Understand Italian used in Il Principe: dedication, part 4

In this next portion of the dedication from his treatise Il Principe, Niccolò Machiavelli justifies the offering of his knowledge to Lorenzo, a person mightier than him, by drawing a parallel: a landscape artist who wishes to contemplate the mountains must go low into the plains; on the other hand, to contemplate the plains, he must go high into the mountains.

In similar fashion, he says, it is a prince who knows the nature of the people, and the people who know the nature of a prince.

The dedication continues as follows:

Nè voglio sia riputata presunzione, se uno uomo di basso ed infimo stato ardisce discorrere e regolare i governi de’ Principi; perchè così come coloro che disegnano i paesi, si pongono bassi nel piano a considerare la natura de’ monti e de’ luoghi alti, e per considerare quella de’ bassi si pongono alti sopra i monti; similmente, a cognoscer bene la natura de’ popoli bisogna esser Principe, ed a cognoscer bene quella de’ Principi conviene essere popolare.

— Niccolò Machiavelli, Il Principe, dedica

A few generalities before we begin our study:

You will remember that de’ is a truncated form of dei. For example, de’ luoghi alti means dei luoghi alti (high places). You first came across the usage de’ at the beginning of the dedica, where Machiavelli dedicates his treatise to Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici.

You will also remember that the verb cognoscere (pronounced cognóscere) is synonymous with the modern conoscere.

Consider now the first part of this portion of text, which reads as follows: Nè voglio sia riputata presunzione, se uno uomo di basso ed infimo stato ardisce discorrere e regolare i governi de’ Principi. Vocabulary to learn from this line includes: èssere riputàto (to be considered; riputàto is synonymous with the more frequently used reputàto), la presunzióne (presumption, conceit), ìnfimo (lowly), lo stàto (state, condition), ardìre (to dare), discórrere (to discuss), regolàre (to settle), il govèrno (governance), il prìncipe (prince).

This first line, then, can be broken down into English as follows: Né vòglio sìa riputàta presunzióne (nor do I wish it be considered presumption), se ùno uòmo di bàsso ed ìnfimo stàto (if a man of lowly state) ardìsce discórrere e regolàre i govèrni de’ Prìncipi (dare discuss and settle the concerns of princes).

The man di basso ed infimo stato, of course, is Machiavelli himself, who uses humble language to flatter Lorenzo. Basso and infimo are essentially synonymous with one another here; infimo is a literary usage. Be sure to pronounce infimo with the stress on the first syllable: ìnfimo.

Before an infinitive, the verb ardire can be followed by the preposition di or not, for example: non ardivo neanche (di) pensarlo (I dared not even [to] think of it). Ardire is a more literary equivalent of osare: non osavo neanche pensarlo.

Machiavelli continues: perchè così come coloro che disegnano i paesi, si pongono bassi nel piano a considerare la natura de’ monti e de’ luoghi alti, e per considerare quella de’ bassi si pongono alti sopra i monti. Vocabulary to learn here includes: disegnàre (to draw), il paése (land[scape]), pórsi (to place oneself), il piàno (plains, prairie), il mónte (mount, mountain), il luògo (place), àlto (high).

This second line does not present any particular difficulties to point out, so I shall simply break it down here: perché così cóme colóro che diségnano i paési (for as those who draw landscapes), si póngono bàssi nel piàno a consideràre la natùra de’ mónti e de’ luòghi àlti (place themselves low in the plains to contemplate the nature of the mountains), e per consideràre quélla de’ bàssi si póngono àlti sópra i mónti (and to contemplate that of the plains place themselves high in the mountains).

The last part of this portion of text reads: similmente, a cognoscer bene la natura de’ popoli bisogna esser Principe, ed a cognoscer bene quella de’ Principi conviene essere popolare. Similmente means likewise. Il popolo (pronounced pòpolo) means the people, and popolare means of the people. The expression bisogna essere means one must be, whereas conviene essere might literally be translated as it is advisable to be.

I shall end this post with a break-down of the last line: similménte, a cognóscer bène la natùra de’ pòpoli (likewise, to know well the nature of the people) bisógna èsser Prìncipe (it is required to be a prince), ed a cognóscer bène quélla de’ Prìncipi (and to know well that of princes) conviène èssere popolàre (one need be of the people).