Kaspar schoppe’s attempt, at the height of the Counter-Reformation, to rehabilitate the impious Machiavelli by presenting him as a champion of Catholic orthodoxy appears paradoxical today. All the same, it offers valuable cues for interpretation.footnote1 It is worth examining this bold, failed initiative in a different perspective. Schoppe (in Latin Scioppius, Scioppio in Italian) was born in 1576 in Neumarkt, in the Upper Palatinate, into a Lutheran family. In 1597 he went to Italy, where he spent the greater part of his life. After his conversion to Catholicism in 1599, which he attributed to the experience of reading Cesare Baronio’s Annales ecclesiastici, Schoppe wrote a large number of learned and polemical works, among them numerous anti-Jesuit tracts published under various pseudonyms. He died in Padua in 1649.

In an autobiographical piece, Schoppe recalled that in 1619, in the Carthusian monastery in Milan where he was then living, he had for some months subjected Cardinal Alessandro Ludovisi (later Pope Gregory XV) to his ‘elucubrations’ in Machiavelli’s defence. The future pope’s reaction was encouraging: rehabilitation of an author who was at the time on the Index would have allowed the Church to see off the recurring accusation of having published his writings with the approval of Clement VII.footnote2 Schoppe’s plan was not new. When, in 1620, he spoke of it to a group of Florentines, the poet Pietro Strozzi recounted how, fourteen years earlier, Roberto Bellarmine, who was already a cardinal, had urged him to work ‘pro Machiavello’, providing commentary on his writings.footnote3 Strozzi had given up in the end, consigning the fruits of his reflections to the flames. Machiavelli continued to circulate under the table, in variously disguised formats.footnote4

The long apologia that Schoppe wrote in Latin in 1618–19 remained unpublished. It survived in various copies, most of them under the title Machiavellica.footnote5 It is an extremely repetitious work. Schoppe’s argumentation turns essentially on the adjective lubricum (literally ‘slippery’, and by extension ‘ambiguous’) and its meanings. In order to distinguish between what is lubricum in the mind of the reader and what is lubricum in Machiavelli’s text, Schoppe argues, the reader must remain aware of four criteria: first, the general intention and scope of the book; second, the author’s intention in any given part of it; third, the type of discourse—absolute or hypothetical?—employed by the author at a given stage; and fourth, the sense in which the author has understood his own work. If, read in keeping with these criteria, the text remains ambiguous, it is necessary to conclude that the ambiguity resides in the mind of the reader.

The third of these criteria, the author’s discursive strategy, is particularly relevant; it is based on the distinction between discourse formulated in an absolute perspective (simpliciter) and that formulated hypothetically (sub conditione). This scholastic distinction opens the way to an extremely detailed comparison between the most scandalous pages of The Prince and certain parts of Aquinas’s commentary (in fact, redacted by Pietro d’Alvernia) on Aristotle’s Politics, Book V. Here is a sample of its role in Schoppe’s reasoning:

In order to safeguard his own rule the tyrant must kill the richest and most powerful, considering that they can act against him. Then he must kill the wisest, since they can use their intelligence to destroy tyranny . . . His subjects must be reduced to penury, to weaken any attempt at revolt against the tyranny . . .footnote6

and so on. All this is indubitably ambiguous (lubricum), Schoppe commented. But it is not proposed in an absolute manner (simpliciter). These are counsels proposed hypothetically, sub conditione: if a tyrant wishes to defend his rule, he must act in this way. The Prince too was written hypothetically, and that is why, in 1532, Pope Clement VII authorized its publication.

Given the state of the Church before the Council of Trent, Schoppe continued, the criticisms that Machiavelli levelled at the clergy were not groundless. His fundamentally Catholic allegiance was proven by the furious attack launched against him by the Calvinist Innocent Gentillet’s Anti-Machiavel. Hence Schoppe’s conclusion that Machiavelli’s writings, on the Index since 1599, were in reality faithful not only to Aristotle’s thought but also to that of Aquinas and as such should not be banned, merely expurgated.