Historical Writings

Further contributions to this collection are very welcome. Please send them to us:

Here we offer a collection of writing about the past by writers, principally historians; these short passages have been contributed by branch members as examples of good writing, or as offering interest, insight or amusement. The selection is made not from contemporary or recent writing but broadly from that written or published at least a generation, or sometimes many generations, ago.

Full references are given so that it is possible to track down the extracts in their wider contexts.

Macchiavelli, Guicciardini and later historians
Contributed by Michael Bowers

Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), in a letter to his friend Vettori, describes how he
seeks consolation in the study of history.

When evening comes, I return home and go into my study. On the threshold I strip off my muddy, sweaty, workday clothes, and put on the robes of court and palace, and in this graver dress I enter the antique courts of the ancients and am welcomed by them, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born. And there I make bold to speak to them and ask the motives of their actions, and they, in their humanity, reply to me. And for the space of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexation, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death: I pass indeed into their world.

(Translated by J R Hale in The Literary Works of Machiavelli, Oxford University Press, 1961 and quoted in Peter Burke: The Renaissance, Longman, 1964, p. 30)


Machiavelli and his contemporary Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540) are compared by Daniel Waley.

Machiavelli was a brilliant writer and a generalizer by temperament, but his advice comes from the study. He delighted in writing the word ‘to liquidate’ (spegnere), yet his ruthlessness somehow fails to convince. In contrast Guicciardini, who wrote in the intervals of a career as governor and military commander, had really had men put to death…

…Machiavelli was more old-fashioned than Guicciardini and many of his contemporaries; at the time when he was writing his main political works, in the second decade of the sixteenth century, blind admiration for antiquity was rather out of date.

A number of letters bear witness to a most interesting friendship between the lively, rather showy Machiavelli and Guicciardini, an aloof man who was perhaps a shade patronizing to Machiavelli but was attracted and stimulated by his vivacity and brilliance. Fascinated but unconvinced by Machiavelli’s generalizations, Guicciardini once reminded his friend in a typically pessimistic phrase that ‘we walk in darkness, with our hands tied behind our backs so that we cannot ward off blows’ (Letter of 7 August 1525 in Lettere, ed. F. Gaeta, 1961, p. 426). ‘It is a great error’, he thought, ‘to speak of things absolutely and without distinguishing – by rule, as it were – for there is nearly always some difference in the circumstances which prevents their being brought under the same heading, and such distinctions have to be learnt from experience, not from books.’ This was really his reply to the doctrine of Machiavelli’s Discourses: ‘It is quite fallacious to judge by examples. They are useless unless they are identical, because the smallest difference between them may be the cause of a great difference between their consequences, and a very perceptive eye indeed is required to discern such small differences.’ Again, such generalizations presuppose absolutely correct knowledge about the past, yet this is an impossibility ‘if one comes to reflect that we have no sure knowledge of the present, even of events occurring from day to day in one’s own city’. A last quotation from Guicciardini’s aphorisms (the Ricordi) completes the case against Machiavelli: ‘How mistaken are those people who constantly cite the example of the Romans! One would have to have a city [state] the conditions of which were the same as theirs and then follow their example fully, but our qualities are so disproportionate to theirs that this would be like trying to make a donkey gallop like a horse.’ When he came to write a specific criticism of the Discourses, Guicciardini returned once more to his friend’s exaggerated classicism: ‘One should not praise antiquity so much that one disapproves every modern institution that was unknown to the Romans.’ (Ricordi, nn. VI, CXVII, CXLI, CX (ed. R. Spongano, pp. 11, 128, 153, 121): Considerazioni su i Discorsi di Machiavelli, on Disc., II, 24 (in F. Guicciardini, Opere Inedite, 1857, p. 67)).

(In Daniel Waley: Later Medieval Europe, From Saint Louis to Luther, Longmans, 1964, pp. 280-281, 283-284)


Finally, Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay offers some trenchant comments on a biography of Lord Burleigh and in passing has some reservations about Guicciardini as a historian.

Memoirs of the Life and Administration of the Right Honourable William Cecil Lord Burghley, Secretary of State in the Reign of King Edward the Sixth, and Lord High Treasurer of England in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth. Containing an Historical View of the Times in which he lived, and of the many eminent and illustrious Persons with whom he was connected; with Extracts from his Private and Official Correspondence and other Papers, now first published from the Originals. By the Reverend Edward Nares, DD, Regius Professor of Modern History in the University of Oxford. London: 1828,1832.

The work of Dr Nares has filled us with astonishment similar to that which Captain Lemuel Gulliver felt when first he landed in Brobdingnag, and saw corn as high as the oaks in the New Forest, thimbles as large as buckets, and wrens the bulk of turkeys. The whole book, and every component part of it, is on a gigantic scale. The title is as long as an ordinary preface: the prefatory matter would furnish out an ordinary book; and the book contains as much reading as an ordinary library. We cannot sum up the merits of the stupendous mass of paper which lies before us better than by saying that it consists of about two thousand closely printed quarto pages, that it occupies fifteen hundred inches cubic measure, and that it weighs sixty pounds avoirdupois. Such a book might, before the deluge, have been considered as light reading by Hilpa and Shalum. But unhappily the life of man is now threescore years and ten; and we cannot but think it somewhat unfair in Dr Nares to demand from us so large a portion of so short an existence.

Compared with the labour of reading through these volumes, all other labour, the labour of thieves on the treadmill, of children in factories, of negroes in sugar plantations, is an agreeable recreation. There was, it is said, a criminal in Italy, who was suffered to make his choice between Guicciardini and the galleys. He chose the history. But the war of Pisa was too much for him. He changed his mind, and went to the oar. Guicciardini, though certainly not the most amusing of writers, is a Herodotus or a Froissart, when compared with Dr Nares. It is not merely in bulk, but in specific gravity also, that these memoirs exceed all other human compositions. On every subject which the professor discusses, he produces three times as many pages as another man; and one of his pages is as tedious as another man’s three. His book is swelled to its vast dimensions by endless repetitions, by episodes which have nothing to do with the main action, by quotations from books which are in every circulating library, and by reflections which, when they happen to be just, are so obvious that they must necessarily occur to the mind of every reader. He employs more words in expounding and defending a truism than any other writer would employ in supporting a paradox. Of the rules of historical perspective, he has not the faintest notion. There is neither foreground nor background in his delineation….It would be unjust to deny that Dr Nares is a man of great industry and research; but he is so utterly incompetent to arrange the materials which he has collected that he might as well have left them in their original repositories.

(Quoted in Frank Delaney (ed.): The Hutchinson Book of Essays, Hutchinson, 1990, pp. 414-415)

Claude Lorraine
Contributed by MichaelBowers

This ‘Past History’ passage concerns a French artist who for most of his life lived and worked in Rome but whose paintings through patronage found their way in large numbers to Britain. Michael Kitson discusses some of the qualities and themes of the paintings of Claude Lorraine (1600-1682).

The first quality necessary to the enjoyment of Claude’s art is patience. He is not a painter who offers instant sensations, who appeals by the intricacy of his narratives or who cuts through to the spectator’s emotions with some acute psychological insight. He does not transport the spectator in imagination up to heaven – although he does not either deal merely in the here and now. The process of coming to terms with his work is one of careful adjustment, of opening oneself to the harmonies in which he specializes. His paintings (his drawings are different) are not even superficially very varied; they unfold consistently on clear-cut lines. Yet the variations are greater than is often supposed… Although Claude’s pictorial themes are restricted, he arranges them in countless different ways and transposes them into different keys, so that the exact mood of each painting is unique. Claude is one of the great introverts in the history of art, in contrast to his near-contemporary Rubens, the supreme extrovert. His art is subtle, elusive and hard to describe in words but marvellously clear to the eye. Itself subjective, it invites a subjective response. Moreover it repays the patience expended on studying it by lasting, by being – as Constable said of a copy of Claude he was making – ‘something to drink at again and again’. In the last analysis, the virtue of a painting by Claude depends on sheer quality: of eye, craftsmanship and mind….

The art of Claude revolves round the expression of certain interlocking interests and themes: nature, the ideal, space, light, harmony, repose, biblical story and classical myth. The fusion of these things is of the essence; the end is the creation of images of beauty. This beauty takes its character from classical aesthetics. Its method is that of selection, its laws are the humanist ones of proportion and relationship. It is man-centred in the sense that it reflects a view of nature adjusted to human intelligence and human needs. Yet Claude’s interpretation of this classical ideal is a highly personal one. It is distinguished first by a singular purity and freshness, second by idiosyncrasies of drawing that by ordinary standards amount to defects but which save his paintings from too mechanical a perfection.

The feeling for nature that Claude’s paintings reflect had its origins far back in European culture, although for a long time that feeling was expressed more in literature than art. In a world in which material life was uncertain and nature itself often hostile or merely the neutral environment on which men depended precariously for a living, it was nevertheless possible for poets to represent nature as offering refreshment and repose. Nor can this have been merely a literary conceit. The nostalgia for woods and fields, and for springtime, when nature renewed itself and promised warmth and fruitfulness, was too poignant not to have roots in genuine experience. Still, the expression of that nostalgia took conventional poetic forms. These occur as asides in the earliest classical writers but they are best summed up in the Eclogues, or pastoral poems, of Virgil, who there laid down the ingredients of an ideal landscape that served as a model for countless later writers:

‘Titryus, while you lie there at ease under the awning of a spreading beech and practise country songs on a light shepherds’s pipe…’                                             

Here in these opening lines of the first Eclogue are introduced the motive of rustic repose, of trees affording shade and a shepherd idly piping; add a meadow (already implied), a spring or brook and birdsong and flowers, and the basic outlines are complete, although they were susceptible of much elaboration. Such a landscape is poetically evoked, not realistically described. And it is always inhabited. To Ovid it was the setting for the loves of the gods; Virgil introduced it as background in parts of the Aeneid; Christian writers borrowed it for sacred themes, and northern writers adapted it to a cold climate. This landscape, in which the sun continuously shines and work is unknown, was forever being revisited, if not always with fresh eyes. Until the end of the 17th century it remained a permanent element in the human consciousness.

For a long time, painting applied itself to the same ends more in theory than in fact. In antiquity, landscape painting was too schematic, in the Middle Ages too subordinate to the figure subject, to supply the equivalent of what poets could describe in words. But beginning with the early Renaissance, landscape backgrounds took on a new expressiveness and importance and, in the century before Claude was born, landscape became for the first time a distinct branch of art. Even so, it was only with Claude himself that the mood as well as the iconography of pastoral poetry was fully mastered by a great painter. Here at last, made visible by the power of art, was all that the mind desired and had previously been compelled to use words to evoke: cool shady trees, melting distances, winding streams, banks and flowers, a sunlit landscape in which a solitary shepherd sat piping to his herd or strange figures from no known country acted out a story from the Bible or classical myth. (It should be said that although Claude used the Aeneid, his immediate source for his mythological landscapes was not Virgil’s Eclogues or Georgics but Ovid’s Metamorphoses.) Here was a world both ordered and varied, at once simplified, as the elements of a pastoral poem are simplified, and full of incident for the eye to dwell upon; a world designed for the imagination to enter and wander about in. This was achieved by means of an open foreground, like a stage, by framing trees on one side balanced by an answering motive on the other, and a circuitous path taking the eye by easy and varied stages to a luminous distance. This distance is the goal of the imaginary traveller in Claude’s landscapes and is the point on which the whole composition depends.   

 (Extracts from the Introduction to the catalogue of the exhibition ‘The Art of Claude Lorraine’ organized by the Arts Council of Great Britain and the Northern Arts Association, which was held at the Hayward Gallery in London from 7 November to 14 December 1969, pp. 5-7.)


A famous example of Claude’s work is ‘Landscape with Psyche at the Palace of Cupid’ of 1664. The painting is in The National Gallery in London and can be seen on the Gallery’s website www.nationalgallery.org.uk. The painting is more often known by the title ‘The Enchanted Castle’. Michael Kitson in the exhibition catalogue quoted above states (page 29) that the ‘familiar title, The Enchanted Castle, dates only from the engraving by Vivares and Woollett dated 1782.’ Perhaps it was this engraving which Keats saw. He refers to the subject matter of the painting in a letter on 25th March 1818 to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds. The letter, of which two extracts follow, took the form of a poem.

You know the Enchanted Castle, – it doth stand

Upon a rock, on the border of a Lake,

Nested in trees, which all do seem to shake

From some old magic-like Urganda’s Sword.

O Phoebus! that I had thy sacred word

To show this Castle, in fair dreaming wise,

Unto my friend, while sick and ill he lies!

You know it well enough, where it doth seem

A mossy place, a Merlin’s Hall, a dream;

You know the clear Lake, and the little Isles,

The mountains blue, and cold near neighbour rills,

All which elsewhere are but half animate;

There do they look alive to love and hate,

To smiles and frowns; they seem a lifted mound

Above some giant, pulsing underground….

O that our dreamings all, of sleep or wake,

Would all their colours from the sunset take:

From something of material sublime,

Rather than shadow our own soul’s day-time

In the dark void of night….