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Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527)


Italian political thinker and historical figure at the turning point of the Middle Ages and the Modern World. Machiavelli formulated in his treatise Il Principe (The Prince), the then revolutionary and prophetic idea, that theological and moral imperatives have no place in the political arena. "Men are always wicked at bottom unless they are made good by some compulsion." With Hobbes (1588-1679) Machiavelli is considered one of the great early modern analyzers of political power. However, considerable disagreement exists about how to interpret his opinions.

"Hence it is to be remarked that, in seizing a state, the usurper ought to examine closely into all those injuries which it is necessary for him to inflict, and to do them all at one stroke so as not to have to repeat them daily; and thus by not unsettling men he will be able to reassure them, and win them to himself by benefits. He who does otherwise, either from timidity or evil advice, is always compelled to keep the knife in his hand; neither can he rely on his subjects, nor can they attach themselves to him, owing to their continued and repeated wrongs. For injuries ought to be done all at one time, so that, being tasted less, they offend less; benefits ought to be given little by little, so that the flavour of them may last longer." (in The Prince, 1515)

Niccolò Machiavelli was born in Florence, Italy. Little is known of his early life, although he once described his background: "I was born in poverty and at an early age learned how to endure hardship rather than flourish." Niccolò's father, Bernardo di Niccolò di Buoninsegna, belonged to an impoverished branch of an influential old Florentine family. Bernardo was a lawyer and he had a small personal library that included books by Greek and Roman philosophers and volumes of Italian history. Bernardo died in 1500, Machiavelli's mother, Bartolomea de' Nelli, had died in 1496. Machiavelli married in 1501 Marietta Corsini. They had several children who died young or in infancy. One daughter and four sons reached adulthood. Machiavelli also had affairs with other women. A courtesan called la Riccia was his mistress for almost a decade. In his mid-fifties he entered into an adulterous relationship with Barbara Raffacani Salutati, a singer and poet.

"Machiavelli went on to read the ancient philosophers and, especially, historians: Thucydides, who told of the war between Sparta and Athens that tore Greece apart; Plutarch, who told of the lives of the great statesmen, generals, and lawmakers of ancient Greece and Rome; Tacitus, who recounted the corruption and perfidy of Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero; and above all, the work by Livy..." (in Niccolò's Smile: A Biography of Machiavelli by Maurizio Viroli, 2000)

Machiavelli might have been involved in overthrowing the Savonarolist government in 1498 – Girolamo Savonarola was executed just outside his office. In The Prince Savonarola was remembered as a prophet without arms. At twenty-nine, Machiavelli was appointed chancellor of the new government's Second Chancery, and shortly after that he became secretary of an agency concerned with warfare and diplomacy.

On several missions, as a de facto ambassador for Florence, Machiavelli travelled to many areas, visiting Cesare Borgia (1502), Rome (1503, 1506), France (1504) and Germany (1507-08). "Remember to come back home," wrote Machiavelli's wife after his first son was born. Among Machiavelli's achievements was helping to set up a militia from the dominion territories, which reconquered Pisa in June 1509. Proud of the troops, he said that they were "the finest thing that had ever been arranged for Florence."

During his mission to the court of Cesare Borgia (1476-1507), the most villaneous member of his family, Machiavelli met Leonardo da Vinci. They do not mention each other in their writings or letters, but it has been suggested that they even became friends. Cesare Borgia was one of the main characters in The Prince. Machiavelli admired Cesare, an illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI – he was ruthless and treacherous in war but a patron of artists. We do not know what Leonardo thought of him. He mentioned "Il Valentino" in his notebooks only briefly, querying his whereabouts.

At that time Leonardo was serving as Borgia's architect and military engineer. Although Leonardo hated war, all kinds of mechanical devices, including machines of warfare, fascinated him. On paper, he designed a rapid-firing catapult, a cannon fired by steam, an early prototype of a tank, flame-throwers, bombards or mortars ("very practical and easy to transport"), and other weapons. Many of his inventions went beyond the technology of his era. Roger D. Masters has argued in Machiavelli, Leonardo, and the Science of Power (1996) that parallels between Leonardo's and Machiavelli's innovations in the military sphere suggest perhaps a direct influence that has escaped prior attention. 

Machiavelli's Arte della guerra  (The Art of War), written in the form of a dialogue, came out after Leonardo's death. The major sources of the book were the  Stratagemata of Frontinus and the fourth-century De re militari (On the Military Quedtion) of Vegetius. Noteworthy, Machiavelli himself had somewhat limited war experience, but over the course of his career in Florence, he acquired a deep knowledge of military matters. The Art of War, along with Sun Tzu's Sunzi bingfa (The Art of War), an ancient Chinese military treatise, and Clausewitz's Vom Kriege (1832, On War), is considered a classic work on the on the nature of war. The French essayist Montaigne named Machiavelli next to Caesar, Polybius, and Commynes as an authority on military affairs.

Committed to the revival of the wisdom of the ancients, Machiavelli put his emphasis is on Roman and Greek ideals of war: "And judging by what I have seen and read that it is not impossible to bring [the military] back to the ancient modes and give it some form of past virtue, I decided, so as not to pass these my idle times without doing anything, to write what I understand about the art of war for the satisfaction of those who are lovers of ancient actions." (The Art of War, translated by Christopher Lynch, 2003, p. 4). In his scheme for an army of his day, Machiavelli gave gunpowder weapons a secondary role. He had a low opinion of the role of artillery ("the invention of artillery is no reason, in my opinion, why we should not imitate the ancients in their military discipline and institutions"), but with his eyes open to important innovations, he would train young men in the use of the arquebus "a new instrument . . . and a necessary one." Moreover, arquebusiers are good for terrorizing peasants; one arquebusier "will frighten them more than twenty other armed men." 

When the Medici family returned to power, it meant the end of the Florentine Republic. A pro-Medici parfty took over, and Machiavelli, the Secretary to the Second Chancery of the Signoria, was fired. Suspected of plotting against the Medici, he was jailed and tortured six times with the strappado – the victim was hoisted high into the air by a rope that tied his hands behind his back, and then dropped toward the floor. In his vermin-infested cell in Le Stinche, he wrote in a sonnet addressed to Giuliano de' Medici: "I have, Giuliano, on my legs a set of fetters, / with six pulls of the cord on my shoulders; my other miseries / I do not intend to recount on you, since so the poets are treated!" After 14 years of patriotic service, exiled to his farm in the village of Sant'Andrea in Percussina, Machiavelli found himself out of job. Most of his remaining years he spent on the small estate where he produced his major writings and quarreled with his neighbors. 

As a thinker Machiavelli belonged to an entire school of Florentine intellectuals concerned with the examination of political and historical problems. His important writings were composed after 1512. Machiavelli achieved some fame as a historian and playwright, but with The Prince he hoped to regain political favor, to make himself "useful to our Medici lords, even if they begin by making me toll a stone," as he said in a letter.  

Machiavelli  had abandoned any further hopes of a diplomatic career, but he was partly reconciled with the Medici in 1519, and given various duties, including writing a history of Florence. He also participated in the meetings at Cosimo Rucellai's family gardens, held by a group of humanists and literati. His friends from the Rucellai circle, Zanobi Buondelmonti and Luigi Alamanni, played a leading part in a plot to assassinate Cardinal Giulio de' Medici (later Pope Clement VII), but Machiavelli was not implicated in the affair. In his The Art of War Buondelmonti and Alamanni were the chief interlocutors. When the Medici were deposed in 1527 Machiavelli hoped for a new government post. Now, however, he was distrusted by the republican government for previous association with the Medici.

Machiavelli died of a stomach ailment in Florence on June 21, 1527. He was buried in Santa Croce, a Franciscan church. The epitaph on his tomb reads, "Tanto nomini nullum par elogium" (To such a name no eulogy is equal.) Just a few weeks before his death, Rome fell to the poorly armed Spanish infantry. Machiavelli had foretold how such tragedy could be avoided but no one had listened to him.

Machiavelli's political writings became more widely known in the second half of the 16th century. In 1564, when considered dangerous, they were placed on the Church Index of officially banned books. Othello's ensign Iago in Shakespeare's famous drama was partly based on the common misconception of Machiavelli as a cynical defender of fraud in statecraft. In the play Henry VI, Part III, Richard III claims: "I can add colours to the chameleon; / Change shapes with Proteus for advantages; / And set the murdrous Machiavel to school. / Can I do this and cannot get a crown?"

Although Machiavelli's songs and poems often expressed feelings of loss and sorrow, his plays reveal his humorous side. Many critics regard La Mandragola, a big hit at its time, as the best comedy of the Italian Renaissance. Popes and princes requested its performances at their courts. Shortly after its initial run at the Orti Oricellari, La Mandragola was staged for Pope Leo X and his cardinals in the Vatican in the spring of 1520. The storyline, which revolves around a slow-witted husband, young wife, lover, and love potion, was mostly borrowed from Boccaccio's DecameronLa Clizia, adopted from Plautus's Casina, did not gain similar popularity. 

Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio (1531) and  Il Principe (1532, The Prince), which were not published during Machiavelli's life, are his best known works. Their main theme is that all means may be used in order to maintain authority, and that the worst acts of the ruler are justified by the treachery of the government. "There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things." (in The Prince) Discorsi was written in direct opposition to Dante's De Monarchia, which defended the Pope and the Holy Roman Empire. Dante argued for unity, but Machiavelli saw that conflicts are the key to a state's succees. His  model was the republican Rome, or his image of it, not the contemporary Christian Rome.

Many of Machiavelli's thoughts, as "it is much more secure to be feared, than to be loved" or "it is much safer for a prince to be feared than loved, if he is to fail in one of the two", have lived for centuries as slogans. And his notion "All armed prophets have conquered and unarmed ones failed" could be approved by contemporary fanatical religious leaders.

A Jesuit scholar, Antonius Possevinus (Antonio Possevino), who most likely had not read Machiavelli, attacked him in his 1592 Iudicum. Counter Reformation writers drew connections between Machiavelli and Luther. Moreover, he was presented as a teacher of atheism and vice. Il Principe was condemned by the pope, but its viewpoints gave rise to the well-known adjective machiavellian, synonym for political maneuvers marked by cunning, duplicity, or bad faith. Machiavelli draws upon examples from both ancient and more recent history and also uses his own insight gained during his observation of the Italian city-states and France. He advocated the values of the ancient world, but instead referring to Aristotle and Platon, he brought up ideas from Xenophon, Livy, Tacitus, and Sallust. There is no clear evidence that Machiavelli had taught himself Greek (Machiavelli’s Art of Politics by Alejandro Barcenas, 2015, p. 20). He read the Greek authors in Latin translation. 

What distinguishes Machiavelli's manual from other such works, beginning from Cicero's essay De officiis (On Moral Duties, 44 BC), is the originality and practicality of his thinking. The Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce  regarded Macchiavelli as the first political scientist, who divorced politics from ethics. ('Historical Reception of Machiavelli' by Mary Walsh, in Seeking Real Truths: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Machiavelli, edited by Patricia Vilches and Gerald Seaman, 2007, p. 290) Machiavelli argued that all states are either republics or principalities, but the dichotomy had no moral meaning. In this he differed from Aristotle (among others) – Aristotle divided governments into six types, three good and three bad – and from Cicero's consideration of just or unjust. Raison d'état (reason of state) is seen as superior to personal morality. "It is frequently necessary for the upholding of the state," Machiavelli wrote, "to go to work against charity, against humanity, against religion, and a new prince cannot observe all the things for which men are reckoned good."

A number of influential critics rejected Machiavelli's political realism as immoral. Moreover, he was labeled as an atheist due to his stance toward religion, which he treated as if it had merely instrumental value: Machiavelli's advice for his price was to keep his faith when it pays to do so. For the Jesuits Machiavelli represented "the devil's partner in crime". After studying  The Prince, Frederick the Great confessed to Voltaire, "Thoughts rush round and round in my head, and divine inspiration is needed to disentangle this chaos". (Frederick the Great by Theodor Schieder, edited and translated by Sabina Berkeley and H.M. Scott, 2000, p. 76)

Machiavelli argued that Christianity has "glorified humble and contemplative men rather than active ones. . . . By reason of this education . . . there are in the world fewer republics than in ancient times, and, as a result, the people do not have such great love for freedom as then." According to Isaiah Berlin, Machiavelli was truly original, when took for granted the superiority of classical civic virtue over Christian values as taught by the Church, and did it seemingly unaware of what kind of impact this would have on our thinking. (The Proper Study of Mankind by Isaiah Berlin, 1997, pp. 321-323)

Il Principe was not published in English until 1640, but it was known to Elizabethan readers. Shakespeare referred to it in Henry VI, Part I, and in Henry VI, Part III, Gloucester says: "I can add colours to the chameleon, / Change shapes with Proteus for afdvantages, / And set the murderous Machiavel tom school." Innocent Gentillet's collection of maxims from the book, accompanied with an acerbic discussion, had appeared in English in 1602, and contributed to the distorted view of the work.

The interest in Machiavelli has continued through the centuries. Rousseau was also a great admirer of Machiavelli, writing for the 1782 edition of The Social Contract, "Machiavelli was an honourable man and a good citizen; but being attached to the Medici household, he was forced, during the oppression of his homeland, to disguise his love of freedom." (Hypocrisy and Integrity: Machiavelli, Rousseau, and the Ethics of Politics by Ruth W. Grant, 1997, p. 5) Nietzsche shared Machiavelli's belief that Christian morality made men weak and docile. In addition, he praised the way the Florentine wrote: "But how could the German language, even in the prose of a Lessing, imitate the tempo of Machiavelli, who in his Principe lets us breathe the dry, refined air of Florence and cannot help presenting the most serious matters in a boisterous allegrissimo, perhaps not without a malicious artistic sense of the contrast he risks – long, difficult, hard, dangerous thoughts and the tempo of the gallop and the very best, most capricious humor? (The Art of Power: Machiavelli, Nietzsche, and the Making of Aesthetic Political Theory by Diego A. von Vacano, 2007, pp. 88) There is no knowledge that Nietzsche read any other of his books.

When the University of Bologna awarded Mussolini an honorary degree in jurisprudence, the dictator proposed to write a theses on Machiavelli to earn a true doctorate. The Renaissance political thinker has never fallen into oblivion in the United States, where Machiavellian pragmatism has defined presidential success since Abraham Lincoln. ('Lincoln, Machiavelli, and American Political Thought' by Brian F. Danoff, Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 2, Jun., 2000, pp. 290-311) In 1999, Dick Morris, close to President Clinton, published his own version of The Prince, titled The New Prince: Machiavelli Updated for the Twenty-First Century. In the aftermath of Donald Trump's election as President of the United States, academics, journalists and political commentators started to wonder, whether he is the American variant of the Machiavellian prince. Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter of Trump's The Art of the Deal, said once that in all his conversations with Trump the term "moral" never came up. (Trump and Political Philosophy: Patriotism, Cosmopolitanism, and Civic Virtue, edited by Marc Benjamin Sable & Angel Jaramillo Torres, 2018, p. 18)

For further reading: Machiavelli by J.H. Whitfield (1947); Machiavelli and the Renaissance by Federico Chabod (1958); Machiavelli: A Dissection by Sidney Anglo (1970); Machiavelli and the Nature of Political Thought by Martin Fleischer (1972); Machiavelli by Quentin Skinner (1981); Niccolo Machiavelli, compiled by Silvia Fiore (1990); The Discourses of Niccolo Machiavelli (1991); Niccolo Machiavelli's the Price, ed. by Martin Coyle (1995); Machiavelli's Three Romes by Vickie B. Sullivan (1996); Machiavelli's Virtue by Harvey C. Mansfield (1996); Machiavelli, Leonardo, and the Science of Power by Roger D. Masters (1996); Machiavelli, ed. by John Dunn and Ian Harris (1997); Machiavelli and Us by Luis Althusser et al (1999); Niccolò's Smile by Maurizio Viroli (2000); Machiavelli's God by Maurizio Viroli (2010); 'Niccolò Machiavelli' by Paul-Erik Korvela, in Klassiset poliittiset ajattelijat, toim. Petri Koikkalainen & Paul-Erik Korvela (2012); The Garments of Court and Palace: Machiavelli and the World that He Made by Philip Bobbitt (2013); Constituting Freedom: Machiavelli and Florence by Fabio Raimondi (2018)

Selected works:

  • Andria, 1517
    - The Woman from Andros (tr. David Sices and James B. Atkinson, in The Comedies of Machiavelli, 1985)
  • Commedia di Callimaco e di Lucrezia /  La Mandragola, 1524 (published, prod. in 1520, house of B. di Giordana)
    - Mandragola (tr. Stark Young, 1927; Ashley Dukes, 1940; John R. Hale, 1956; Allan H. Gilbert, in  The Chief Works and Others, Volume 2, 1965; Mera J. Flaumenhaft, 1981) / The Mandrake (tr. J.R. Hale, in Eight Great Comedies, ed. S. Barnet, 1958; Frederick May and Eric Bentley, in Classic Theatre 1, 1958; David Sices, in The Comedies of Machiavelli, 1985; Peter Constantine, in The Essential Writings of Machiavelli, 2007)
    - films: 1965, dir. by Alberto Lattuada; starring Totò, Rosanna Schiaffino, Philippe Leroy, Jean-Claude Brialy; 2008, dir. by Malachi Bogdanov, starring Geoffery Bateman, Den Woods, Jonathan Owen, Chara Jackson
  • La vita di Castruccio Castracani da Lucca, 1520
    - The Life of Castruccio Castracani of Lucca (tr. Peter E. Bondanella and Mark Musa, in The Portable Machiavelli, 1979; Peter Constantine, in The Essential Writings of Machiavelli, 2007) / The Life of Castruccio Castracani (tr. Allan H. Gilbert, in  The Chief Works and Others, Volume 2, 1965) 
    - Castruccio Castracanin elämä (suom. Paul-Erik Korvela, 2005)
  • Dell'arte della guerra, 1521
    - The Arte of War (tr. Peter Whitemore, 1563, rep. 1903) / The Art of War (tr. Ellis Farneworth, 1775; Allan H. Gilbert, in  The Chief Works and Others, Volume 2, 1965; Christopher Lynch, 2003)
  • Discorso o dialogo intorno alla nostra lingua, 1524-1525
  • Istorie fiorentine, 1525
    - The Florentine Historie (tr. Thomas Bedingfield, 1595, rep. 1905) / The History of Florence (tr. Henry Neville, 1675; Ninian Hill Thomson, 1882; Allan H. Gilbert, in  The Chief Works and Others, Volume 3, 1965) / The Florentine Histories (tr. C. Edwards Lester, 1845) / The Florentine History (tr. W.K. Marriott, 1909) / Reform in Florence (tr. Allan Gilbert, 1946) / The History of Florence and Other Selections (tr. Judith A. Rawson, ed. Myron P. Gilmore, 1970) / Florentine Histories (tr. Laura F. Banfield and Harvey C. Mansfiel, 1988)
  • Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio, 1531
    - Machiavel's Discourses upon on the First Decade of T. Livius (tr. Edward Dacres, 1636, repr. 1905, ed.  Bernard Crick, 1971) / Discourses Upon The First Ten Books of Titus Livy (tr. Henry Neville, 1675) / Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius (tr. Christian E. Detmold, 1882) / Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius (tr. Ninian Hill Thomson, 1883; Allan H. Gilbert, 1965) / The Discourses (tr. Leslie J. Walker, 1951; revised by Brian Richardson, 1971) / Discourses on Livy (tr. Harvey C. Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov, 1996; Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella, 1997)
    - Valtiollisia mietelmiä (suom. Kaarlo af Heurlin, 1958)
  • Il Principe, 1532
    - The Prince (tr. William Fowler, 1590s; Edward Dacres, 1640; Scott Byerly, 1810; Ninian Hill Thomson, 1882; Christian E. Detmold, 1882; W.K. Marriott, 1908; Allan H. Gilbert, 1946; George Bull, 1961; Daniel Donno, 1966; Robert M. Adams, 1977; Harvey Claflin Mansfield, 1985; Russell Price, ed. Quentin Skinner, 1988; Stephen J. Milner, 1995) / The Ruler (tr. Peter Rodd, 1954; David Wootton, 1995; Paul Sonnino, 1996)
    - Ruhtinas (suom. O. A. Kallio, 1918; Aarre Huhtala, 1969)
  • La Clizia, 1532 (published, prod. 1525, based on Plautus's Casina)
    - Clizia (tr. John Hale, 1961; Allan H. Gilbert, in  The Chief Works and Others, Volume 2, 1965; David Sices and James B. Atkinson, in The Comedies of Machiavelli, 1985)
  • Novella di Belfagor arcidiavolo, 1545
    - The Marriage of Belphegor (tr. Henry Neville, 1675) / Belfagor (tr. John R. Hale, 1961) / A Fable: Belfragor. The Devil Who Took a Wife (tr. Peter E. Bondanella and Mark Musa, in The Portable Machiavelli, 1979)
  • The Works of the Famous Nicholas Machiavel, 1675 (ttranslated by Henry Nevile)
  • The Works of Nicholas Machiavel, 1742 (translated by Ellis Farneworth)
  • Scritti inediti, 1857 (edited by Giuseppe Canestrini)
  • The Historical, Political and Diplomatic Writings, 1882 (4 vols., translated by Christian E. Detmold)
  • Lettere familiari, 1883 (ed. Edoardo Alvisi)  
  • Tutte le opere storiche e letterarie di Niccolò Machiavelli, 1929 (ed. Guidi Mazzoni and Mario Casella)
  • The Living Thoughts of Machiavelli, 1940 (translated by Count Carlo Sforza, Arthur Livingston)
  • The Discourses of Niccolò Machiavelli, 1950 (2 vols., translated by Leslie J. Walker)
  • Opere di Niccolò Macchiavelli, 1954 (edited by M. Bonfantini)
  • Opere letterarie, 1964 (edited by Luigi Blasucci)
  • The Literary Works of Machiavelli: Mandragola, Clizia, A Dialogue on Language, Belfagor, with selections from the Private Correspondence, 1965 (translated by J.R. Hale)
  • The Chief Works and Others, 1965 (3 vols., repr. 1989, translated by Allan H. Gilbert)
  • Opere, 1968-89 (4 vols., edited by Sergio Bertelli et al.)
  • Tutte le opere, 1971 (edited by Mario Martelli)
  • The Portable Machiavelli, 1979 (edited and translated by Peter E. Bondanella and Mark Musa)
  • The Prince and Other Political Writings, 1981 (translated by Bruce Penman)
  • The Comedies of Machiavelli, 1985 (edited and translated by David Sices and James B. Atkinson)
  • Selected Political Writings, 1994 (edited and translated by David Wootton)
  • Machiavelli and His Friends: Their Personal Correspondence, 1996 (edited and translated by David Sices and James B. Atkinson)
  • The Other Machiavelli: Republican Writings by the Author of "The Prince", 1998  (edited, introduced, and with an essay by Quentin P. Taylor)
  • Tutte le opere storiche, politiche e letterarie, 1998 (edited by Alessandro Capata)
  • The Prince and Other Writings, 2003 (translation, introduction, and notes by Wayne Rebhorn)
  • Istorie fiorentine e altre opere storiche e politiche, 2007 (edited by Alessandro Montevecchi)
  • The Essential Writings of Machiavelli, 2007 (edited and translated by Peter Constantine; introduction by Albert Russell Ascol)
  • The Comedies of Machiavelli, 2007 (bilingual ed.; edited and translated by David Sices and James B. Atkinson.   
  • Opere storiche, 2010 (edited by Alessandro Montevecchi, Carlo Varotti )
  • Scritti in poesia e in prosa, 2012 (edited by A. Corsaro, P. Cosentino, E. Cutinelli-Rèndina, F. Grazzini, N. Marcelli)
  • Machiavelli on International Relations, 2014 (edited by Marco Cesa) 
  • The Quotable Machiavelli, 2017 (edited by Maurizio Viroli)
  • Discours sur notre langue, 2017 (afterword by Laurent Vallance)
  • Teatro: Andria; Mandragola; Clizia, 2017 (edited by Pasquale Stoppelli)

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