Agents of Empire:
Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World

Noel Malcolm

Penguin 2015
A book review by Danny Yee © 2019
Agents of Empire starts at Ulcinj, a small town on the coast of what is now Albania, and follows the lives of members of two of its leading families, the Brunis and the Brutis, in the second half of the sixteenth century. From there it spirals out into broader aspects of the history of eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, carrying out a kind of "reverse Braudel". It covers a similar period and area to The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II but centres individual lives and uses broader themes to illustrate those, rather than using a mass of details to illustrate the slower, longue durée processes.

In the 1550s Antonio Bruti worked for Venice as a go-between and "fixer", sorting out problems behind the scenes and purchasing grain. Commerce was intimately tied up with espionage, and the broader grain market with the complexities of local politics, "a world of cross-border connections, where personal trust could easily trump official enmities".

Giovanni Bruni rose to be archbishop of Bar, a difficult and poorly remunerated position, with a diocese partly under Ottoman control. He took part in the 1562-1563 Council of Trent, where his role in the debates was recorded, but there is only scattered evidence for his life after that.

Gasparo Bruni became a Knight of Malta in 1567 and in the same year was sent to Dubrovnik by the Pope, as a poorly concealed intelligence agent. As background to this we get an overview of the governance of the Knights of Malta, the distinction between corsairs and privateers, the working of the Mediterranean slave trade, and the complex status of Ragusa (Dubrovnik), notionally Ottoman but with a large degree of independence. Gasparo took part in the 1570-1573 Ottoman-Venetian War, which saw Venice losing (as well as Cyprus) parts of Venetian Albania including Ulcinj; he fought in the 1571 battle of Lepanto as flag-captain to the papal naval commander Colonna. He went on to serve as a captain in the Huguenot Wars, commanding a company defending the papal enclave of Avignon. And his later years were spent "climbing the greasy pole of preferment within the Order - the longed-for prize being a commenda that would give him a good income in his old age".

As a young man Bartolomeo Bruti went to Istanbul as a trainee dragoman or interpreter. In 1575 he was involved in a high profile prisoner exchange, "which raises the larger issue of how the whole system of captivity, exchange and ransom functioned in the early modern Mediterranean world". He went on to become part of the complex world of Istanbul espionage and diplomacy, and a player in Ottoman politics as a client of Sinan Pasha, opposed to Grand Vizier Mehmed Sokollu. Sent to Moldavia in 1582 with the newly appointed voivod Petru Schiopul, he rose to wield considerable power, attempting to organise the submission of Moldavia to Rome and negotiating the difficult Polish-Ottoman relationship. There was a change in the power balance in Istanbul, however; a new voivod was appointed and Petru Schiopul went into exile, and in the fallout Bartolomeo was executed in 1592.

In 1572 Gasparo Bruni's son Antonio enrolled at an elite Jesuit school in Rome, part of the educational apparatus of the counter-Reformation. He went on to study law at the University of Avignon and later helped his cousin Bartolomeo govern Moldavia. In 1596 he wrote a treatise on the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans, which survives in two copies and was also used in Lazaro Soranzo's contemporary work L'Ottomanno.

And other Brunis and Brutis make briefer appearances. Cristoforo Bruti trained in Istanbul as a dragoman, and worked for the Ottomans and for Bartolomeo in Moldavia, but died young. Pasquale "Bruti" served as dragoman for the English ambassador Edward Barton, accompanying him on a mission in 1596 in a failed attempt to negotiate a Hapsburg-Ottoman peace.

Agents of Empire is a scholarly work, with 130 pages of notes and bibliography, and quite dense in its detail. It includes some fascinating stories, however, and, while it has no dramatisation and little speculation itself, anyone who did want to write a novel about the Balkans and Eastern Mediterranean in the second half of the sixteenth century would find plenty in it to inspire them. Malcolm conveys just how uneasy and unsettled politics and commerce and espionage were on the edges of, and in the interstices between, states and religions.

June 2019

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%T Agents of Empire
%S Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World
%A Malcolm, Noel
%I Penguin
%D 2015
%O paperback, notes, bibliography, index
%G ISBN-13 9780141978376
%P 604pp