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Saturday, April 15, 2017

“Niccolo’s Smile: A Biography of Machiavelli”, by Maurizio Viroli

286 pages, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, ISBN-13: 978-0374221874

As the subtitle should make clear, the focus of Niccolo’s Smile: A Biography of Machiavelli is the man’s life and not his ideas. The author, Maurizio Viroli, has little to say about either The Prince or the Discourses, and all those seeking an introduction to Machiavelli’s thought would be well-advised to steer clear of this work. As a biography, Viroli admits that his work will not surpass the richness or precision of existing lives of Machiavelli; rather, Viroli aims “[t]o recount the same stories in a new way, to focus on aspects that were previously overlooked, and here and there to revise accepted views”. Viroli is particularly fascinated by how Machiavelli laughed about life and other people: “I wrote these pages in an attempt to understand the meaning of his smile, a smile that emerges from his letters, from his works, and from certain portraits of him. I believe that his smile represents a great understanding of life, even deeper than his political thought”. The title and Viroli’s stated aims raise one’s hopes of an innovative approach to the writing of biography, but for all of that Viroli is aware of the problems of biography, and it is all the more disappointing then that the book is written as a traditional narrative, making a largely chronological progression through Machiavelli’s life. Smiles and laughter are leitmotivs that run throughout the book, and yet the results of Viroli’s quest are unremarkable. Does Viroli contribute any new material? Regrettably, the answer is no. Nevertheless, Niccolo’s Smile: A Biography of Machiavelli enthusiasm for his subject is infectious and his lively style should attract readers. Although there is extensive quotation from Machiavelli’s writings, the absence of notes suggests that the book is aimed at a general rather a scholarly audience.

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