Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World by Noel Malcolm; Peiresc’s Mediterranean World by Peter N Miller - review by Felipe Fernández-Armesto

Felipe Fernández-Armesto

Down by the Sea

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


Allen Lane 624pp £30 order from our bookshop

Peiresc’s Mediterranean World


Harvard University Press 630pp £29.95 order from our bookshop

On the ‘Golfing for Cats’ principle, Noel Malcolm’s publishers thought, presumably, that knights, corsairs, Jesuits and spies were saleable, whereas the real subject of Malcolm’s new book, which might be expressed as ‘A Reconstruction of the Political Activities of Members of Two Related Albanian Families in the Late Sixteenth-Century Eastern Mediterranean and Balkans’, would be poor window-dressing. But good stories, well told, made bestsellers of The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs and A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. We can be honest about Agents of Empire without fear of impeding sales.

Malcolm’s protagonists are the Bruni and Bruti dynasties, who came from Venice to settle in Ulcinj, a predominantly Albanian-speaking port on the Venetian-dominated fringe of the Adriatic, in what is now Montenegro. They inhabited and traversed a frontier zone, hovering between Ottoman and Venetian empires, Spanish and Italian spheres of influence, Christendom and Islam, Roman and Eastern Churches and Romance, Slavic, Albanian, Greek and Turkish language areas. From a historian’s point of view, it was a great place to live – one of those fateful peripheries where states and civilisations rub against each other and generate seismic effects. Malcolm was wise to look to this region for better, more vivid and more revealing insights than one gets from the usual metropolitan skylines. From the dwellers’ perspective, however, the homeland of the Bruni and Bruti was dangerous, unstable and racked by war, want, plague and piracy. To Malcolm’s indefatigable scholarship it yields stories of triumph and tragedy as compelling as any in fiction.

The book’s pre-eminent heroes are two brothers. Giovanni Bruni, Archbishop of Ulcinj, played a big part in the Council of Trent, reformed his diocese and fomented Balkan rebellions before being captured and enslaved in the galleys by Ottoman invaders. Gasparo Bruni, meanwhile, was a Knight of Malta, who served as his grand master’s spymaster, processing Ottoman intelligence, with beneficial effects – according to Philip II’s own account – on Spanish campaigns against Morisco rebels. At the Battle of Lepanto, where Giovanni was chained to a Turkish oar, Gasparo commanded the pope’s galley. The former archbishop was cut down – probably by a Spanish looter rather than a vengeful Turk – in the last moments of the battle, when his brother, by Malcolm’s calculations, was probably less than a hundred yards away.

Antonio Bruti, their cousin, served Venice as commander of a brigantine, sifter of intelligence and commissary for grain, before perishing when Ulcinj fell to the Ottomans in 1571, with the loss of many Bruti and Bruni lives and all their property. After that disaster, the careers of leading members of the family became even more precarious. Malcolm’s most colourful character is Bartolomeo Bruni, who sought his fortune as a translator at the Venetian embassy in Constantinople. Switching between Venetian, Spanish and Ottoman service with aplomb, he rose to be deputy to the ruler of Moldavia, with immense and gleefully exploited opportunities for self-enrichment. He fell from grace when a warlord with passions for ‘pillage, debauchery, gambling, and bagpipe-players’ took over. Bartolomeo died – strangled, with his nose chopped off – attempting to escape. Other family members died plague-struck or impaled.

Stories such as these illuminate vast contexts. The Mediterranean is the world’s most studied sea. Debate about Mediterranean civilisation – does it exist and if so what is it? – has ignited controversy about rimlands all over the world. Do seas divide or unite their shores? Does culture seep across them or get diluted by them? Malcolm’s evidence helps to show that political and religious frontiers in the Mediterranean are porous, and that the ‘corrupting sea’ erodes them. In his pages, would-be converts cross from Christendom to Islam and back. Towns and villages forswear and swap allegiance between empires. Among Archbishop Bruni’s ‘dearest relatives’ he counts a renegade Ottoman commander, Mustafa Bey. Antonio Bruti is useful to the Venetian state mainly because of the many family contacts that span the Ottoman border. The fortunes of Bruni and Bruti émigrés in the Ottoman world rise and fall with those of Sinan Pasha, their kinsman (Bartolomeo’s mother’s first cousin), who keeps returning from serial disgrace to be the sultan’s chief minister. Young Cristoforo Bruni, training as an interpreter in Constantinople, literally sits at Sinan’s feet, counting the coins his master gains in bribes. Albanians, often related to the same clan, turn up in important positions in the Latin Church, Western universities, Turkish armies and the sultan’s bed. Renegade spies are often invisible, because they return to their homelands, where they pass for locals ‘under deep cover’. A Neapolitan memorandum of 1559, Malcolm tells us, recommended that ‘all Greek sailors … should have their foreskins examined to make sure they had not become Muslims’.

Malcolm identifies devotion to the Catholic faith as the ‘determinant’ of his protagonists’ behaviour ‘at a deep level’, but the evidence he assembles seems equivocal. Religion did not inspire wars, which were usually defensive or ‘accidental’. Only the popes practised ‘jihad’. Bartolomeo Bruni claimed that he sought to serve Spain to avenge his family ‘on the accursed sect’, but seems never to have had trouble serving Muslim and Orthodox masters. He was sincere in spending his own money in pious, Catholic causes, but appears always to have had an eye on the political main chance and the opportunity to garner gold. His first loyalty was to family. He got jobs for his relations as interpreters and court servants where factions and patrons meant more than sects and saints.

Economic history does not interest Malcolm, but his findings on politics help to show that early modern empires – however heavy their hands – stretched feeble fingertips towards their edges, reliant on indigenous quislings and collaborators. Conquests were ‘not always a matter of force majeure’. ‘Local reasons, whether religious, political, or social,’ also played their part. Whereas Ulcinj, for instance, had to be wrested by force and razed in revenge, townsmen in nearby Bar, resentful of the local Venetian patriciate, welcomed extinction of the old oligarchy and transformation into ‘an Ottoman city’. Sultans practised complicated levels of indirect rule. In outlying regions, such as Moldavia, they functioned only by appointing and dethroning local rulers and milking them for tribute. Bartolomeo Bruni’s patron, Petru Şchiopul, eventually abandoned his fief, despite the natural wealth of a region renowned as the Ottomans’ ‘dairy’, because he could not afford the disbursements. ‘Raiding societies’ – Cossacks and corsairs, bandit armies, pirate ships – were the unruly penumbra of the Spanish and Ottoman monarchies alike.

Agents of Empire’s greatest delights are its details. If you want to know about 16th-century war, religion or patronage, or what a Perot wedding was like, or the circumcision party of a future sultan, or a Jesuit schoolboy’s routine, or a dragoman’s education, Malcolm can tell you in graphic detail and clear prose. His achievement is all the more impressive when one takes the scale of his scholarly endeavour into account. His detective work on the Bruni and Bruti sprang from his discovery of a long-sought manuscript, Antonio Bruni’s account of Ottoman Rumeli. Malcolm brings to light a Muslim’s eyewitness account of Lepanto, unrecorded by any previous historian of the battle. It is hard to imagine any rival with the linguistic gifts necessary to range over the cultures he covers. In a disarming aside, he apologises for the deficiencies of his skill in reading Ottoman Turkish and explains that he has had to rely on transliterations in modern Turkish, or translations into ‘Albanian, Serbo-Croat, Macedonian, Romanian and various West European languages’.

In many ways, Peiresc’s Mediterranean World complements Malcolm’s work. It is Peter N Miller’s second book-length foray (or his third, if one counts a volume of collected essays) into the 70,000-odd items of evidence left by the tireless antiquarian of early 17th-century Aix-en-Provence, Nicolas-Claude de Peiresc. Part of the author’s intention is to contribute towards Peiresc’s biography as ‘scholar and man of action’, though the scholarship is more conspicuous than the action: fear of what he called ‘plague and barbarism’ kept our hero mainly at home. Miller still seems a long way from a dedicated life story, but we do get delightful dabs towards a portrait of a rich collector who valued friends, preferred talk to treatises and welcomed ‘books, curiosities and other things from which one can learn something’, while deploring money wasted on luxuries and mere investments.

Miller also proposes ‘to join intellectual and material history’ by exploring ‘the practical details of commerce, correspondence and communication’. His picture, like Malcolm’s, is of a sea linked by family ties that transcended political and cultural boundaries. Networks of cosmopolitan relationships abound in Peiresc’s archive, stitching remote coasts together. There is much intriguing information on merchants and muleteers, plagues and postmen, scholarship and sailing times, and the daunting cost of connoisseurship. The result, however, is not a coherent book but a disjointedly assorted congeries of short notes and essays. The author justifies the inchoate state of his work by self-comparisons – from which his editors at Harvard University Press might, in charity, have deterred him – with Reyner Banham, Laurence Sterne, Orhan Pamuk and Aby Warburg.

Like Malcolm, Miller is a pertinacious and meticulous scholar. It takes him two dense pages of footnotes to explain the dearth of existing publications on early 17th-century Marseille. Not all his readings and translations, however, are reliable. He refers twice, for instance, to a document in which Peiresc tells his Capuchin agent, Théophile Minuti, to disguise himself as an Englishman in Egypt. Peiresc’s advice was not, as Miller says, ‘an astonishing declaration of the power … of the English already in the 1630s’, but a reflection of the temporarily low standing of France in the Ottoman Empire in the early years of that decade, and a joke at the expense of a priest unable, as Peiresc quips, to play the role of a Protestant, even in the interests of improved dealings with Muslim hosts. When Peiresc says that a renegade Franciscan ‘a grande créance pour la doctrine’ he does not mean that ‘he has given up faith on account of doctrine’ but that his learning is of high repute. ‘Escuier’ does not mean ‘knight’. Tiresome digressions protract the book needlessly: pretentious excursions on the power of naming and the problems of marshalling details are especially annoying, with half-digested allusions to Proust, Croce, Wittgenstein, Walter Benjamin and other heavily dropped names. Keats’s name falls with the noise of a clanger. The lovers on his Grecian urn do not ‘stare back at us coldly’: they are distracted by their own chase, in the heat of passion. Miller’s attempts at creativity often end as contrivance. His ear for the difference between the stylish and the stilted seems imperfect. Still, the book is a rewarding quarry for picturesque details.

The most puzzling problem of the Mediterranean in the period these books cover is, perhaps, of supposed ‘decline’. The precocious sea, where rich economies and productive civilisations thrived from the classical era through those of the Roman Empire, the early caliphate and the Renaissance, ceased to generate great initiatives. Miller provides a snapshot of one sign of change: the incursions of Dutch and English shipping. He rightly emphasises ‘the ambition and diffusion of the Marseillais’, but shows that Peiresc and his agents preferred to employ northerners. There is an invigorating whiff of ozone in the air that Peiresc and the Bruni and Bruti breathed, but there is no mistaking the odour of decay. Malcolm, insisting on the durability of Spanish and Ottoman power, upbraids Braudel for suspecting that ‘the Mediterranean was no longer a prize’ worth fighting for, but when Ulcinj fell, his Albanians switched to Kotor: ‘not such a bad place,’ he avers, ‘despite the depleted population and malarial conditions, the low public and ecclesiastical revenues, the occasional near-famines, the recurrent threats … the constant reports of poverty, and the lack of a college or seminary or even a bookshop’. Gradually, inexorably, Europe’s economic centre of gravity shifted to the Atlantic rim, while the sometime ‘Great Sea’ became a backwater.

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