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Book Review: Agents of Empire
(Noel Malcolm)

When I think about Albania, which is not often, I usually think about Communist dictator Enver Hoxha and the hundreds of thousands of reinforced concrete pillboxes he scattered around Albania, preparing for the imminent assault of the imperialists.  Other than that, if I’m in a historical mood, I think about Skanderbeg, the Sixteenth Century freedom fighter against the conquering Ottomans.  If I’m thinking about the modern era, maybe I think about Mother Teresa, or on a less exalted level, Jim Belushi.  I don’t, or didn’t, think about Venice, or Lepanto, or Jesuits, or any of the very interesting, and even exciting, places, people, and happenings Noel Malcolm covers.  This book, however, has changed my perspective.

Malcolm’s book, Agents of Empire, surveys the complex world of the eastern Adriatic and Mediterranean, mostly during the second half of the Sixteenth Century.  His story revolves around a single Albanian family not prominent in history, the Bruni/Bruti family, and several now-obscure towns and cities, divided between Venetian and Ottoman control, on the eastern shore of the Adriatic (Ulcinj, Bar, Kotor, Durrës).  Most of this territory is now Albania; a small bit is Montenegro or Croatia.  The Bruni/Bruti families were intimately connected with this territory and played important roles in the tumultuous events that affected it during this time.

Venice today is an overcrowded, baroque tourist trap.  Four hundred years ago it was, if not a global power, a power in the Mediterranean world, and a key player in international trade and interchange.  As the maritime power closest to the Ottomans, and with a land border between the territory it dominated and the Ottomans, it had the most to lose, and sometimes the most to gain, from the inevitable conflicts with the expanding Ottomans.  Of course, the Venetians had been imposing their will in this same area for hundreds of years—it was their diversion of the Fourth Crusade in 1202 to attack Zara, also on the Adriatic coast, that undermined that Crusade; and then the re-direction of the Crusade under Venetian pressure, to Constantinople, that caused catastrophic results.  So, in many ways, the wars of Venice in this book are merely a continuation of the necessary wars of empire—after all, Venice was a relevant power for nearly a thousand years, an impressive record but one that required constant defense.

The Bruti/Bruni family is not famous at all.  Malcolm found a reference to a “lost” manuscript history of Albania and the surrounding area, supposedly written by one Antonio Bruti, and spent quite a bit of time looking for it.  He ultimately found it and, pulling on the string and plowing through archives, fleshed out the story of this family (though as he says, a lot is still buried in archives).  Since the family had several individuals with highly varied roles, looking through the prism of their lives gives an excellent flavor of the times.

Part of the Bruni/Bruti family originated in Durrës.  They were important and powerful there prior to the events of this book, but lost most of what they had when the Ottomans conquered the town in 1501, turning it Muslim and into a corsair lair.  What was left of the family fled north to Ulcinj, then still a Venetian town.  Until the latter stages of this book, the focus is these towns on the eastern Adriatic shore—small, ancient, towns with proud aristocrats; the usual conflict between them and the other classes, especially rising merchants; international trade; and their foreign policy and defense, caught between the Venetians and the Ottomans.  Much of the story here revolves around service provided by members of the Bruni and Bruti families to Venice, and to a lesser extent to the Papacy and the Knights of Malta, accompanied by later involvement with the Ottomans as dragomans in Istanbul and as high-level functionaries in the Ottoman principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia (which today, roughly, along with Transylvania stolen from Hungary in 1919, form modern Rumania).

One family member, Antonio Bruti, who wrote the manuscript the author found, spent his life as a factotum for Venice, ultimately receiving high rewards and accolades from the city for his work, which served his descendants and relatives in good stead.  His brother-in-law, Giovanni Bruni, was an archbishop, attended the Council of Trent (where he had dealings with Charles Borromeo, later Archbishop of Milan and my patron saint), was made a galley slave by the Ottomans and killed at the Battle of Lepanto (along with his nephew).  Giovanni’s brother, Gasparo, became a Knight of Malta.  Malcolm provides a fascinating description not just of the military activities of the Knights, but their economic activities, the process of admission and the internal politics of the Knights.  Gasparo Bruni became captain of the papal flagship at the Battle of Lepanto and later fought for the papacy in Avignon during the Huguenot Wars, ultimately dying in his bed at an advanced age.  His son, Antonio, became a Jesuit (then a new and vigorous order), studying in Rome.

During this period, the late Sixteenth Century, the Ottomans continued to expand, fighting (yet another) war with Venice, resulting in the capture of Ulcinj and its conversion to a Muslim town (as it is today), after killing much of the population despite a guarantee of safe conduct given in exchange for the city’s surrender.  More Brutis and Brunis died here.  Those that remained moved to Istria, to Koper (Capodistria), still under Venetian control.  From here the only Bruti reasonably well known to history, Bartolomeo, son of Antonio, began his career as a diplomat and functionary for the Spanish and Venetians, especially in negotiations and dealings with the Ottomans (his role in Istanbul was mostly indistinguishable from that of a spy).  This role was greatly assisted by the on-again off-again Grand Vizier of this period, Sinan Pasha, not only being Albanian but related in an obscure, but relevant, way to Bartolomeo (probably as a cousin by marriage of some sort).  The English also begin to appear at this point, where Elizabeth I was negotiating with the Sultan in order to gain traction against their common enemy, the Spanish Habsburgs, and Bartolomeo had dealings with them as well.

Bartolomeo moved to Moldavia and became the chief lieutenant of the voivode (appointed by the Sultan—Moldavia was self-governing but in effect a satrapy of the Ottomans and a pawn in conflicts with the Poles and the Cossacks, the Ottomans having conquered most of Hungary and turned Transylvania into a separate state until it was later reunited with Hungary).  But Bartolomeo came out on the wrong side of a power struggle and didn’t leave town with the exiled voivode fast enough, so despite (or because of) his meteoric rise and accomplishment, he was strangled and thrown in the river by the new voivode at age 34 (apparently in part to avoid repaying a debt to him).  His second cousin, Gasparo Bruni’s son Antonio, the Jesuit, served the exiled voivode in the Tyrol and died of disease at a relatively young age.  Bartolomeo’s brother, Cristofero, became a dragoman, or interpreter, in Istanbul.  This was an important office that frequently meant serving as a diplomat, not just as a mere interpreter.  His relations and descendants served in this and similar offices for at least the next century; thus, the family ended intertwined with the Ottomans, rather than their opponents.

If all this sounds complicated, it is.  I’m simplifying it considerably.  But then, real life is complicated, after all, and Malcolm does an excellent job of keeping the story moving along.  One thing that comes through very clearly is the porous nature of borders and relations among peoples, and the key element of trade.  War comes and goes, but under the surface, trade (especially in grain, critical to both the Ottomans and the Venetians) continues.  Men seek glory, honor, and sinecures from the state for their services.  Fortune’s Wheel turns, round and round.

Along the way, few new lessons are learned.  There is little or nothing in this book, thankfully, that can be tied to modern politics.  If there is a lesson, it is a reinforcement of what we already know—in the world before our times, people died unexpectedly and young much more often than they do now.  Most of the protagonists of this book seem to be on an arc of ever-greater success—and then they die.  Some die in battle; some of disease; some of running afoul of the Sultan or some other powerful man.  Maybe, probably, the knowledge of this spurred them on to greater efforts; it certainly did not seem to make them take easy and obvious steps to reduce the risk, like simply staying at home.  No doubt they viewed life and the world differently than us, even though they for the most part they seem so similar to us.  Reading about them, still, brings them close to us, and reminds us that although times change, people remain basically the same, in all their rich variation.

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