Leonardo, Machiavelli, Borgia: these 3 men were, each in their own way, extraordinary. Genius is not too strong a word (though some might balk at the idea of Cesare Borgia being included – especially after what we learn in this book of him and his father Pope Alexander VI). What Strathern calls a ‘fateful collusion’ in his book The Artist, The Philosopher and the Warrior, was a story largely untold (as far as I can tell) before this book – and is therefore a fascinating approach. The period in view lasted only a matter of 4 or 5 years – and its complexities require much explanation and background study – but it works successfully as a piece of gripping history.
This is no straightforward biography of the 3 men – it is a study of a unique cultural moment. And that is this book’s greatest asset… but also its constant challenge. Even though we’re dealing with only a few years (roughly 1500-1505), it is sometimes hard to keep track of all that was going on (not least because of the sheer complexity of Italian Renaissance politics – many city states, different dukedoms, not to mention the intricacies of the inner-workings of the Papacy). Then, despite the book’s title, the number of times the 3 men intersected was not actually that great – their meetings (never with all 3 in one room, as far as we know) are largely described from (perfectly reasonable) conjecture – although we have clear records of Machiavelli’s encounters with Borgia from his own writing (e.g. regular diplomatic despatches back to Florence, and the impact of Borgia on his ground-breaking The Prince). Yet there is no doubt that all 3 knew each other (probably pretty well) – and so the book does have a sound basis. I found at times Strathern’s need to repeat, backtrack or review moments quite confusing (because the book is structured so that each of the 3 is repeatedly given focus in turn) – and was only saved by the essential chronology at the start. It would have been even better to have a summary of that timeline at the start of each chapter, just to keep the reader on track.
Despite these minor gripes, I couldn’t put the book down. I was enthralled from the start – and found myself hankering for more at the end. For any interested in the background to the European Reformation, this is essential reading, since the charges of corruption against the Papacy (most notably from Luther just a few years later) are given clear grounds. The escapades and ambitions of the Spanish Borgia family knew no bounds – the orgies and machinations within the walls of the Vatican were simply shameless. Strathern pulls no punches in what are at times rather lurid depictions of the goings on. More significantly, because every great work of art or writing has a context or provocation (rather than being some ethereal timeless revelation), the wonders of Leonardo’s inventions, painting and imagination now make so much more sense, as does Machiavelli’s political philosophy, because of this book. Then, to top it all, the account manages to convey moments of great poignancy – for example in the analysis of what probably turned Leonardo away from his work as a military engineer, and Machiavelli’s enforced languishing in professional isolation on his farm once the Florentine political winds had changed.
This is a well written and deeply researched book, full of gems and insights – and any book that leaves you sad to be finishing has clearly succeeded in what it set out to do.