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Niccolo Capponi (or Count Niccolo Capponi to give him his full title) is a member or a patrician Florentine family who can trace their residence in that city back to the 13th Century. He has a PhD in military history and numbers Machiavelli as one of his ancerstors. These qualifications come together to make for a highly informative and oddly charming book. Unlike many current historians Capponi doesn't shy away from drawing character portraits of historical figures. He's also happy to make broad but very entertaining generalisations about Florentines as a whole. In other hands that combination might come across as smug, lazy or special pleading for an esteamed ancestor but Capponi is exceptionally learned, he seems to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Machiavelli's writings, his extensive correspondence with friends and the power brokers of Renaissance Italy and also of the political and military context within which Machiavellia operated.
So we get eye witness accounts of the struggle for Florence to maintain its' republican identity in the midst of a struggle between the French, the Holy Roman Empire and a gallery of psychotic/decadent/dim-witted Popes. We also get a real sense of why Machiavelli's contemporaries liked him to much with tales such as the one in which one of his powerful patrons helped him to blag a luxurious stay at a notoriously stingy power brokers' palace by sending ornately decorated envelopes on a daily basis which purported to contain top secret and potentially valuable intelligence. In fact they just contained a lot of ribald gossip: "I was taking a crap when I recieved your letter....." typifies the tone.
We also get a rich picture of Machiavelli as funny, clever, disadvantaged by humble roots despite Florence's claim to republican values and incapable telling a diplomatic lie when the bald truth was staring him in the face. Hence his rather turblent career.
This gets four stars rather than 5 because the production quality is good but not great and it took an hour or so before I was fully gripped. However, I'm very glad I stuck with it and now regard it as a real gem.