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Early Modern Times – Mafia-vellian politics

Early Modern Times - Mafia-vellian politics

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Dear readers,

I recently re-viewed the 1974 masterpiece The Godfather Part II, which screened at Cineplex as part of its Classic Film Series. As I’ve often remarked in my Machiavelli lecture for the Foundation Year Program, as well as in EMSP 4000 and other courses, there are fascinating comparisons to be made between Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films (especially the first two parts; I won’t comment on Part III, which I still find embarrassing to watch) and Renaissance politics as reflected in Florentine political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli’s book Il Principe (The Prince, written in 1513).

Both The Godfather films and Machiavelli’s Prince are set in a violent world of imperial conquest, invasion, assassination, and intrigue. In The Godfather, the New York area is controlled by five Mafia families, which resemble in some ways the great families in Renaissance Italy, including the Medicis and Borgias. Like the Corleone clan in the movies, the male heads and members of the Renaissance families were businessmen (the Florence-based Medicis were the bankers of Europe) but also patrons of the arts: just as Vito Corleone is Godfather to the Sinatra-like Johnny Fontana (hilariously parodied as John Candy’s ‘Johnny Pavarotti’ in the classic Canadian TV sketch-comedy show SCTV), so the Medici family patronised such Renaissance artists as Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo.

As Orson Welles’s famous cinematic villain Harry Lime in the 1949 thriller The Third Man remarks, ‘Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.’ In fact, we must deny the Swiss even that glory, as they didn’t invent the cuckoo-clock. But in the Italian context, it was certainly the case that the Renaissance combination of ruthlessness, violence, and artistic patronage put the ‘pain’ in ‘painting’.

When Machiavelli was writing The Prince, as well as his longer work on republican politics, Discourses on Livy, many Italian princes had lost their states to invaders and Machiavelli’s beloved Florentine republic had fallen. The Mafia wars in The Godfather reminds us of this turmoil in late Renaissance Italy. For Machiavelli, the Italian princes had failed to comprehend that while the world is governed by Fortuna (fortune–but a slippery, fishy concept which puts the ‘tuna’ in Fortuna), there is still a space for virtù: i.e., a manly prowess and cunning which prepares for bad fortune and seizes opportunities presented by good fortune. Likewise, the decline of the Corleone family under the aging Vito provides an opportunity for his son Michael to build a new empire. For Machiavelli, a new prince must be willing and able to commit injustice and violence in attacking his enemies, including wiping out the previous ruling families of conquered territories. Similarly, Michael Corleone eliminates the heads of the rival Mafia families towards the end of The Godfather, as well as other enemies such as the Las Vegas gangster Moe Green. Machiavelli concludes The Prince by calling for a new prince to unify Italy and liberate it from the barbarians (foreigners), while the new Godfather establishes himself as the Corle-one prince to rule them all.

Yet, Machiavelli also distinguished sheer cruelty from virtù. The ancient ruler Agathocles, who attained power in Sicily by putting to death all the senators and prominent citizens, can be contrasted with the Hebrew prophet Moses, who for Machiavelli was one of the greatest princes of all time but also wiped out countless enemies because they envied his power. Machiavelli regards Agathocles as a prince who used cruelty well but did not exercise true virtù, unlike Moses. What is the difference? Moses, unlike Agathocles, used religion to found a great kingdom–unlike Agathocles, who merely seized power–and so we remember Moses for his glorious deeds rather than any acts of cruelty. Indeed, Moses would have been both feared and loved, whereas a cruel man like Agathocles would only have been feared. Machiavelli’s teaching in The Prince is that it is best to be both feared and loved, but if you can only be one, it is better to be feared than loved. If he had written a parenting manual, it might be seen as a call for helicopter-blade parenting.

Similarly, while Michael Corleone effectively outwits and exterminates all of his enemies–including the Jewish-American gangster Hyman Roth–he ultimately loses his own family and find himself at the end of The Godfather Part II a lonely, isolated, and corrupt despot: a prince who forces the suicide of venerable Corleone client Frank Pentangeli (whose death-scene in the film is a visual reference to Jacques-Louis David’s famous and shocking 1793 painting, The Death of Marat, pictured above), and who has his older brother, Fredo, killed out of revenge. In contrast, the film flashes back to the rise of young Vito: a new American immigrant fleeing bloodshed in his native Sicily, but confronts a hostile world in early 20th-century New York. He resorts to crime, and murders the local Black Hand mobster Don Ciccio. Despite this violent action, however, Vito builds a Mafia empire and is both loved and feared by those below him–whereas Michael, though cunning and successful, ends up only feared. Thus, Vito more closely resembles the greatest princes in history, whereas Michael is more like Agathocles, or the ruthless and powerful Cesare Borgia. Machiavelli argues that to create a new state is to erect a political masterpiece, but well-used cruelty merely attains power for power’s sake. The immoral, hated, and friendless Michael Corleone ends up a prince without principles, much less princey-pals.

’til next week,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Finger-prince Studies Program


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