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  • Cloak and Dagger
  • Joseph Darlington (bio)
Venice's Secret Service: Organising Intelligence in the Renaissance, by Ioanna Iordanou, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019, 288 pages, £29.99 (hardcover), ISBN 978-0198791317

The history of the modern state is the history of intelligence gathering. Feudal allegiances are supplanted by organized bureaucracies. Individual authority figures are replaced by complex systems. Individual codes of honor are subsumed under nationwide laws. Turning governance into "the state"—a unified organization—requires the circulation and control of information. As Ioanna Iordanou argues in her new history, Venice's Secret Service, the creation of a secret service is therefore not secondary to the emergence of the state but, in fact, fundamental to it. At times, Iordanou goes even further, telling us that the state itself, as an early modern creation, is founded on intelligence and the secret services that gather and transmit it.

At first glance, Venice's Secret Service is a history book. It is packed with fascinating historical color, tales of espionage, ciphers, and underhand plots. The author has plumbed the extensive Venetian archives and grounds her study in an expansive knowledge of the secret service's everyday operations. Yet, while its subject matter is sufficiently distant that one would be forgiven for thinking it only of interest to the antiquarian, Iordanou's real focus lies in organizational structures and the contemporary parallels one can find there. She uses her in-depth research to quietly undermine sociological presumptions about the industrial foundations of the modern state. Rather than the factory model, as promoted by Max Weber, Iordanou traces the birth of states to the early modern period when "nearly all European states underwent a process of 'arcanisation.' Secrecy strictures were endorsed, the acquisition of secret knowledge was systematised, and [End Page 408] secret measures were deployed to ensure security, stability, even supremacy" (58). Secrecy required organization, and organization inevitably arranges people into in- and out-groups, inferiors and superiors. Being a member of an in-group is always a pleasing sensation, especially if that in-group is a secret one and privy to secret information. As such, the servants of the mysterious Council of Ten would come to identify with their roles and become civil servants, in both occupation and identity (113). It is a process Weber attributes to the Protestant work ethic, but Iordanou finds it here, in Catholic Italy, two hundred years before the industrial revolution.

Capitalism nevertheless has its place. The mercantile system at the core of the Venetian Republic and its imperial holdings made it uniquely suitable for the creation of the first arcane bureaucracy. Venice's class structure reflected prejudices different from those of its neighbors. Where most aristocracies (and the republics that mimicked them) believed trade a degrading enough activity to debar any of its practitioners from high society, Venice embraced the merchant class. The patriciate, the Venetian elite, was almost entirely successful merchants. Working in a shop was still frowned on, yet the prevalence of small shopkeepers did provide a loyal petit bourgeoisie willing to undertake secret operations for the right price. Indeed, unlike elsewhere, in Venice intelligence gathering "assumed a transactional character" (221). Informers, saboteurs, and cryptographers could expect gifts, pensions, immunity from prosecution, forgiveness for past crimes, or even just cold hard cash for their efforts. All of this expenditure was accounted for, down to the last penny, and then hidden from view, making Venice the first state to hold a "black budget."

But it was not merely the development of a secret state that, Iordanou argues, makes Venice the originator of our modern state model. Venice was also the first society to transform its own occult workings into a badge of civic pride. Machiavelli argues at this time that the arcana imperii (secrets of the empire) described by Tacitus were not just necessary for the effective functioning of the empire but should be regarded as a positive civic virtue. The Venetians embraced this. Every inhabitant of Venice, from the patriciate down to the popolo minuto (the unskilled laborers), was tasked with keeping the state's secrets safe. Few had access to these secrets, but all were to be on guard, listening in case they heard...


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pp. 408-411
Launched on MUSE
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