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Glendon prof wins fellowship to study Machiavelli

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There was a time when parents worried if their children played Dungeons & Dragons. The role-playing game that became infamous in the ’90s because of its association with the occult was considered anti-Christian and playing it was to take a big step down the road to ruin.

But things turned out not so bad for Glendon history Professor Mark Jurdjevic, who admits he was an aficionado in his youth. His taste for wizards and necromancers ultimately inspired an interest and a career in Renaissance history that this year won him a fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, a post he will take up in August when he leaves on sabbatical.

Right: Mark Jurdjevic

“I played a lot of ‘D&D’ as a kid and I wanted to study history,” said Jurdjevic, whose father is a math professor. “When I got to university, I thought I would like to study a period of history in which the boundaries between knights, paladins and wizards, and the presence of magic in every-day life is a real thing.” His particular interest in Florence came from a summer spent living there with his father who was on sabbatical. When he entered fourth year, Jurdjevic decided to learn more about the history of the city he and his brother explored together while their father worked. The decision to pursue graduate studies – and learn both Italian and Latin from scratch – soon followed. After graduating from the University of Toronto, Jurdjevic earned his PhD at Chicago’s Northwestern University in 2002, followed by teaching posts at Yale University and the University of Ottawa. He joined the history department at Glendon in 2009.

Left: Niccolò Machiavelli

Jurdjevic has already published numerous articles on the history of Florence during the Renaissance and just completed his second book, A Great and Wretched City: Promise and Failure in Machiavelli’s Florentine Political Thought (Harvard UP), which is due out in Spring 2014. He plans to continue his study of the influences on Niccolò Machiavelli’s politics for his next project, which he describes as an interdisciplinary analysis of his correspondence with a group of particularly close and enduring friends who were themselves formidable political philosophers and historians.

“A lot of the scholarship on Machiavelli is driven by a particular interest in political theory, which is not a big surprise,” Jurdjevic explains. “People come to Machiavelli because they want to know about the big ideas that are his contribution to the Western canon (‘from Plato to NATO’) as opposed to coming to him because they want to know something very particular about the culture of renaissance Florence. He wrote a lot of other things and none of that stuff ever really got incorporated into studies of his ‘political thought’.”

Jurdjevic’s first book Guardians of Republicanism: The Valori Family in the Florentine Renaissance (Oxford University Press, 2007), earned him both praise and criticism, which is par for the course when it comes to Machiavelli, a controversial character in his own time and still so today. But Jurdjevic is certain that, although it raises the hackles of some Machiavelli scholars, the author of The Prince and Discourses on Livy is not the man they think they know.

Left: Jurdjevic visits the home where Machiavelli lived during his exile

While reading Machiavelli’s later works, particularly the History of Florence, Jurdjevic came to the conclusion that they contained insights that have been neglected in studies which concentrate on his two most famous books. “I was reading it and it seemed to me there was a lot of political theory…he was still making grand universal conclusions based on particular political problems from Florentine history.”

During his year in Princeton, which is funded by National Endowment for the Humanities, Jurdjevic plans to mine the correspondence between Machiavelli and his circle of Florentine intellectuals for what it can tell us about the man’s changing philosophy about politics. “I hope to show in detail that embedded within their correspondence was a sustained struggle to extract meaning from the chaos and devastation of the Italian Wars that in turn transformed the principal modes of inquiry in political thought, history, and philosophy,” Jurdjevic wrote in his research proposal.

“The big overarching argument is that we should acknowledge that there are two political thoughts by Machiavelli,” he said. “The one we know really well, and that’s important, but the guy didn’t stop thinking in 1520.”

By David Fuller, YFile contributing writer


Published on April 17, 2012