Few names have such resonance as Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), the Florentine scholar and
political thinker who said 'the times are more powerful than our brains'. He was born into a poor off-
shoot of one of Florence's leading families and his essential premise - 'the end justifies the means' -
is one that continues to live with disturbing terrorism five centuries on.
Impoverished as Machiavelli's family was, his father had a well-stocked library, which the young
Machiavelli devoured. When he was 29 Machiavelli landed a post in the city's second chancery. By
1500 he was in France on his first diplomatic mission in the service of the Republic. Indeed, so im-
pressed was he by the martial success of Cesare Borgia and the centralised state of France that Ma-
chiavelli concluded that Florence, too, needed a standing army - which he convinced the Republic to
do in 1506. Three years later it was bloodied in battle against the rebellious city of Pisa.
The return to power of the Medici family in 1512 was a blow for Machiavelli. Suspected of plotting
against the Medici, he was thrown into Florence's Le Stinche (the earliest known jail in Tuscany, dat-
ing from 1297 and among the first in Europe) in 1513 and tortured with six rounds of interrogation on
the prison's notorious rack. Yet he maintained his innocence. Once freed, he retired a poor man to a
small property outside Florence.
But it was during these years that Machiavelli did his greatest writing. Il Principe (The Prince) is
his classic treatise on the nature of power and its administration, a work reflecting the confusing and
corrupt times in which he lived and his desire for strong and just rule in Florence and beyond. He later
wrote an official history of Florence, the Istorie Fiorentine.
In 1526 Machiavelli joined the papal army in its futile fight against imperial forces. By the time the
latter had sacked Rome in 1527, Florence had again rid itself of Medici rule. Machiavelli hoped he
would be restored to a position of dignity, but to no avail. He died frustrated and, as in his youth, im-
Tuscany's Renaissance legacy was almost lost in the 1966 Great Flood of Florence that left
thousands homeless and three million manuscripts and thousands of art works under mud,
stone and sewage. Those heroes who helped dig out the treasures are honoured as gli angeli del
fango (angels of mud).