Home  »  library  »  prose  »  Critical and Biographical Introduction

C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Pasquale Villari (1827–1917)

IT has been said that the history of any given nation can be clearest understood and best written by a member of that nation, as obviously fitted by temperament to enter into that sympathy with the past which is the first requisite of the historian. The truth of this is exemplified in the case of Pasquale Villari, a modern Italian historian, whose noted lives of Savonarola and of Machiavelli owe their value as much to the author’s comprehension of the Italian temperament as to his thorough and extensive scholarship. The first volume of the ‘Life and Times of Savonarola’ was published in 1859, the second in 1861. In writing this history, Villari had to deal with one of the most complex periods of Italian development, when the Renaissance was approaching its zenith, introducing into European life the elements out of which the modern world was to be formed. Like other transitional periods, it was fraught with much that seems inexplicable and contradictory, even to a far-removed generation; furthermore, Villari had to treat of a character concerning the estimate of whose place and work in the world a historian might easily go astray. Savonarola in his perfect simplicity is one of the most unintelligible figures of history, when regarded, as is usually the case, as a mediæval friar of a profound and mystic devotional genius. Villari does not question the genius, but he places Savonarola where he belongs, in the modern and not in the mediæval world.

  • “It cannot be denied that he had the spirit of an innovator; and indeed, the main purpose of our work has been to insist on this point. Savonarola was the first to raise the standard announcing the uprisal of the truly original thought of the Renaissance at the close of the great epoch of humanistic learning. He was the first man of the fifteenth century to realize that the human race was palpitating with the throes of a new life; and his words were loudly echoed by that portion of the Italian people still left untainted by the prevalent corruption. He accordingly merits the title of prophet of the new civilization…. Columbus discovered the paths of the sea, Savonarola those of the soul;… he endeavored to conciliate reason with faith, religion with liberty. His work may be ranked with that of the Council of Constance, of Dante Alighieri, of Arnaldo of Brescia: he aspired to the reform of Christianity and Catholicism that has been the constant ideal of the greatest minds of Italy.”
  • Villari thus renders an enormous service to the life and work of Savonarola. Seen in this light, the Dominican friar of San Marco becomes the embodiment of the better elements of the Renaissance; he perished because his environment was chiefly made up of the lower elements of that great growth in the direction of the new world. A Florence leavened by the Medici surrounded the prophet. Villari has described this environment with wonderful penetration, using the slightest details as explanatory of the central figure. For these reasons his ‘Life of Savonarola’ is pre-eminent among the other biographies of the great Dominican.

    In his ‘Niccolo Machiavelli and His Times,’ he approaches his subject in the same rational and sympathetic manner. The first volume of this work is devoted to a survey of the principal Italian States,—Milan, Florence, Venice, Rome, and Naples,—of the political condition of Italy at the end of the fifteenth century, and of the literature of the period. In this way he prepares the reader for a comprehension of the character of Machiavelli, by the comprehension of the social and political conditions which produced him. In his own words, he “studied Machiavellism before Machiavelli.” His estimate of the great politician is singularly original and striking: he proceeds upon the assumption that Machiavelli’s noted maxim, “The end justifies the means,” was but a corollary to a much more comprehensive principle,—namely, that the whole is greater than the parts; that the welfare of society is of more importance than the welfare of the individual. He first points out that the political and social state of the Italy of Machiavelli’s time was directly productive of the theories of statecraft embodied in ‘The Prince.’ “All private relations were ruled by Christian morality, or at all events professed unquestioning adherence to its precepts; but it was forsaken in public life, where it was supposed to have no practical value. Good faith, loyalty, and Christian goodness would have subjected to certain destruction any prince or government that should have actually obeyed their dictates in political matters. The State would have certainly fallen a prey to the enemy; would perhaps have dissolved into anarchy.” Machiavelli “clearly saw that statecraft has ways and means of its own, which are not the ways and means of private morality: that on the contrary, the morality of private life may sometimes check a statesman in mid-career, and render him vacillating, without his being either a good or a bad man; and that it is mainly vacillation of this kind that leads to the downfall of States. There must be no vacillation, he said, but a daring adoption of the measures demanded by the nature of events. Such measures will always be justified when the end is obtained. And the end in view must be the welfare of the State. He who obtains this, if even he be a wicked man, may be condemned for his wickedness; but as a prince he will deserve everlasting glory…. Such is the true meaning of Machiavelli’s maxim, that the end justifies the means.” Villari concludes his history by demonstrating that Machiavelli’s conception of Italy’s needs was essentially a true one.

  • “Italy had become incapable of a religious reformation like that accomplished in Germany. Instead of springing towards God, as Savonarola had predicted; instead of seeking strength in a new conception of faith, she aimed at a recomposition of the idea of the State and the motherland. She saw in the sacrifice of all to the universal good the only possible way of political and moral redemption. The unity of the regenerated country would have inevitably led to the re-establishment of morality; would have rekindled faith in public and private virtue, and discovered a method of sanctifying the purpose of life. This idea, vaguely and feebly felt by many, was the ruling thought of Machiavelli…. At the present day, when Italy’s political redemption has begun, and the nation is constituted according to the prophecies of Machiavelli, the moment has at last come for justice to be done to him.”
  • Villari himself had that acquaintance with public affairs which is invaluable to the historian. Born in Naples in 1827, he became involved in the revolutionary movement which broke out in Naples in 1848, and took refuge in Florence. His exile proved of great benefit to him as a historian, his researches in the archives of the city leading him to write the histories of Savonarola and Machiavelli. After the publication of the former work, the chair of modern history in the University of Pisa was bestowed upon him. In 1862 he published a work on ‘Latin and English Civilization’; in 1877 the first volume, and in 1882 the second volume, of ‘Niccolo Machiavelli’ were published. ‘Critical Essays’ appeared in 1876, and ‘Art, History, and Philosophy’ in 1884. He also wrote political pamphlets, some of which had great popularity. In 1866 he was sent to the Italian Chamber by the electors of Arezzo, and in 1884 he was appointed to the Senate. He was a member of the Superior Council of Public Instruction for some years and Minister of Education 1891–2. Later he became professor of modern history in the Florentine Institute.

    Villari was uncommonly fortunate in finding an excellent translator in the person of his wife, whose clear, forcible, and flowing style contributed in no small degree to the appreciation of his work among English-speaking people. Beside the books on Savonarola and Machiavelli analyzed above, Linda Villari translated the following: ‘The First Two Centuries of Florentine History’ (1901); ‘The Barbaric Invasions in Italy’ (1902); ‘Studies, Historical and Critical’ (1907). Villari’s ‘Mediæval History from Charlemagne to Henry VII.’ was translated by Costanza Hulton (1910).