The Prince is set against the backdrop of the Italian Renaissance, a period of intense activity in art, science, and literature. Rich, sophisticated, and cultured, Italy was the center of intellectual achievement in the Western world, and scholars and artists from all over Europe flocked to it to absorb its heady atmosphere. Even today, the achievements of Italian artists and thinkers are prized for their beauty and originality. Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were Machiavelli's contemporaries, and Florence itself, with its famous cathedral, was one of the capitals of Renaissance art.
It was also a period of religious change. The decadence and corruption of the Catholic church, exemplified by the conduct of Pope Alexander VI, brought about a backlash against Catholic authority. In Germany (at that time, the Holy Roman Empire), the Protestant Reformation was gathering strength, led by Martin Luther, the famous German reformer. In politics, as well, change was brewing. The scattered feudal territories of the medieval period were slowly being brought under centralized leadership, so that the outlines of what would become the modern European nations were becoming visible. The modern concept of the state was being born. War was the ruler's most valuable tool in this struggle to create unified nations. The complexities of European politics during this period can—and indeed have—filled large books.
However, because Machiavelli draws so many of his examples in The Prince from contemporary Italian politics, a brief introduction to the tangled history of foreign involvement in Italy is helpful in gaining an understanding of the book. Italy's increasing humiliation in the face of repeated invasions and duplicity from within was a cause of intense resentment to many Italian thinkers. It is this situation that leads Machiavelli to make his impassioned plea for a strong leader to free Italy from "barbarian" domination in Chapter 26.
Italy was composed of five main political powers: Florence, Milan, Venice, the Papal States (including Rome), and the Kingdom of Naples, far in the southern tip of the Italian peninsula. Naples, in particular, had a vexed history, with powers such as France, Spain, and the popes all laying claim to it on various dynastic pretexts. The period prior to 1494 was relatively peaceful and prosperous, with the various Italian powers generally well balanced against each other.
The events that brought such turmoil to Machiavelli's time were set in motion when Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, invited French forces into Italy, offering to support French claims to the Kingdom of Naples, and hoping, in return, to conquer territory from the Venetians with the help of French troops. The French king, Charles VIII, invaded in 1494. Though he was driven out less than a year later by an Italian coalition that Sforza himself joined, on his first entry into Italy, Charles met with practically no resistance, a fact that was not lost on other European leaders. Machiavelli makes note of this in Chapter 12, when he mentions that Charles was able to conquer Italy with no more than a piece of chalk.
A few years later, Charles' successor, King Louis XII, also had designs on Italy. Louis claimed that he had a hereditary right to the duchy of Milan through his relation to the Visconti family, who had ruled Milan prior to the Sforza family. Louis' interest in Italian territory coincided with the ambitions of the powerful Borgia family. Pope Alexander VI, born Rodrigo Borgia, wanted to make his son Cesare a force in Italy. To do so, he needed the help of the French armies. Louis, meanwhile, needed favors that only a pope could manage. In order to consolidate his position in France, Louis needed to marry Charles' widow, Anne of Brittany, but could not do so until his marriage to his current wife was annulled. He also wanted one of his advisors, Archbishop Georges d'Amboise, made a cardinal so that he would eventually be a candidate for the papacy. In exchange for these favors, Louis agreed to help Alexander and Cesare conquer the Romagna region and to undertake a campaign against the Kingdom of Naples, which both France and the pope had claims to. Louis was also urged on by the Venetians, who wanted revenge on Sforza and Milan. Louis invaded and captured Milan from Sforza in 1499. Many considered it poetic justice that Sforza had been deprived of his dukedom by the very forces he had first invited into Italy.
However, Louis' hold over Naples was weak. He initially installed a puppet ruler in Naples (his cousin, Frederick of Aragon), but made a secret arrangement to split the kingdom with King Ferdinand of Spain, who also claimed a hereditary right to Naples. Ferdinand quickly reneged on the agreement and drove the French forces out of Naples. Even so, the French still controlled much of Italy. Cesare Borgia may have threatened French power in Italy after his success in the Romagna region, but his father's sudden death left him without resources or influence.
After Alexander VI's successor, Pius III, died after less than a month in office, Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere became Pope Julius II in 1503. Julius earns several mentions in Machiavelli's narrative. As Machiavelli observes, he was every bit as warlike and ambitious as Alexander, but his goal was always to increase the power of the church, not to aggrandize his own family. Unlike Alexander, he was a good manager of money and resources and exercised restraint in his personal habits. He was also a wily politician.
In the power vacuum left after the collapse of Borgia power, Venice had seized part of the Romagna region, which traditionally belonged to the papacy, and they were also challenging Julius' authority in spiritual matters. In 1508, Julius formed the League of Cambrai, which included France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire, for the purpose of putting the Venetians back in their place. The Venetian armies were defeated at the battle of Agnadello (which Machiavelli refers to as Vailà) and Venice's conquered territories were lost. Soon after, Julius, who feared the French's hold over Italy, began working to get them out. During this period, Louis had Julius at his mercy on more than one occasion, but never pressed his advantage, a move that Machiavelli criticizes. Julius' efforts culminated in the formation of the Holy League, which included combined forces of the Venetians, the Holy Roman Empire, the Swiss, the English, and the Spanish. Despite a disastrous defeat at the battle of Ravenna, the League ultimately drove out Louis and his armies in 1512, putting him out of power in Italy. Machiavelli alludes to this fact in Chapter 3 of The Prince when he comments that it took the entire world to deprive Louis XII of his Italian conquests.
The Florentines had been longstanding allies of the French. The Soderini government supported Louis up until the bitter end and against all advice, even as the French were pulling out of Italy. Their loyalty left them at the mercy of Pope Julius and his Spanish allies, and this led directly to the fall of the Florentine republic which Machiavelli had served for so many years.