- Agents of Empire: Spanish Ambassadors in Sixteenth-Century Italy
Michael J. Levin's study of Spanish resident ambassadors in Rome and Venice between the Peace of Cambrai in 1529 and Philip II's death in 1598 uses the most traditional of sources, diplomatic correspondence, to make a revisionist case for the weakness of Spanish hegemony in Italy. Rather than the confident arbiters of a pax hispanica, Charles V's and Philip II's ambassadors appear in their dispatches, if no less arrogant than their reputation would have them, as the nonetheless anxious and mistrustful monitors of a situation perennially on the verge of erupting in disaster.
Although the title refers broadly to Italy, the focus of Levin's work is on the papal court, with Venice in a secondary role and only passing consideration of the other Italian states. The brief introduction is followed by one chapter chronicling the diplomatic highs and lows of Spain's ambassadors in Venice during this period, while the next three chapters do the same for the Spanish ambassadors in Rome under Charles V, during the first half of Philip II's reign up to the collapse of the Holy League in 1573, and during the second half of Philip's reign. The fifth chapter, "Special Problems and Ordinary Duties in Rome," supplements the earlier account of papal elections and political and military affairs with a discussion of the ambassadors' ongoing parallel responsibilities for the more strictly ecclesiastical aspects of Spanish-papal relations, from major conflicts over jurisdiction and taxation to individual marriage dispensations and other favors. The last two chapters treat the activities of ambassadors in Venice and Rome as intelligence gatherers and, more briefly, as cultural intermediaries, shopping for paintings, books, and relics for transmittal to Spain and hiring artists and engineers for Spanish service. Even in the ambassadors' and their patrons' appreciation of Italy's artistic wares, however, Levin finds Spanish prejudices and Italian resentments, and the conclusion returns to the author's dominant theme, the ambassadors' fear and suspicion of a supposed Italian predilection for novedades (novelties) and their recognition of the limitations on Spanish power, undermined by the same resentments it produced.
Levin's narrative approach lends impressive clarity to the often complex negotiations he recounts, and he effectively conveys the frustrations of ambassadors faced with the opacities of Venetian politics, the intrigues of their French counterparts, the inconveniently-timed deaths of popes and the unpredictable and expensive conclaves which followed them, and, not least, an all-too-frequent lack of instructions from the king they were supposed to represent, a problem which seems to have reached crisis proportions in Philip II's last years. Yet, as Levin himself notes, "[t]he picture of Italy as seen through the ambassadors' eyes is in some ways distorted: it was their job to look for and worry about potential problems, and so of course they found them" (12). More than "agents of empire," Spain's ambassadors in Italy appear in this study primarily as reactive figures, [End Page 871] struggling with greater or lesser degrees of competence and irritation to deal with problems not always of their own making, and this reader, at least, was left wishing for a more explicit analysis of their role in the active exercise of Spanish imperial power. The diplomacy of war and finance, ultimately dictated by the policies of the ambassadors' imperial masters, receives detailed attention from Levin, but the ambassadors' representational functions, presumably an area more open to the exercise of their personal tastes and talents, get relatively short shrift, except as their "arrogance and presumption" (68) interfered with the smooth functioning of the diplomatic machinery. That these men were indeed often arrogant and presumptuous Levin leaves no doubt; what is less clear is whether greater humility would have been an effective option, or even a conceivable one, in the competitive world of the early modern court.
Still, the ambassador as courtier may be a subject for another study, and...