The Prince of guides

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The Independent Online
He may have been the godfather of realpolitik, but Niccolo Machiavelli could have learnt a thing or two about image-doctoring. Diplomat, comic playwright, friend of Leonardo: no one's interested. Posterity has him down as a diabolical political manipulator. His detractors have been legion, and with Mussolini and Mike Tyson counting themselves among the Florentine's fans, even praise has been damning. Time, then, for the cartoon book Machiavelli for Beginners to put the record straight. The cover upholds the stereotype, depicting the political theorist as thin-faced, high-cheekboned and pale (Jeremy Irons would play him in the film), with two little horns poking through his close-cropped hair. By page three, he has acquired fangs and a shadowy surround of hellfire. But Patrick Curry's text - a marvel of compression - soon reveals a far more subtle figure than this panto devil. If Machiavelli admired Cesare Borgia for inviting his opponents to supper and slaughtering them as they ate, then he also despised Julius Caesar as a tyrant. If he was an autocrat, he was at the same time a fervent republican.

If it sounds dry, it's not. Oscar Zarete's drawings drive the ideas home with tremendous humour. One part renaissance pastiche, to two parts surreal fantasy - in one, a baby Machiavelli sits on a tiny Florence surrounded by floating polyhedrons - they make this work stick in the mind long after words alone would be forgotten. Highly recommended.


'Machiavelli for Beginners' is published by Icon Books, priced pounds 7.99