“Religión es la caballería,” wrote Miguel de Cervantes: “Religion is knight errantry.” The author of Don Quixote — himself a soldier who lost the use of his left arm at the Battle of Lepanto— set himself the task of simultaneously lampooning chivalry and lamenting its passing. That tradition had endowed Christianity with its warrior ethos — not unlike that of Graeco-Roman or Germanic paganism, or indeed of Shinto or Sikhism — but the faith had lent its own gentler qualities of mercy and gallantry to become knightly virtues too. Against the formidable challenge posed by Ottoman Islam, however, the old knight errantry stood no chance. The Church militant of the 16th century required a modernised and more ideological form of warfare in which a Don Quixote cut a ridiculous, antiquated figure. Lepanto marked the climax of Europe’s three hundred years’ war with the Ottoman Empire, the outcome of which would determine the relationship between Christianity and Islam until our own time.
War and religion had thus become as intertwined in Cervantes’s day as in ours. Throughout Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the belligerents of belief developed a siege mentality that was reflected in everything from the martial spirit of the Jesuits to the millenarian zeal of the Puritans. But the mortal danger to all Christians — Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant — came from the Turks. The defence of Christendom between the sieges of Constantinople in 1453 and Vienna in 1683 necessitated the creation of pan-European military alliances unprecedented even in the age of the Crusades.
The question, then as now, was: how do you negotiate with an enemy whose religion obliges him to fight you to the death? Nations engaged in holy war require diplomacy, intelligence and propaganda that differ not merely in degree, but in kind, from times of greater tranquillity. The services of intermediaries, over and above the official channels, become essential to such tasks as intelligence gathering, hostage exchanges or enforcement of treaties. The priority is survival in tempore belli. This is the background to Sir Noel Malcolm’s Agents of Empire. The word “magisterial” is overused, but for once it is properly applied to this latest offering from a scholar who is as prolific as he is polymathic. Agents of Empire is magisterial because its author really has mastered his subject, having scoured the archives and libraries of Europe to collect everything that matters, then distilled it into a highly readable, almost picaresque study of men who sought to interpret the Ottoman “Other” for their variously Venetian, Spanish and Papal masters. Its lengthy subtitle barely does justice to the range, erudition and fascination of this chronicle of two remarkable families from Ulcinj, a minor Albanian port.
The world that Malcolm depicts is that of Fernand Braudel’s structuralist classic La Méditerranée et le Monde Méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe II, and he deploys the techniques of “micro-history” used by more recent scholars such as Natalie Zemon Davis in her studies of Martin Guerre and Leo Africanus. But Malcolm is more original than either: working not with historical celebrities, but with individuals virtually unknown even to specialists, he moves from the microcosm of the Bruti and Bruni clans onto the larger canvas of Venetian-Turkish relations in the Adriatic, and ultimately to the macrocosmic level, where Holy Roman emperors confronted sultans who also (since their conquest of Constantinople) laid claim to the title of caesar. Where Braudel lacks detail and Zemon Davis lacks context, Malcolm offers both.
Malcolm begins with Antonio Bruti’s career. He served Venice by negotiating with (and bribing) Ottoman officials, but also by securing from the Sultan its all-important supplies of cereals from Egypt, the breadbasket of the Levant. He was rewarded with the republic’s highest honour, becoming a cavaliere (knight) of the Order of St Mark, and his star seemed to be in the ascendant.
Back in Albania, Giovanni Bruni, his brother-in-law, became Archbishop of Bar and Primate of Serbia, an office that embraced populations in both Venetian and Ottoman territory. Archbishop Bruni became one of the most prominent fathers of the Council of Trent, which gave the impetus to the Counter-Reformation, and enjoyed a reputation as an expert on relations with the Turks in Rome and Venice. But disaster struck when an Ottoman army conquered Albania, including Bar. The Archbishop was captured and enslaved; his province was devastated and Islamised.
His brother Gasparo, meanwhile, had become a leading figure with the Knights of Malta. His linguistic skills and contacts enabled him to function not only in diplomacy but also in espionage: based in Dubrovnik (Ragusa) he gathered intelligence about Ottoman plans to attack Malta. Dubrovnik’s situation midway between the Christian West and the Islamic Orient made it the spy capital of Europe, rather like Berlin (and Bonn) during the Cold War. The Ragusans spied for both sides, of course. In 1568 Gasparo Bruni seems to have played an important role in informing Philip II of Spain about the Granadan revolt of the Moriscos (Muslims forced to convert to Christianity) backed by the Turks.
The complexity of 16th-century diplomacy — shifting rivalries between major and minor powers, tensions between Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox rulers, even collaboration between Christians (especially the French) and Ottomans — meant that the Papacy, the driving force behind the Holy League to defend Christendom, had its work cut out. Malcolm argues that Ottoman aggression was motivated by realpolitik rather than zeal, but he finds the popes of this period ideologically fixated on the reconquest of lands lost to Islam: “Theirs was a project of holy war,” he concludes. “One might almost call it Christian jihad, were it not for one basic difference: their aim was not simply to fight infidels because they were infidels, but to fight them because they ruled over populations of Christians.”
That difference persists to this day, except that most Westerners no longer care enough about Christians under Islam, even when they are persecuted, to make them a casus belli. Not only has the West no appetite for holy — or indeed unholy — wars; it has ceased to have any comprehension of jihadists who do.
When Malcolm comes to Lepanto, his superb narrative is enriched by Gasparo Bruni’s bird’s-eye view of the battle from his vantage point as captain of the Papal flagship. His commander, Marcantonio Colonna, was under strict instructions from Pope Pius V to exclude “beardless boys” to forestall sodomy, but this did not preclude the presence on board of an overpromoted 20-year-old great-nephew of the Pontiff (“an old-fashioned nepotist”). However, the commander-in-chief, Don John of Austria, was only 23. Among the crew of the Venetian admiral’s galley were probably two sons of Antonio Bruti, who were also nephews of Gasparo Bruni.
On the other side, Giovanni Bruni and his nephew Nicolò were galley slaves, most likely forced to help row the Sultana, the Ottoman flagship. After the battle they found themselves at the mercy of victorious Spanish soldiers eager for booty. According to a papal investigation, “although he shouted ‘I’m a bishop, I’m a Christian’, they refused to believe him, and instead they killed him with a pike.” Malcolm adds: “At the moment of Giovanni’s death, his brother [Gasparo] may have been less than a hundred yards away”, for the two flagships had been locked in mortal combat during the battle. Gasparo emerged wounded but alive, the sole survivor of his generation, his birthplace conquered. He ended his days as commendatore of the Knights of Malta.
The Turks rebuilt their fleet within a year, and were strong enough to capture the Spanish stronghold of Tunis only three years after Lepanto. Thereafter, however, they remained on the defensive in the Mediterranean, as naval campaigns were colossally expensive and both sides were preoccupied elsewhere. This was by no means the end of the Bruti-Bruni clan’s role in the web of diplomacy that preserved an uneasy peace until the “Long Ottoman War” with the Habsburgs in the 1590s. The theatre in which that war took place was quite different from the warm waters of the Adriatic and Aegean: the mountains and plains of Hungary, Transylvania and Wallachia. Malcolm’s narrative ranges widely across the continent, from Avignon to Moldavia, embracing a colourful cast including Tartars, Cossacks, Huguenots and Jesuits.
Gasparo Bruni’s son Antonio and Antonio Bruti’s sons, Bartolomeo and Cristoforo, to mention only the most prominent younger members of the dynasty, continued the tradition of service in the Venetian cause. Bartolomeo, indeed, rose to even greater heights of influence than his father and uncles, only to end his days strangled on the orders of a Moldavian despot. In 1596 Bartolomeo’s nephew Pasquale was the dragoman for Edward Barton, the English ambassador in Istanbul, as he accompanied Sultan Mehmed III on a Hungarian expedition. On this “peace mission” the last Bruti perished in Belgrade at the hands of Hasan Pasha, beylerbeyi (governor) of Rumeli, the province comprising much of the Ottoman Empire in Europe.
Meanwhile Antonio Bruni bequeathed a remarkable treatise on Rumeli, which distilled the accumulated experience of his kin. It was Malcom’s discovery of this forgotten yet fascinating text, to the existence of which he was alerted by references in a 16th-century bestseller (L’Ottomanno by Bruni’s friend Lazaro Soranzo), that triggered his interest in the author and led him to chronicle the impact of the clash of civilisations on one extended family.
At Lausanne last month, negotiations with Iran were short-circuited by impatient politicians, led by Barack Obama, intent on a deal at any price and prepared to lie about what had been agreed. The West has once again been outmanoeuvred in its pursuit of the chimera of playing off Persia, the great power of the Shia, against the Sunni Arabs and Turks. We could have done with a Bruti or Bruni: diplomats, dragomans and dealers with a foot in both camps but a firm allegiance to Christendom. From Lepanto to Lausanne, the threat of holy war still casts a long shadow.