Who’s Going To Live Forever?

Everyone remembers Leonardo da Vinci, but is “immortal glory” still possible?

Leonardo da Vinci

Who, alive today, will still be famous in 500 years? It’s the kind of question people might ask at dinner parties during a lull in conversation. But it’s one I’ve been pondering for the past couple of years, while writing a novel about three men who were together for a six-month period of bloody battles and lavish parties in central Italy. The story, set in 1502, is almost entirely a true one. The names of the men? Cesare Borgia, Niccolo Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci.

When I first read about this little-known moment in history, I was amazed that the three men should have known one another. In fact, Leonardo was working as Borgia’s military engineer, while Machiavelli had been sent by the Florentine government on a diplomatic mission. But I had never thought of them as contemporaries, perhaps because they are famous for such different reasons. Indeed, two of the three are really infamous rather than famous, and—thanks to the vicissitudes of time and rumor—they are remembered for things they probably didn’t even do.

This is often how historical fame works. The years distort; lies and misconceptions slowly paint over the truth; novels, plays, and now movies and computer games all alter public perception at the same time as they continue and amplify their hero’s fame. So a person’s reputation, 500 years or more after their death, rarely bears any resemblance to their actual existence or deeds. Sir Walter Raleigh, for instance, is remembered as the man who discovered tobacco (simply untrue) and who draped his cloak over a puddle for Queen Elizabeth (almost certainly apocryphal).

Similarly, when we think of Borgia, we think of the family: Cesare, considered the most handsome and dangerous man in Italy; his father Rodrigo, who became Alexander VI, the notorious Borgia Pope; and, most of all, his sister Lucrezia, who was supposedly sleeping with both of them while poisoning all their enemies. There are many lurid and exaggerated histories of the Borgias (notably the first volume of Alexandre Dumas’ Celebrated Crimes series), and they are largely based on the gossip-filled reports written by diplomats of rival Italian courts. This is a shame, as the historical reality is dark enough not to need such elaborations. Yet it shows no signs of abating: This year alone, there are two new TV series about the Borgia family, both reveling in myths rather than facts: a Franco-German production for Canal+, titled Borgia, and a glossy, 10-part American series called The Borgias, directed by Neil Jordan  and starring Jeremy Irons.

If the name Borgia is vaguely synonymous with evil, that of Machiavelli is part of many languages. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Machiavellianism is “the employment of cunning and duplicity in statecraft or in general conduct.” Nearly 500 years after he wrote The Prince, Machiavelli’s name is used on a daily basis to describe all kinds of sinister villainy. How famous can a man get? Yet for most of his life he was a humble diplomat, and the closest he came to celebrity was as a comic playwright (his erotic satire, The Mandrake, was a succès de scandale in Italy from its first performance in 1520). And to judge from his funny, warm-hearted and startlingly modern-sounding letters, Machiavelli was not villainous at all but a family man and a joker who was loyal to his friends.

Leonardo, by contrast, was famous during his lifetime—at least for 20 years or so, before his star waned as Michelangelo’s rose. Letters to and from the avid art collector Isabella d’Este, the Marchioness of Mantua, portray the artist from Vinci as the kind of “elusive celebrity” we would recognize today in various movie stars or singers: The Marchioness’ representative, a priest, had to negotiate a meeting with Leonardo through his assistant Salai, and—despite being given money “to encourage him” to produce the picture the Marchioness coveted—the artist politely promised (and delivered) nothing at all. It is a commonplace of modern criticism that celebrity is a recent invention: Five years ago, Clive James blamed the United States for “raising the cult of celebrity to a world-conquering ideology,” while Fred Inglis claimed last year (in his book A Short History of Celebrity) that “the business of renown and celebrity has been in the making for two-and-a-half centuries.” But there have been famous men and women for as long as there have been civilizations.

Perhaps what has changed is the nature of the fame for which people lust. We live in an age of instant (and ephemeral) celebrity—hence Andy Warhol’s phrase, “In the future everybody will be world-famous for 15 minutes,” is now better-known than the artist himself—whereas what most concerned Leonardo and his contemporaries was posthumous fame, or “immortal glory,” as it was usually described.

Leonardo’s notebooks are filled with phrases and quotations that attest to his desire to be remembered long after his death: “… why then do you not create works that after your death will make you seem alive?” he wrote.

Borgia was a man of actions, not of words. But the few he did write down (such as his motto: Aut Caesar aut nihil—”To be Caesar or to be nothing”), do not leave much room for doubt: He wanted power and he wanted fame, and he would have done anything to get them. The fact that he is remembered now, despite failing dismally as a conqueror—he died, aged 32, possessing no territories at all, in a minor skirmish in a small war in Spain—is almost entirely due to the ruthlessness he showed in his pursuit of power.

Of the three, however, it was the then unknown Machiavelli who wrote most eloquently of fame. In fact, in his Discourses on Livy (c. 1517), he even provided a formula for predicting who might be famous in, say, 500 years’ time. The first rank of glory belonged to those “who have played the chief part in founding a religion.” Next came those “who have founded either republics or kingdoms.” At the end, he adds: “Some modicum of praise is also ascribed to any man who excels in some art … and of these the number is legion.” Not a sentiment likely to have pleased his friend Leonardo.

How useful are Machiavelli’s categories as a way of predicting which few names, from our generation, will be celebrated (or reviled) in 2511? Well, possibly not very. The age of founding religions and empires is over. But with lateral thinking we could consider other kinds of religions and empires: business empires, for instance, or cults of ideology. The latter immediately brings to mind Osama Bin Laden, probably the only person alive today who is a dead certain to be remembered in 2511. Why? Because history suggests that mysterious outlaws can quickly become legends, and Bin Laden is already a legend in his own lifetime: loathed and feared by much of the world’s population, and hero-worshipped by much of the rest.

In business, the pioneers of the Internet age should naturally be regarded as potential stars of the distant future. Mark Zuckerberg has already been portrayed in a Hollywood film and made his first billion, and he’s not even 30. But while Facebook may become a global franchise that endures for centuries and changes the way we see the world, it might equally disappear and be forgotten within 50 years, never mind 500. And what of the brands created by Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Rupert Murdoch? Are they the new Coca-Cola or the new Tizer? And even then … does anyone remember the name of the man who invented Coca-Cola? *

Those who founded kingdoms are in short supply, but what of those who rule? Barack Obama will always be the first black American president. But will this count for much in 500 years if he fails to achieve anything of note and is then followed by another black U.S. president who achieves a great deal? As for artists and those Machiavelli calls “men of letters,” this category is particularly unpredictable because the fame of many artists, writers, and musicians increases after their death: For every Shakespeare and Leonardo, there are just as many Melvilles and Van Goghs.

The great discoverers of science usually are remembered (or at least, those credited with the discovery are); on the other hand most of the great scientific discoveries of our age are perhaps yet to be made. Either that, or nobody has yet agreed who is going to take the credit for the discovery. As the ascendancy of Thomas Edison over Nikola Tesla shows, self-promotion can often be more important than achievement. But then another 500 years could change this, too.

It seems strange to think that some of the most famous people around today—the sports or movie stars—will be totally forgotten. But 500 years of Hollywood and World Cups are likely to rewrite the record books beyond recognition. There is, however, one prediction I would make in absolute confidence: No matter how many people, alive today, are still famous in 2511, you won’t find three of them—renowned for three completely different reasons—living in the same building for six months.

* Coca-Cola was invented by John Stith Pemberton.

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.