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

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

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

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


In the late sixteenth century, a prominent Albanian named Antonio Bruni composed a revealing document about his home country. Historian Sir Noel Malcolm takes this document as a point of departure to explore the lives of the entire Bruni family, whose members included an archbishop of the Balkans, the captain of the papal flagship at the Battle of Lepanto--at which the Ottomans were turned back in the Eastern Mediterranean--in 1571, and a highly placed interpreter in Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire that fell to the Turks in 1453. The taking of Constantinople had profoundly altered the map of the Mediterranean. By the time of Bruni's document, Albania, largely a Venetian province from 1405 onward, had been absorbed into the Ottoman Empire. Even under the Ottomans, however, this was a world marked by the ferment of the Italian Renaissance.

In Agents of Empire, Malcolm uses the collective biography of the Brunis to paint a fascinating and intimate picture of Albania at a moment when it represented the frontier between empires, cultures, and religions. The lives of the polylingual, cosmopolitan Brunis shed new light on the interrelations between the Ottoman and Christian worlds, characterized by both conflict and complex interdependence. The result of years of archival detective work, Agents of Empire brings to life a vibrant moment in European and Ottoman history, challenging our assumptions about their supposed differences. Malcolm's book guides us through the exchanges between East and West, Venetians and the Ottomans, and tells a story of worlds colliding with and transforming one another.


Nearly 20 years ago, I was reading a sixteenth-century Italian book about the Ottoman Empire when the hairs began to stand up on the back of my neck. the author had referred to a treatise on the main European province of the empire by a certain ‘Antonio Bruni’; then, discussing the Albanians, he said that information about them was available in the work of ‘Bruni, their compatriot’. Here was a reference to a text about (or at least partly about) Albania, written by an Albanian – something of special significance to those who study the history of that country, since it would appear to be the first ever work of its kind by a named Albanian author.

I had not seen any reference to this treatise before. Further research quickly established that it was unpublished, unlocated and altogether unknown. One modern Albanian textbook appeared to quote from it, but the quoted material consisted only of a detail given in the sixteenth-century Italian book, at the point where it referred to Bruni’s work. As for Antonio Bruni himself: he seemed to be a near-invisible figure, who had left almost no trace of his existence in Albanian history. I could find just one mention of him, in a work by the doyen of modern West European writers on Albania, Peter Bartl, who noted that someone of that name had apparently interceded on behalf of an errant priest (who later became an Albanian bishop) in Rome, at an unspecified date in the late sixteenth century. the rest, at that stage, was silence.*

Of course it was quite possible that Bruni’s treatise had not survived in any form. But I knew that in Renaissance Italy manuscript treatises of a politico-geographical nature were a popular genre, and that they often circulated in many copies; given the extraordinary wealth of libraries and archives in that country, there was no shortage of places where a copy of this work might conceivably be lurking. As the years went by, I tried many different ways of locating it, some of them methodical (for example: looking for references to other manuscript sources in the Italian book and then hunting for those ones, in the hope that

* Pollo and Buda, Historia, i, 366 (textbook); Bartl, Der Westbalkan, 90.

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