Iordanou, Ioanna. Venice's secret service: organizing intelligence in the Renaissance. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2019. xiii, 263p. ISBN 978-0-19-879131-7. £30.00
For most of us, probably, Venice is that fascinating city on the Adriatic, where the traffic jams are on the water and where, at the time of writing this review, St. Mark's square is under water as the result of a devastatingly high tide. The impact of thousands of tourists carried by huge cruise liners has also made the headlines, with the probability that they will be barred from the lagoon. The main commercial interest in Venice may now be tourism, but at an earlier time Venice was the richest city in Europe, the wealth built on trading with the countries of the Mediterranean and to the east beyond. By the 15th century Venice had a maritime empire of possessions scattered along the shores of the Adriatic and the Aegean, including the islands of Crete and Cyprus. Shakespeare's picture of the merchants of Venice, awaiting the return of ships bearing commercial treasure from the East is by no means exaggerated.
A central thesis of this fascinating book is that the maintenance of its mercantile empire led Venice to establish the first truly organized state intelligence service, in the 'early Modern' period, predating developments of a similar kind by several centuries. Other countries, notably France and England had spies, but their control was largely in the hands of either some trusted servant of the monarch, such as Francis Walsingham whose network of spies served Elizabeth I, or the monarch himself, as in the case of Philip II of Spain, who 'was notorious among his coevals as the best informed monarch of his time, allegedly deriving unabashed pleasure from showing off his unmatched knowledge of current affairs to foreign envoys frequenting his court, just to get a glimpse of their astonished reaction' (p. 47).
The secret service of Venice differed from that of the other European powers in being a state-controlled and managed service, operating under the control of the Council of Ten, somewhat equivalent to today's National Security Council in the USA, or the Secret Intelligence Service in the UK. The author notes that the Council, 'resembled a public sector body that operated with remarkable corporate-like complexity and maturity, serving prominent intelligence functions such as operations (intelligence and covert action), analysis, cryptography and steganography, cryptanalysis, and even the development of lethal substances such as poison.' (p. 3). Clearly there is nothing new in the attempted poisoning by Russia's secret service of the Skripals in Salisbury!
The Council of Ten operated through a network of three communication channels: diplomats and state officials, merchants and other individuals such as ships' captains, and amateur spies. The main mode of communication at the time, and for some centuries to come, consisted of correspondence between the Council and its servants, often with multiple copies sent to representatives in different places, advising, for example, of a suspected agent of another power travelling through Venetian territory, who should be detained and questioned. Given the lack of any internatinal postal service, of course, such correspondence would quite often reach its destination after the suspect individual had moved on! Typically, for example, it took a month for a letter from Venice to reach Constantinople
The Council was assisted in its operations by a corps of secretaries, all of whom were Venetian citizens below the patrician class, 'who could demonstrate three generations of legitimate birth in the city and abstention from manual labour'. (p.85). These secretaries worked either in Venice or in embassies and consulates abroad and were, in effect, the information managers of the day. As may be imagined, the work of the Council of Ten, as well as the normal state functions of the Great Council, generated large numbers of documents, decrees, letters, drafts of legislation, and more. These were originally stored in the Doge's palace, but in 1402 the Secret Chancery was established and, later, the most secret of documents, relating to the work of the Council of Ten were separately stored in the Council's own quarters in the palace. We see, then, the emergence of a classification for open, secret and top secret documents, very similar to such classifications operated by state agenices today. The top secret registry was staffed by between eighty and one hundred 'professional state servants, who were responsible for transcribing, indexing, and archiving all documents stored therein'. (p. 109).
Access to this archive was strictly controlled and recorded, and no notes were allowed to be made by the readers, who were, largely, diplomats checking on the history of relationships with the place to which they had been assigned. The secrecy was also maintained by ensuring that membership of the civil service remained the prerogative of a particular social class, and loyalty was ensured by guaranteeing continuity of employment by the same families, who, otherwise, played no role in the political life of the Republic.
As may be imagined, secrecy was also maintained by the use of cryptography in the correspondence. Thus, all secretaries, whether in Venice or in the territories abroad or in the embassies, were expected to be adept at writing and decoding ciphers. Two levels of ciphers were employed: one for communication with the Council of Ten, and the other with all other communications. The Council's cryptography department was also skilled in breaking the ciphers of other countries: the first cipher secretary, Giovanni Soro had such a 'remarkable ability to break multiligual ciphers... that he enjoyed an unblemished reputation as one of Italy's most accomplished code-makers and codebreakers' (p. 140).
One of the author's main theses in this work is that, while conventional wisdom has presented 'organization as a natural by-product of the rationality, industrialization, and technological advancements that emanated from the Industrial Revolution' (p. 21), the organization and management of the complex networks for the maintenance of state security by the Council of Ten, pushes the start date for these concepts back into the sixteenth century. We might add that information (or intelligence) management constitued a major factor in the overall management processes.
This is a book that will fascinate anyone interested in intelligence services, the history of information management, the development of cryptography, or the history of Venice.
Professor Tom Wilson
How to cite this review
Wilson, T.D. (2019). Review of: Iordanou, Ioanna. Venice's secret service: organizing intelligence in the Renaissance. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2019. Information Research, 24(4), review no. R674 [Retrieved from http://www.informationr.net/ir/reviews/revs674.html]
Information Research is published four times a year by the University of Borås, Allégatan 1, 501 90 Borås, Sweden.