Penguin

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De Grazia, Sebastian.  Machiavelli in Hell.  New York:  Vintage Books, 1989.

Hale, J. R. ed.  The Literary Works of Machiavelli.  London:  Oxford University Press,


Mansfield, Harvey C.  Machiavelli’s Virtue.  Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press,


Najemy, John M.  Between Friends.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.