The death of an uncle, who had occupied the see of Cortona with great pomp, induced the young Guicciardini to hanker after an ecclesiastical career. He already saw the scarlet robes of a cardinal awaiting him, and to this eminence he would assuredly have risen if not for his father, who declared that though he had five sons, he would not suffer one of them to enter the church in its then state of corruption and debasement. Guicciardini, whose motives were confessedly ambitious (see Ricordi, Op. med. x. 68), then turned his attention to law, and at the age of twenty-three was appointed by the Signoria of Florence to read the Institutes in public. Shortly afterwards he engaged himself in marriage to Maria, daughter of Alamanno Salviati, prompted, as he frankly tells us, by the political support which an alliance with that great family would bring him (ib. x. 71).
He was then practicing at the bar, where he won so much distinction that the Signoria, in 1512, entrusted him with an embassy to the court of Ferdinand the Catholic. "No one could remember at Florence that such a young man had ever been chosen for such an embassy," he wrote in his diary.
His Spanish correspondence with the Signoria (Op. med. vol. vi.) reveals the extraordinary power of observation and analysis which was a chief quality of his mind; and in Ferdinand, hypocritical and profoundly dissimulative, he found a proper object for his scientific study. To suppose that the young statesman learned his frigid statecraft in Spain would be perhaps too simple a solution of the problem offered by his character, and scarcely fair to the Italian proficients in perfidy. It is clear from Guicciardini's autobiographical memoirs that he was ambitious, calculating, avaricious and power-loving from his earliest years; and in Spain he had no more than an opportunity of studying on a large scale those political vices which already ruled the minor potentates of Italy. Still the school was pregnant with instructions for so apt a pupil.
Guicciardini issued from this first trial of his skill with an assured reputation for diplomatic ability, as that was understood in Italy. To unravel plots and weave counterplots; to meet treachery with fraud; to parry force with sleights of hand; to credit human nature with the basest motives, while the blackest crimes were contemplated with cold enthusiasm for their cleverness, was reckoned then the height of political sagacity. Guicciardini could play the game to perfection.
In 1523 he was appointed viceregent of Romagna by Clement VII. These high offices rendered Guicciardini the virtual master of the papal states beyond the Apennines, during a period of great bewilderment and difficulty. The copious correspondence relating to his administration has recently been published (Op. med. vols. vii., viii.). In 1526 Clement gave him still higher rank as lieutenant-general of the papal army. While holding this commission, he had the humiliation of witnessing from a distance the sack of Rome and the imprisonment of Clement, without being able to rouse the perfidious Duke of Urbino into activity. The blame of Clement's downfall did not rest with him; for it was merely his duty to attend the camp, and keep his master informed of the proceedings of the generals (see the Correspondence, Op. med. vols. iv., v.). Yet Guicciardini's conscience accused him, for he had previously counselled the pope to declare war, as he notes in a curious letter to himself written in 1527 (Op. med., X. 104).
Guicciardini went to Florence, but by 1527 the Medici had been expelled from the city and a republic set up. Because of his close ties to the Medici, Guicciardini was held suspect in his native city, and he fled in 1529 to the Papal Court.
Despite Guicciardini's regrets about his earlier counsel to the pope, Clement did not withdraw his confidence, and in 1531 Guicciardini was advanced to the governorship of Bologna, the most important of all the papal lord-lieutenancies (Correspondence, Op. med. vol. ix.). This post he resigned in 1534 on the election of Paul III, preferring to follow the fortunes of the Medici princes. It may here be noticed that though Guicciardini served three popes through a period of twenty years, or perhaps because of this, he hated the papacy with a deep and frozen bitterness, attributing the woes of Italy to the ambition of the church, and declaring he had seen enough of sacerdotal abominations to make him a Lutheran (see Op. med. i. 27, 104, 96, and 1st. d It., ed. Ros., ii. 218).
When, therefore, he returned to inhabit Florence in 1534, he did so as the creature of the dissolute Alessandro de Medici. Guicciardini pushed his servility so far as to defend this infamous despot at Naples in 1535, before the bar of Charles V, from the accusations brought against him by the Florentine exiles (Op. med. vol. ix). He won his cause; but in the eyes of all posterity he justified the reproaches of his contemporaries, who describe him as a cruel, venal, grasping seeker after power, eager to support a despotism for the sake of honors, offices and emoluments secured for himself by a bargain with the oppressors of his country. Varchi, Nardi, Jacopo Pitti and Bernardo Segni are unanimous upon this point; but it is only the recent publication of Guicciardini's private memoirs that has made us understand the force of their invectives. To plead loyalty or honest political conviction in defence of his Medicean partianship is now impossible, face to face with the opinions expressed in the Ricordi politici and the Storia Fiorentina. Like Machiavelli, but on a lower level, Guicciardini was willing to roll stones, or to do any dirty work for masters whom, in the depth of his soul, he detested and despised.
After the murder of Duke Alessandro in 1537, Guicciardini espoused the cause of Cosimo de Medici, a boy addicted to field sports, and unused to the game of statecraft. The wily old diplomatist hoped to rule Florence as grand vizier under this inexperienced princeling. He was mistaken, however, in his schemes, for Cosimo displayed the genius of his family for politics, and coldly dismissed his would-be lord-protector. Guicciardini retired in disgrace to his villa (at Arcetri), where he spent his last years in the composition of the Storia d'Italia. He died in 1540 without male heirs. His nephew, Lodovico Guicciardini, was also an historian particularly well-known for his 16th-century works on the Low Countries.
If one single treatise of that century should be chosen to represent the spirit of the Italian people in the last phase of the Renaissance, the historian might hesitate between the Principe of Machiavelli and the Ricordi politici of Guicciardini. The latter is perhaps preferable to the former on the score of comprehensiveness. It is, moreover, more exactly adequate to the actual situation, for the Principe has a divine spark of patriotism yet lingering in the cinders of its frigid science, an idealistic enthusiasm surviving in its moral aberrations; whereas a great Italian critic of this decade has justly described the Ricordi as Italian corruption codified and elevated to a rule of life.
Guicciardini is, however, better known as the author of the Storia d'Italia, that vast and detailed picture of his country's sufferings between the years 1494 and 1532. Judging him by this masterpiece of scientific history, he deserves less commendation as a writer than as a thinker and an analyst. The style is prolix, precise but at the expense of circumlocution, the details as distinct as the main narrative. The whole tangled skein of Italian politics of an involved and stormy period is unravelled with patience and insight. The author is an impartial spectator, a cold and curious critic. This want of feeling impairs the interest of his history. He does not seem to be aware that he is writing a great historical tragedy from his own times. He takes as much pains on a petty war with Pisa as in probing the papacy. Whatever he touches, lies already dead on the dissecting table. He fails to understand the vigour of the forces contending in Europe for mastery; this is very noticeable in what he writes about the Reformation. The Storia d'Italia was still undoubtedly the greatest historical work that had appeared in the early modern era. It remains the solid monument of the Italian reason in the 16th century, the final triumph of the Florentine school of philosophical historians which included Machiavelli, Segni, Pitti, Nardi, Varchi, Francesco Vettori and Donato Giannotti.
See Rosini's edition of the Storia d'Italia (10 vols., Pisa, 1819), and the Opere inedite, in 10 vols., published at Florence, 1857. A complete and initial edition of Guicciardini's works is now in preparation in the hands of Alessandro Gherardi of the Florence archives. Among the many studies on Guicciardini we may mention Agostino Rossi's Francesco Guicciardini e il governo Fiorentino (2 vols., Bologna, 1896), based on many new documents; F. de Sanctis's essay L'Uomo del Guicciardini, in his Nuovi Saggi critici (Naples, 1879), and many passages in P. Villari's Machiavelli (Eng. trans., 1892); E. Benoist's Guichardin, historien et homme du l'Italie au XVI siècle (Paris, 1862), and C. Gioda's Francesco Guicciardini e le sue opere inedite (Bologna, 1880) are not without value, but the authors had not had access to many important documents since published. See also Geoffroy's article Une Autobiographie de Guichardin d'après ses oeuvres inédites, in the Revue des deux mondes (1 February 1874).
The following list contains alternate names used for his works in Italian and English: