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Eastern Mediterranean history: Coasts and coalitions 23 mai 2015

Posted by Acturca in Books / Livres, History / Histoire, South East Europe / Europe du Sud-Est.
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The Economist (UK) no. 950

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Politics in the 16th-century Mediterranean and its relevance to the modern Balkans.

Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Late Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World. By Noel Malcolm. Allen Lane; 604 pages.

In the 1990s, when the Balkans were at war, Noel Malcolm was best known as a journalist and polemicist, though he was already a promising academic. As a sharp critic of Serb nationalism, he published histories of Bosnia and Kosovo that won praise for deconstructing Serb national myths, even if some critics found him too sparing of the myths told by other nations, such as the Albanians.

That makes it all the more welcome that Sir Noel (now an eminent British scholar who was knighted last year) has written a book that will serve as an antidote to all crude nationalism, and to many historical stereotypes. It brings the reader back to an era long before the nation-state, when personal loyalties and religious coalitions were perpetually shifting.

« Agents of Empire » traces the fortunes in the final decades of the 16th century of one extended family whose members struggled to survive at the interface between two empires, Venetian and Ottoman. They bore the surnames of Bruni and Bruti, and their roots were in a small Albanian-speaking port on the Adriatic, Ulcinj, now part of Montenegro.

The book ingeniously reconstructs the changing balance of forces in the eastern Mediterranean, at a time when maritime powers were competing hard for control of islands, ports and their hinterlands. Venice, for its part, belonged to a loose and fractious Christian alliance that included the papacy, whereas the Ottomans roamed the sea under the banner of Islam.

On the ground, at the nodal points between empires and religions, things were intriguing as well as messy. Some Christians lived more or less contentedly under Ottoman control, and some Christian leaders held local sway in the sultan’s name. The Ottomans were pragmatic rather than zealous in the handling of their Christian subjects. Individuals and clans had to dodge between competing powers, looking to take advantage of imperial rivalry where possible (by working, for example, as spies) and avoiding getting caught in the middle. The price of being on the wrong side at the wrong time was terrible.

One of Sir Noel’s characters, Giovanni Bruni, was a distinguished archbishop in Serbia, with followers who straddled Christendom and the realm of Islam. This made him useful as an adviser to the Venetians on Ottoman affairs. But he was captured and made a galley slave in the Ottoman navy. During the sea battle of Lepanto in 1571, in which the Ottomans were defeated by a Christian coalition, the hapless prelate probably found himself less than a hundred yards from his brother, Gasparo, who was a commander on the other side.

Although he shouted « I am a bishop! » Giovanni was killed by Spanish soldiers. But Gasparo restored the family fortunes by winning favour at the Vatican and getting a prestigious Jesuit education for his son, Antonio, who later wrote about the Ottoman lands in Europe. One of Sir Noel’s most intriguing passages describes Antonio’s Italian schooling, showing how it bred sophistication among potential clerics.

Yet the book is more than a gossipy tale of family fortunes. Sir Noel uses the dynastic saga to make clever points about the functioning of empires, the Ottoman one in particular. In his analysis, the story of Lepanto shows not the vulnerability of the Ottomans, but their extraordinary powers of recovery from defeat.

In one respect, this book links to Sir Noel’s earlier works: the central figures are, among many other characteristics, Albanian. Back then, as now, people whose heartland is a poor, remote corner of Europe needed to make difficult and sometimes devious manoeuvres. Being Albanian has always been compatible with other identities, and in the 16th-century world of competing empires, members of a small, idiosyncratic ethnicity always had to make careful choices as to which wider loyalty, or combination of loyalties, to proclaim. Whether they live in Kosovo, Montenegro or Albania, a country which in modern times has swung from Maoist self-isolation to loyal membership of NATO, today’s Albanians could surely relate to that.

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