Why you should care

Because if you want to start another Italian Renaissance, it makes sense to turn to a master craftsman from Florence. 

Commentators have compared him to Barack Obama, Tony Blair and his compatriot and predecessor, Silvio Berlusconi.

In the end, Matteo Renzi may prove them all right. Or entirely wrong.

For the moment, however, the new Italian prime minister, appointed in February, is but the latest leader to stare into the abyss of political and financial turmoil in Europe’s third largest economy. Still, at just 39, the ambitious former mayor of Florence is unquestionably the boldest of them all—and bold might be the sine qua non for reform in Italy.

Renzi’s hasty ascent and political cunning have also sparked inevitable comparisons to another former Florentine official, and one of the world’s greatest political philosophers, Niccolò Machiavelli.

Painted portrait of Niccolo in red and black tunic

Niccolo Machiavelli

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand,” Machiavelli wrote almost 500 years ago in his classic political treatise, The Prince, “more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”

And, if you’re looking for an expert Italian pundit to dissect Matteo Renzi and what his ambitious “new order of things” amounts to, turning to Machiavelli seems a shrewd place to start.

1. “It is not titles that make men illustrious, but men who make titles illustrious.”

When advancing through the thicket of Italian politics, it helps to have a brand: Mussolini was Il Duce (the Leader); Silvio Berlusconi launched and recently re-christened his political party Forza Italia (Go Italy). Matteo Renzi, two months younger than Mussolini was when he came to power in 1922, is Il Rottamatore, or “The Scrapper” as of old cars—aka, the Demolition Man.

Renzi informed the nation’s 320 senators that this would be the last time that a sitting leader would address them.

Renzi, a former Boy Scout, altar boy and teenage victor on Italy’s version of Wheel of Fortune, first came to national attention a few years ago when he called for scrapping Italy’s existing political establishment, widely viewed as corrupt and entrenched. Rhetoric aside, the political upstart—typically dressed in blue jeans, open-collared shirt and leather bomber jacket—embodies the next-generation leader he prescribes, right down to the Smart Car he drives.

One title, however, that Renzi, a father of three married to a schoolteacher, has never found next to his name is “MP”: The leader of his center-left PD or Democratic Party has never been elected to parliament nor until recently had he served in a national government. He kind of skipped that part.

2. “Where the willingness is great, the difficulties cannot be great.”

In a political culture widely viewed as “sclerotic,” Renzi is a pulsating muscle of energy. As Ezio Mauro, writing in the Rome-based La Repubblica, once quipped, “Renzi makes no promises of change; he himself is a promise of change. Something organic, pre-political, natural, even primitive.”

Indeed, from the books he has penned to his law degree to the mantle of “change agent” he has assumed, Renzi has copied more than one page from Obama’s playbook. And his meteoric rise has been fueled by both audacity and hope.

Obama, left, and Renzi, right, both at podiums in suit and tie with flags behind them

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (R) during a joint news conference with U.S. President Barack Obama (L)

Source Everen Atalay/Getty

In 2009, as Obama was getting settled in the White House, Renzi was bucking his party leaders to challenge (and beat) Florence’s incumbent mayor. Later, in one of his first acts as prime minister, he went straight into the lion’s den, informing the nation’s 320 senators that this would be the last time that a sitting leader would address them since he intended to dissolve the upper chamber in order to free this “rusted, bogged-down, chained-up” country.

Even if Renzi can somehow convince the senators to make themselves redundant, he still has to face the estimated 1,000 Italians losing their jobs each day in the midst of the country’s worst economic crisis since World War II. Energy and audacity are not enough to revitalize Italy, where sovereign debt stands at 133 percent of GDP (second only to Greece) and unemployment is nearing 13 percent—and at 40 percent among young people.

Many would argue that one of the first things Il Rottomatore scrapped was democracy itself.

Renzi’s self-described “radical program to re-launch the country,” which he has pitched to the likes of Angela Merkel and Barack Obama, includes plans to cut taxes on workers and reform the labor market to make it easier for employers to hire and fire them.

Sounds like a lot, but when you consider what Renzi has already accomplished to reach this point, it starts to sound less far-fetched.

3. “In judging policies we should consider the results that have been achieved through them rather than the means by which they have been executed.”

Many Italians would argue that one of the first things Il Rottamatore scrapped was democracy itself. Italy has not elected a prime minister since 2008, and Renzi’s power grab was particularly stark. As recently as January, he had pledged to support the previous prime minister and his Democratic Party colleague, Enrico Letta, telling the Corriere della Sera newspaper, “Enrico does not trust me … but he is wrong.”

But when Renzi got his chance in February, he pounced, leading a successful party coup to dethrone Letta, who was dismissed, as one fellow party member described it, “like the giraffe of the Copenhagen zoo.”

Renzi incurred further wrath from his party when he struck deals with conservative leaders like Berlusconi and Angelino Alfano, head of the New Center Right party, to fortify his coalition and garner support for electoral reform. Such Machiavellian maneuvers, along with his willingness to jump the leadership queue and tack to the center, have prompted many to compare Renzi to one of his political role models, former British PM Tony Blair.

But Renzi’s willingness to compromise, and to risk division within his own party, has started the ball rolling on his electoral, constitutional and economic reforms, and arguably enhanced his own party’s popularity, including among disaffected conservative and younger voters.

4. “The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men [and women] he has around him.”

One of the more concrete aspects of Renzi’s political demolition to date is his cabinet. It consists of 16 ministers, half of whom are women, with an average age of 48 (three like Renzi are in their 30s)—extraordinarily young by Italian standards. The cabinet also contains ministers from across the political spectrum, including Alfano at the ministry of the Interior, and Piercarlo Padoan, a former chief economist for the OECD as his finance minister.

Of course, a young cabinet also means an inexperienced one, but even that might be by design. Despite occupying a bully pulpit, prime minister is a constitutionally weak position in Italy, and Renzi, as a Rome outsider, was short on true allies to start.

“The simple truth is that Renzi has installed his own personal friends, who will predictably also be sycophant,” says Joseph LaPalombara, a professor of political science and management at Yale. “Renzi, as a political lightweight, was reluctant to put heavyweights on the cabinet.”

Renzi leaning toward right of frame to Alfano. Both are sitting

Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (L) with Interior Minister Angelino Alfano

Source Reuters/Corbis

5. “Occasionally words must serve to veil the facts. But let this happen in such a way that no one becomes aware of it.”

Renzi famously said of Florence: “This city doesn’t need a mayor, it needs a marketing expert.” And, like Berlusconi, Renzi has perfected the high political art of deploying his charm and charisma to take credit for the work of others and elide the promises he can’t keep.

“He’s used the slogan ‘Said, Done!’ many times,” recalls Ornella De Zordo, an opposition councilor, about Renzi’s time as mayor of Florence. “I would say, ‘Said, But Not Done!’ because … when you look at his record, things are very different.”

As soon as he became prime minister, Renzi started selling, promising one major reform—electoral, labor, public sector, tax—every month. It hasn’t happened. But Renzi’s marketing engine doesn’t have an idle switch: He’s pushed through smaller, yet flashier reforms, including the auctioning of 150 executive cars used to chauffeur around Italy’s political class. It might be a modest cut on the nation’s balance sheet but it counts for far more in the court of public opinion.

6. “The best fortress a prince can possess is the affection of his people.”

For the moment, Renzi’s new look and winning personality have made him the most popular politician in the country. And it seems that many Italians are willing to take some style over substance, some audacity over ideas, to shake up the corridors of power. But Renzi’s popularity can only protect him for so long—even in a country that’s often drawn to larger-than-life leaders.

In his 2012 book, Stil Novo (“New Style”), Renzi invites readers to learn from the great Florentine artists and statesmen of old—Dante, Da Vinci and, yes, Machiavelli—to revive modern Italy. In the epigraph, Renzi quotes Albert Camus: “Beauty, no doubt, does not make revolutions. But a day will come when revolutions will have need of beauty.”

To wit: invoking a 20th-century French anarchist to champion the sociopolitical institutions of the 16th century in the cynical hope of bolstering one’s own political ambitions in the 21st. Machiavelli would be impressed.

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