Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540) was born and died in Florence which already had a long history as a literary and cultural centre, and as a centre of commercial life. Guicciardini came from an aristocratic family which provided an outstanding education that included study with the great Platonist philosopher Marsilio Ficino. Guicciardini had a life of state service, which took him to Spain as an ambassador as well as working within Florence and the dependent city of Bologna. He also worked for the Papacy in a political and military capacity at a time when the Vatican was the centre of one of the major Italian states, which was also at a time of political fragmentation in Italy and of foreign interventions from France, Germany, and Spain. The Papal States centred on Rome and Florence were therefore major states within Italian politics, not just cities. In the end Spanish domination overwhelmed them all, but Guicciardini seems more concerned with the danger of French domination.
The Florentine politics of the time goes through a series of shifts between secular republic, religious republic, and Medici dominated principality, which Machiavelli also participated in and commented on in writing. Indeed Guicciaridini and Machiavelli were friends, but their versions of republicanism were not identical. Machiavelli placed Rome first among the great republics of antiquity, with particular reference to the benefits of political competition, particularly between aristocracy and common people, for liberty and patriotic spirit.
Guicciardini also refers to Rome, but with less enthusiasm for the role of the common people and political conflict. He denies that the existence of two consuls sharing the supreme leadership role was evidence of a wish to stimulate political competition, but instead argues that it was a practical adoption to war time so that one consul could direct armies in the field while the other directed government business back in Rome. It was a not a scheme to limit individual power and any political competition between the two consuls was an unexpected and undesirable outcome, weakening rather than strengthening the republic. He applied a similar analysis to the double kings of ancient Sparta, who had a largely military role.
Guicciardini refers briefly but significantly to Plato indicating his preference for an ideal of order over an ideal of competition, for rational hierarchy over plebeian street politics. He does not follow anything like the strict enforcement of virtue and rule of the ‘wise’ advocated by Plato, but evidently finds that a preferable orientation to the liberty to challenge existing order. The detail Guicciardini provides of Florentine political history shows a drama of constant change and challenge, disorder and revolution, which might confirm Plato’s fears of democratic liberty, but also suggest the difficulties of applying Plato’s ideals to reality, particularly in a commercial world with a growing civil society.
Accordingly Guicciarini’s main source of inspiration was the Republic of Venice, which already had a history stretching back to the eighth century, and with claims to have its origins in Roman antiquity, in rather legendary stories of refugees from barbarian invasion seeking sanctuary in the marshes of that area. Venice was to survive as a republic until 1797, when it was abolished by Napoleon. At its peak its territory stretched well down the Balkan coast of the Adriatic and was a major, if not the major naval and trading power in the eastern Mediterranean, so it did serve as a modern example of a powerful republic and the possibility of republican government in a largely monarchical world.
Another advantage of Venice from Guicciardini’s point of view was that it was a definitely aristocratic rather than democratic republic. There was an elective prince for life, the Doge, appointed by the aristocratic citizens of the city and ruling in cooperation with aristocratic councils. Fifteenth century scholars in Italy suggested that the constitution of Venice corresponded with Plato’s vision of a republic in the Laws, largely based on Sparta (where power was focused on the thirty man gerousia and five ephors rather than the citizens’ assembly itself based on a very restrictive definition of citizenship. This is Plato’s vision of a state that might exist in reality as opposed to the philosophical ideal proposed in the Republic. The great merchant and commercial wealth of Venice would have been disturbing for the Spartans and for Plato though, providing another example of the limits as well as real relevance of ancient republics for the modern world.
So Guicciardini is less ‘Florentine-Roman’ (democratic) and more Venetian-Spartan (aristocratic) than Machiavelli, but nevertheless he accepts that the poor have to be given some role in politics and that even if the poor are outside political citizenship at times, once a crisis brings them into politics it is very difficult to reverse that situation. The solution for Guicciardini is to allow the poor citizenship and some rights, in city assemblies, while excluding them from the highest offices of state. The high offices should be reserved to the aristocracy, with the highest offices to be held on a long-term, possibly even lifetime basis. The concern is to provide more stability and civic strength than Guicciardini believes is possible from the political activities of the poorly educated and unpropertied masses.
Guicciardini’s belief in liberty through the dominance of a responsible republic elite anticipates later ideas of thinking about liberty on the basis of conservative institutions for preserving order and property as preferable to democratic institutions and political contestation. Any thought about liberty is likely to have some element of this, some ideas about institutionalising property rights and legal stability, against the dangers of irresponsible temporary majorities. Whether a complete dominance of such institutions, with the risk of undermining them through overburdening them, is desirable or practicable is a matter of debate. Machiavelli and Guicciardini present a compelling classic Florentine compare and contrast on such issues.