Agents of Empire – a dazzling history of the 16th‑century Mediterranean

John Gallagher in The Telegraph:

ShipsIn the last year of the 16th century, an English craftsman named Thomas Dallam found himself at the heart of the Ottoman empire. Dallam had been commissioned to build an organ to be presented to the Sultan, and he travelled with his creation through the Mediterranean as far as the court at Istanbul and back. Writing an account of his journey home, he remembered how the interpreter who accompanied him was not a local, but an Englishman named Finch, born in Chorley in Lancashire. Dallam wrote: “He was … in religion a perfit Turke [Muslim], but he was our trustie frende.” To run into an English convert to Islam on the shores of the Mediterranean was not as unlikely an event as it might seem. In the 16th century, the Mediterranean was what historians have called a “contact zone” – a region characterised not by rigid boundaries and borders, but by a bewildering mixture of faiths, peoples, languages and traditions. Classic narratives of a “clash of civilisations” may seem seductive (and serve contemporary political interests), but they are inadequate for thinking about the Middle Sea’s many overlapping histories: the reality on the ground was far more complex and infinitely more interesting than such a simplistic paradigm can account for.

What makes the Mediterranean fascinating is what makes writing its history such a challenge. Noel Malcolm’s magnificent Agents of Empire uses the intertwined stories of two Albanian families – the Brunis and the Brutis – as a prism through which to view the contacts and the conflicts that made the early modern Mediterranean. As diplomats, spies, bishops, soldiers, traders and interpreters, they were mobile and multilingual. From their Albanian roots, networks of kinship and contacts stretched in all directions, crisscrossing barriers of faith and nationality. At the Ottoman court, Bartolomeo Bruti became a protege of the military commander (and later Grand Vizier) Sinan Pasha, an Albanian convert to Islam who happened to be a family relation. Antonio Bruti bargained in Albania for the Ottoman grain necessary to feed Catholic Venice.

More here.