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Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs and Spies in the 16th century Mediterranean World by Noel Malcolm
Allen Lane/Penguin, £30, ISBN 978-0-241-00389-3
Prospect Magazine

This is a book of extraordinary richness, empowered by a lifetime of learning and a tangible passion for the subject. Although we hear the distant thunder of the great battles of Lepanto, Malta, Tunis and Famagusta, by which the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires struggled for mastery of the entire Mediterranean, the book concentrates our attention on the eastern Adriatic. And though we glimpse the shadows of Philip II and Sultan Selim II, it is not the monarchs that we study but their leading ministers and most especially the agents, information gatherers, researchers and diplomats who help and hinder the creation of policy.

We are shown the agenda of subsidiary allies such as Poland and France, as well as the small but vital shifts in the policies of the Papacy, Venice and Spain. But the book’s fine focus is trained on the condition and fate of the nobles, citizens, peasant cultivators and highland-clansmen around the walled cities of Ulcinj and Koper in Albania and Croatia. And at its heart is a quixotic quest to flesh out the careers of three generations of the Bruni/Bruti family, a clan of talented but penniless Albanian nobles who serve as spies, dragomans, naval commanders and archbishops, working for both the Ottoman and Hapsburg Empires, and the Papacy and Venice. Through their experience, the vast, tectonic landscape of 16th-century warfare is illuminated. Part Braudel, part Le Roy Ladurie, it is a labour of love and scholarship.

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