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Natalie Rothman’s recent Brokering Empire: Trans-Imperial Subjects between Venice and Istanbul is a welcome contribution to the scholarship that aims to understand the “connected histories” of the early modern Mediterranean world. It adds considerably to our understanding of the multilayered links of interaction between the early modern Mediterranean imperial entities, above all the proverbial link connecting Venice to Istanbul that figures at the core of this book.
Rothman produces a remarkable historical analysis in reconstructing the complex web of interconnections between Venice and Istanbul in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries through the lens of the very people who “straddled” the spheres represented by these powers. Brokering Empire is the story of those people who were the go-betweens of these two worlds: commercial brokers, religious converts, translators (dragomans), and others, which Rothman terms as “trans-imperial subjects.” It is highly commendable how Rothman engages with these subjects who mediated between the imperial entities of the early modern Mediterranean world. She traces the spatial and institutional trajectories along which they developed as trans-imperial subjects, and thus reconstructs the constellation of networks that she helps identify. In articulating the categories of differences along the Venetian-Ottoman boundaries, Brokering Empire does justice to the subject by offering a sophisticated analysis fruitfully read in conjunction with comparable studies in the area, such as Eric R. Dursteler, Venetians in Constantinople: Nation, Identity, and Coexistence in the Early Modern Mediterranean (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006).
In its structure, Brokering Empire comprises four parts, each of which revolves around a core theme (mediation, conversion, translation, and articulation, respectively). In part 1, “Mediation,” Rothman starts out with the case of commercial brokers and lays out the trajectories of their mediations across political, religious, and linguistic boundaries in two chapters. In the first chapter, Rothman introduces trans-imperial subjects, the main protagonists of the book, by tracing their commercial brokerage activities through their supplications and petitions. By doing so, she establishes the basic dynamics of commercial brokerage, while offering a glimpse into the brokering careers by which trans-imperial identities were forged. In chapter 2, Rothman delves deeper into the world of brokers and brokerages by studying the sources of tension and controversy between trans-imperial subjects and Venetian [End Page 431] officials. Thus, we hear about the cases of illicit brokerage and unlicensed brokers in the archival records, as Rothman skillfully uses these cases to explore questions of social boundaries and mediation. In part 2, “Conversion,” Rothman introduces a religious dimension and focuses on conversion and converts in two chapters. In chapter 3, Rothman focuses on the process of conversion by examining various forms of narratives produced by converts themselves, with a view to contrasting the differences articulated by Muslim, Jewish, and Protestant converts. Chapter 4 follows the case of converts further into their lives after baptism, by looking at their Venetian social networks to explore the shifting boundaries of juridical subjecthood. In part 3, “Translation,” Rothman introduces an ethno-linguistic dimension into her analysis and examines the dragomans and their careers between Istanbul and Venice, through a careful study of their petitions and responses to them. Chapter 5 provides insight into the manner in which the petitions of dragomans reveal how they came to be political interpreters. The last part of the book, part 4, “Articulation,” tries to establish the interactions between the trans-imperial subjects that had already been introduced previously. In chapter 6, Rothman examines the multiple interactions between commercial brokers, converts, and dragomans as they articulated the categories of their differences (“Turk,” “Venetian,” “Levantine,” etc.). In chapter 7, Rothman offers a closer reading of these ethnolinguistic differences by tracing the genealogy of such differences, especially in the example of the “Levantines.” By doing so, she successfully shows how these trans-imperial subjects crafted these categories of difference that came to be circulated even beyond Venice. After these four parts (in seven chapters), Brokering Empire ends not with a conclusion, but with a short afterword. At the end of the...