The Throne: The Machiavelli Trilogy, Book 1

Image of The Throne: The Machiavelli Trilogy, Book 1
Release Date: 
June 11, 2024
Europa Editions
Reviewed by: 

"Well researched with wonderfully vivid details."

The Throne calls itself the first in a trilogy about the famous Florentine writer and thinker, Niccolo Machiavelli, but beginning as it does toward the end of his political career and ending with his death, it's hard to imagine where the subsequent two books will go, unless they'll fill in his youth and childhood. In any case, this first title works well as a stand-alone story, detailing the time Machiavelli spent at the court of Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI. It was a period of great upheaval for all of Italy, and Bernini does a good job of describing the political and social chaos, the shifting sands of power from one city-state to another.

Macchiavelli's role in Florence as an envoy, messenger, spy has been well documented, a history Bernini clearly knows well. The book starts with the Florentine Republic sending Machiavelli to Borgia to talk him out of invading the city. And if that can't happen, to take the man's measure and learn what military forces he has and where he's placing them. It's an important job, but just shy of the status Machiavelli yearns for:

"An envoy. Not as an orator or ambassador. A job that pays less. He will have the power to represent the Republic but not to sign pacts. Niccolo is filled with bitterness and anger. Once again, they have not asked him to take on an important duty. . . . And yet, at the same time, he is flattered and not a little curious."

Before this well-painted historical backdrop, Bernini sets out to tell the story of Machiavelli's development as a writer and political thinker, specifically as embodied by his best-known work, The Prince. The title of Bernini's book itself, The Throne, acts as an echo to The Prince, both evoking power, both suggesting an ideal ruler. This ruler turns out to be Borgia, depicted as cruel yet effective, violent, yet serving a higher purpose. He fascinates Machiavelli in all his bloody contradictions, teaching the writer what it means to fight, to win, to govern.

The subplot of Machiavelli's enchantment with a young woman, Dionora, seized by Borgia as a war trophy is a distraction from the much more interesting political, historical narrative. Dionara's family was killed during Borgia's attack on Forli as part of the Pope's strategy to conquer all of Romagna. The siege of Forli is most interesting historically for the part played by Catarina Sforza, which is only briefly mentioned here. Much more attention is given to Dionora's detailed story. Those who relish romance may well enjoy these pages, but the heart of the book lays in Machiavelli's development as a thinker and a writer, what he learns from Borgia, despite himself.

Hired by Borgia to write the history of his achievements, Machiavelli learns how to write powerfully and incisively about power and how it's wielded. The discussions between the two men are the most riveting parts of the book.

"Borgia then comes even closer and speaks in a less threatening, almost kind tone. 'But you will not write out of fear. You'll do it because you now understand what power truly is. The discovery has spread through you like poison. You are a true writer and you feel compelled to write about what you know of the world. You belong to me, forever.'"

Borgia's prediction hits home, though not until many years later, long after Machiavelli's political career has ended in exile in the countryside.

"Niccolo has poured everything that Cesare taught him into those pages. He was never as close to real power as he was in the months he spent with Borgia. . . ."

This is where the book succeeds most. Bernini presents a multifaceted image of Machiavelli. We see him struggling, we see how writing works for him, shapes his thinking.

"It seems to Niccolo that Borgia was not that different from other bold figures who managed to capture the public's attention for some time and then disappeared. The more he writes about Cesare, even if the man invented things, the more the hazy figure of Cesare takes on consistency. He has been transformed into an ideal prince. Niccolo can't help but admit to himself that this is exactly what Valentino [Borgia] wanted from him. He wanted to have his story told, and is so doing, live on."

Well researched with wonderfully vivid details, Bernini presents Machiavelli in all the complications of a life spent navigating political waters, learning to say the right thing or nothing at all, and more importantly, learning how to write about it all.

The ultimate power, then, resides in words and those who know how to use them. Borgia and his armies fade away, but Machiavelli's books still belong on our shelves.