A Retreat Can Spur Creative Energy: Machiavelli’s Letter To Francesco Vettori


Sometimes being away from the fray and the fracases of life can allow us to compose our thoughts and regenerate our spirits.  This has the effect of spurring the creative soul on to higher amplitudes of output.  We forget just how distracting it is for the mind to be bombarded with invasive stimuli; and while periods of withdrawal from the fray should not be permanent, they can, in the right doses, provide just that right proportion of flint and steel to spark great works.

When the political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli found himself barred from the arena of politics, he composed a famous letter to his friend Francesco Vettori.  The letter was written in December of 1513.  It is a poignant and unforgettable document; we see revealed a man of acute sensibilities, a restless and searching mind seeking to find its proper voice.  I urge you to read it carefully:  for it was out of such bucolic ruminations that he was to produce his game-changing political philosophy.  His exile was both painful and productive; and this churning tension between relaxation and tumescence bubbles through in this letter.  We get a better window on the soul of the man in this one letter than we do, perhaps, in nearly any other piece of correspondence he has left behind.

And since Fortune is eager to shape everything, she wants people to let her do so, to be still, not to trouble her, and to await the moment when she will let men do something. That will be the moment for you to persevere more unfailingly, to be more alert about matters, and for me to leave my farm and announce, “Here I am.” Since I want to repay you in the same coin, therefore, I can tell you nothing else in this letter except what my life is like. If you decide you would like to swap it for yours, I shall be happy to make the exchange.

I am living on my farm, and since my latest disasters, I have not spent a total of twenty days in Florence. Until now, I have been catching thrushes with my own hands. I would get up before daybreak, prepare the birdlime, and go out with such a bundle of birdcages on my back that I looked like Geta when he came back from the harbor with Amphitryon’s books. I would catch at least two, at most six, thrushes. And thus I passed the entire month of November.

Eventually this diversion, albeit contemptible and foreign to me, petered out – to my regret. I shall tell you about my life. I get up in the morning with the sun and go into one of my woods that I am having cut down; there I spend a couple of hours inspecting the work of the previous day and kill some time with the woodsmen who always have some dispute on their hands either among themselves or with their neighbors.

I could tell you a thousand good stories about these woods and my experiences with them, and about Frosino da Panzano and other men who wanted some of this firewood. In particular, Frosino sent for some loads of wood without saying a word to me; when it came time to settle, he wanted to withhold ten lire that he said he had won off me four years ago when he had beaten me at cricca at Antonio Guicciardini’s house. I started to raise hell; I was going to call the wagoner who had come for the wood a thief, but Giovanni Machiavelli eventually stepped in and got us to agree…

Upon leaving the woods, I go to a spring; from there, to one of the places where I hang my birdnets. I have a book under my arm:  Dante, Petrarch, or one of the minor poets like Tibullus, Ovid, or some such. I read about their amorous passions and their loves, remember my own, and these reflections make me happy for a while. Then I make my way along the road toward the inn, I chat with passersby, I ask news of their regions, I learn about various matters, I observe mankind: the variety of its tastes, the diversity of its fancies. By then it is time to eat; with my household I eat what food this poor farm and my minuscule patrimony yield.

When I have finished eating, I return to the inn, where there usually are the innkeeper, a butcher, a miller, and a couple of kilnworkers. I slum around with them for the rest of the day playing cricca and backgammon: these games lead to thousands of squabbles and endless abuses and vituperations. More often than not we are wrangling over a penny; be that as it may, people can hear us yelling even in San Casciano. Thus, having been cooped up among these lice, I get the mold out of my brain and let out the malice of my fate, content to be ridden over roughshod in this fashion if only to discover whether or not my fate is ashamed of treating me so.

When evening comes, I return home and enter my study; on the threshold I take off my workday clothes, covered with mud and dirt, and put on the garments of court and palace. Fitted out appropriately, I step inside the venerable courts of the ancients, where, solicitously received by them, I nourish myself on that food that alone is mine and for which I was born; where I am unashamed to converse with them and to question them about the motives for their actions, and they, out of their human kindness, answer me. And for four hours at a time I feel no boredom, I forget all my troubles, I do not dread poverty, and I am not terrified by death. I absorb myself into them completely.

And because Dante says that no one understands anything unless he retains what he has understood, I have jotted down what I have profited from in their conversation and composed a short study, De principatibus, in which I delve as deeply as I can into the ideas concerning this topic, discussing the definition of a princedom, the categories of princedoms, how they are acquired, how they are retained, and why they are lost. And if ever any whimsy of mine has given you pleasure, this one should not displease you. It ought to be welcomed by a prince, and especially by a new prince; therefore I am dedicating it to His Magnificence Giuliano. Filippo da Casavecchia has seen it. He will be able to give you some account of both the work itself and the discussions I have had with him about it, although I am continually fattening and currying it…

And through this study of mine, were it to be read, it would be evident that during the fifteen years I have been studying the art of the state I have neither slept nor fooled around, and anybody ought to be happy to utilize someone who has had so much experience at the expense of others. There should be no doubt about my word; for, since I have always kept it, I should not start learning how to break it now. Whoever has been honest and faithful for forty-three years, as I have, is unable to change his nature; my poverty is a witness to my loyalty and honesty.

So I should like you, too, to write me what your opinion is about all this. I commend myself to you. Be happy.

10 December 1513.
Niccolò Machiavelli, in Florence.

[Trans. by J.B. Atkinson & David Sices, Machiavelli And His Friends:  Their Personal Correspondence]

Notice how Machiavelli begins (as any proper student of classical antiquity) with an invocation of the role of Fortune in human affairs.  He then commences to paint his Tuscan tapestry with unforgettable images of country life.

Amid such scenes did Machiavelli compose two works of primary importance for modern political theory:  The Prince and the Discourses.  Unwinding from the pressures of life is vitally important for all of us.  And I hope that the evocative images generated by this letter help you to do just that; and that you do it sooner, rather than later.