"Venice’s Secret Service" – with Ioanna Iordanou
Andrew Hammond: Welcome to SpyCast, the official podcast of the International Spy Museum. I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, the museum's historian and curator. Each week we explore some aspect of the world of intelligence and espionage, its past, its present, or its future. Coming up next on SpyCast.
Ioanna Iordanou: The primary spies that the Venetians used were the most unexceptional men thrown into the most exceptional of circumstances, where, in most cases, we don't know who they are. There's just a name and that's it because they were not important. They'll primarily banished criminals who offered to become spies just to get a revocation of the banishment and some cash.
[ Music ]
Andrew Hammond: This week on SpyCast, we journey back to Renaissance Italy. Yes, the time of the art-loving house of Medici and Florence; the dastardly Borgia family in Rome; Galileo; Michelangelo; Machiavelli; and, of course, Leonardo da Vinci. But we traveled there to talk about Venice's Secret Service. This week's guest makes the case for Venice's Secret Service to be the first centralized intelligence service in the world, something that was traditionally thought to come along around the time of World War I. After many years conducting research in different countries and different languages, and different fields of study, Ioanna sat down with yours truly to speak about her book, and she was a joy to interview. Fun fact, Ioanna's path-breaking research has led to no less than two entries in the Guinness World Records book. Look them up. In this episode we discuss Renaissance era intelligence tradecraft; the origins of centralized intelligence; the history of secret communications, or cryptography; and Venice's importance and possession of power in the Mediterranean. A reminder that you can support us for free by, a, subscribing to the show; and/or, b, giving us a 5-star podcast review. The original podcast on intelligence since 2006, we are SpyCast. Now sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.
[ Music ]
I'm so happy that we've actually got around to doing this, Ioanna, in part just so that I can learn more about Venice's Secret Service because it's something that not a lot of people know about and not a lot of our listeners will know about. So just tell us a little bit more about it. What is Venice's Secret Service? What time period are we talking about? Just give us a primer to get us started.
Ioanna Iordanou: Oh, of course. Thank you very much for having me here on your festival. So Venice's Secret Service is I hope a pleasant surprise for people who are interested in espionage and intelligence but who primarily understand what's happening nowadays with spies. But, as we know, spying existed long before we have all these big narratives about what's happening right now. So Venice's Secret Service is what I claim in my book is probably if not the earliest one of the earliest centrally organized state intelligence organizations that matured around the 16th century. So we're looking around 1600s, basically. And what we see in that period, of course we see spies everywhere. But what we don't see is centrally organized secret services. So the Renaissance Venice was one of the earliest states to have created this organization that operated across primarily Europe but also Northern Africa and sort of the Near East where contemporary Turkey is.
Andrew Hammond: And the conventional understanding is that centralized intelligence comes along around the First World War period. So I know that in the UK, before World War I, there's a big spy scare. There's this theory about Germany and growing German power in 1909. You have the forerunner of MI6 and MI5 come along. So that's been the traditional argument. But you're saying, actually, we have to jump back a few centuries to Venice.
Ioanna Iordanou: We do, yes. I mean, what makes things a lot -- a lot more complex is, of course, in the 16th century, the technology we had is nothing like what we had in the 20th century. And this is one of the reasons why political historians, diplomatic historians, even organizational historians have in a way neglected what happened before the 19th and the 20th century. But if we consider that the main technology of the 16th century was correspondence so writing of letters, this is how things were organized and managed. And, of course, there's other things that hopefully we'll discuss here. Yes, indeed. There is clear proof that we do have a centrally organized Secret Service in the 16th century by the Venetians, stationed, sort of housed in the Doge's Palace at the center of Venice and operating from there.
Andrew Hammond: One thing that I found quite fascinating in your book was the Venetians were really meticulous recordkeepers, weren't they? They really systematized all of the correspondence, all of the paperwork of state. And that's one of the reasons why you were able to write the book. Can you just tell us a little bit more about that.
Ioanna Iordanou: Yes, indeed. So what we have in what we call the Early Modern Period so Late Medieval and Early Modern Period from I would say the 14th century onwards, we do have the creation of what we call Central Chancelleries, which is basically Central State Archives all across early modern Europe. This is not just a Venetian phenomenon. That's the first thing. The second thing is we have the development of diplomacy and, by extension, state formation. So the moment you develop a state and you start developing diplomatic links with other states, you need to somehow keep a record of documents. The Venetians were, indeed, they sort of -- they created a Central Chancery, so estates sort of what currently is state archives so a central archive. But, within the archive, they created what they called the Secretum, that is, the secret archive, which again was not just exclusive to Venice. Other states like Papal Rome also had one of those where they created all their intelligence documents, all their espionage relevant secrets, the official state secrecy relevant documents. And I was very lucky in the sense that these have been preserved because I mentioned before that the main technology of the period was correspondence. So in order for a diplomatic or intelligence order to leave the Doge's Palace to go to a state representative of Venice or a spy, let's say in the Ottoman Empire in Turkey -- the Ottoman Empire were the perennial enemy of the Venetians -- you needed to send it via letter. But because, of course, postal routes at the time were not safe at all, not only that these letters will be sent through different routes but they would be sent to different addressees advising them to send them to the next person, to the next person, to the next person, at least until it reached the actual nominal addressee of their epistle. So we have several copies of the same letters, a lot of them in cipher, but they also have been deciphered by the actual contemporary secretaries. And this is where I got lucky because all this archive has been preserved. It has been -- because it was stored in very safe secret places, it wasn't burnt during different fires that were set in the Doge's Palace. So all these documents exist, and that's how I could find the documents and write the book.
Andrew Hammond: And I assume when the Venetian Republic was at its height, I'm assuming that it was very, very difficult to get into the Secret Archive. How was the access controlled?
Ioanna Iordanou: Yes. That's a very good question. In theory it was. In practice, there are rumors that a lot of people could just enter there. By people, what I mean is that, I mean, obviously there was a class system in 16th century Venice. And the people who could access the Doge's Palace were the nobility, who were the ruling class. So Venice was not a monarchy. There was not a king. There was a Doge, who was -- who wouldn't take any political decisions. He was a ceremonial figurehead. Venice was run by different governmental committees through a voting system. So they would reach a majority; then they would pass a new law. And that's how decisions were made. So it was a form of oligarchy. A lot of these noblemen could access the archive because most of them were diplomats. Most of them were sent on diplomatic missions overseas as usually ambassadors, in which case they had to act as some kind of intelligence gatherer or spy. And in order for them to get informed about anything relevant to the courts they had to go and serve the Republic, they were granted access to the archive, the secret archive. Similarly, official historians were also granted access because I think I mentioned before the archive was weaponized as a sort of propaganda. So the governmental committee of the Council of Ten, who were the spy chiefs were in essence, Spanish were very, very keen to ensure that their image as the rulers of Venice was preserved in the way they wanted it to be preserved throughout the centuries. There's a lot of legends and myths around the archive and the fact that, for example, the guard was not allowed to be literate so that he wouldn't be able to read. I haven't found any evidence of that. But, in theory, you could have on average about 100 noblemen going in and out every day. In practice, of course, it was only members of the ruling class that were allowed to enter and use the documents.
Andrew Hammond: So someone that's illiterate, that's almost like the same idea behind having a eunuch court. But, this time, instead of being castrated, you were -- you couldn't read the documents. So, therefore, you were less of a threat in the same way that a eunuch was less of a threat. That's really interesting. For our listeners, could you give us just an example of Venetian intelligence in action. Maybe it's a particular event or a particular relationship or something, but give us just a little story within your book that helps to highlight for our listeners what Venetian intelligence was all about.
Ioanna Iordanou: So there's so many different examples, but I will focus a little bit on -- so there are different types of what we call spies. And, you know, may discuss this later, but there is no professional spy in the 16th century. But, as I said before, ambassadors, Venetian ambassadors serving in foreign courts because, as I've said, we've got the beginning of diplomatic encounters since the 14th century. So, eventually, we start having resident embassies everywhere in Europe. And, at the time, diplomacy and intelligence as probably even now, they're very sort of heavily intertwined. And something else I need to say is, at that particular point in time, the word spying or espionage carried very negative connotations. Okay. So it was a contemptible act. So people like ambassadors were not expected to be spies because that's a bad thing. It's only what the enemy does, not what we do. But, of course, spies were -- sorry, must have had to be intelligence gatherers. So when they couldn't spy themselves, they would bribe other people to spy for them or pay them. And usually what they would do is they would befriend senior figures in different courts and pay them not in money because it was beneath these senior individuals to get money but in kind. And there is a very interesting case of the Venetian ambassador in Spanish courts -- and that's sort of late 16th century 1580s, I think it was -- who sends a letter in cipher back to the Venetian espionage headquarters and says, I managed to befriend Antonio Pérez, who was the Secretary of State for Philip II so the King of Spain, and he's giving me some very interesting intelligence. But he wants to be paid in paintings of Titian's, which was quite interesting. So the first time the Venetian Council of Ten paid Titian 200 -- I mean, obviously, Titian wasn't a huge name that he is right now. He was a very skilled artisan. But, still, his work was quite valuable. So they paid 200 ducats to buy a painting of his, which they sent to the ambassador to give to Antonio Pérez. And I don't know what kind of information he gave or intelligence he gave. But it was so good that, eventually, the Venetians had to disperse another 500 pounds for a couple more paintings. So that was one of the many sort of interesting stories about how the Venetians operated. There's always a quid pro quo and element because Venetians were, first and foremost, traders. They were businessmen. They would pay for everything. That was the whole point. We exchange services, and we pay for the services. So that's one of the interesting examples. I've got several more to share.
Andrew Hammond: Could you give us another one? Because that's really interesting, especially the Titians. Yeah.
Ioanna Iordanou: The Titians, yeah. And, unfortunately, I mean, there's some debate for historians trying to understand what were these paintings because surely they exist. It's very difficult to understand the provenance because paintings travel so much throughout the early modern period. So this is one. I'll give you a couple more, right. So I gave you an example of a nobleman who acted as a spy that is an ambassador who at least is an informer. The primary spies that the Venetians used were the most unexceptional man thrown into the most exceptional of circumstances, where in most cases, we don't know who they are. There's just a name and that's it because they were not important. They're primarily banished criminals who offered to become spies just to get a revocation of the banishment and some cash. But there was a case, for example, in the documents that I mentioned in the book of a particular guy called Joseph from Cyprus whom the Venetians wanted to -- well, they did send to Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire to spy on the Turks. And apparently they gave him very strict instructions as to how he would pass as a spy. So they gave him what they call a betta interrupta [phonetic], which means a piece of cloth which would be covered in wax to make it waterproof. In the piece of cloth, he would hide a letter that had to be delivered to the Venetian ambassador in Constantinople who at the time was under house arrest. And he had to stitch up that letter inside his clothes. They don't -- they don't mention which piece of clothing but I assume some kind of cape or coat and that way walk towards the Venetian embassy in Constantinople, wait under the window of the ambassador to give him the letter and then do the same thing and take it back. And, again, it's a simple thing, but the fact that they even considered sort of waxing it in order to save it from water, it was just quite fascinating.
Andrew Hammond: And do any examples of this exist? Do you know?
Ioanna Iordanou: No. It was just -- what we do have in the documents is the detailed instructions. I think this is the most interesting thing. In most cases, we don't even have names of the spies. So there is no material example. On many cases, a lot of the Venetian spies that were sent to primarily the Ottoman Empire would pass as textile merchants because the Venetians were so -- were operating -- they had mastered the textile trade at the time. So a lot of them were expected to just carry this big bolt of fabric with them, just basically pretending to be merchants, just trading in Constantinople. On several occasions, they made up individuals so a particular spy called -- I think it's the spy that we've got most information on, Giovanni Antonio Barata, who was sent again to spy on the -- on the Turks just before the Venetians lost Cyprus, which was one of the most prized possessions in the Mediterranean. So that's the 1570s, just before big plague hit. And he was supposed to pass as a merchant, as a textile merchant. And they told him that what he had to do, they told him that his new identity, he was called Ottavio Pizarro [phonetic], and he was the brother of another Pizarro who lived in Paris who was a textile merchant. So he had to send all his letters with all the secret information to Paris, to a particular textile merchant who existed in Paris. So they knew about him, and they used his name. But what happened was all the postal routes from the East, all the routes from Turkey would pass from Venice. So the Council of Ten knew that the moment that letter arrived for the Pizarro merchant in Paris, they would take it, open it, and read all the information. So it was -- they were quite savvy. For us, it looks a little bit premature, primitive what they were doing. But the information of value of reading that I think is quite -- is quite high.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. That's pretty incredible. So -- and the book is say that the main agents of collecting information would be diplomats or government officials, merchants. Or the other one, which is quite interesting, is seamen, sea captains. And I know that that's how your research on Venice originated. Could you tell us a little bit more about them as people that are collecting information.
Ioanna Iordanou: Yes. So Venice was the center of information in the 16th century in two ways. They -- the printing industry flourished in Venice. So they did -- obviously, a lot of the printing houses were based in Venice. And, in fact, I have a case in that -- I mentioned a case in the book where a particular book that was published not in Venice but in the Veneto area caused so much controversy that the Venetian spy chiefs asked the local police to go and literally burn the printing press so that they wouldn't print again. So you have the printing press, but also you have the expansion of news through pamphlets and newspapers, which again started in Venice. So the Venetians were very seasoned with exchanging news ideas. And, of course, Venice was sort of the center between -- the communication center between the East and West. So Venetian seamen, captains, sailors were expected to actually collect any kind of relevant information or intelligence throughout their travels and report it back to Venice, either when they arrived back or through letters, writing letters to the authorities. So, actually, this research originated because my PhD was on the Venetian shipbuilders and sailors of Venice. And I found this body of documents where a lot of the shipbuilders had to work on board ships around the Mediterranean so they would return back to Venice. And they would go to the area where all their Venetian notaries worked, and they would report that a lot of Venetian subjects were tortured by the Turks. So they would say, you know, this person who we haven't seen in two years and is missing, well, he's been captured by the Ottomans. They cut off his tongue. They forced him to convert to Islam. They cut off his arms and legs, quite gruesome. And that's how I started getting interested because I thought, why is it -- why are these people wasting time of the working day to go to the Doge's Palace and report all these things? It's like they're spying on the Ottomans. So all the captains except the fact that they were expected to transport spies all around them, the government would give orders, whatever they heard that was relevant for their -- you know, for the Venetian government they would have to report. In fact, one of the most prominent historians of the Renaissance period, Jacob Burckhardt, wrote that every Venetian away from home was a spy for his government. So everyone who was traveling overseas, either tradesmen or captains or sailors, were expected to collect information and report it back.
Andrew Hammond: Wow.
Ioanna Iordanou: Unfortunately, though, we don't have a lot of letters left from them because the information was just not stored in the Secret Archive.
Andrew Hammond: And help us understand the organization of all of this because your argument in the book that it's centralized intelligence, it's not -- in other countries, there's a small group of people that may be acting on behalf of the sovereign. But, when they die, there's no bureaucratic transfer of responsibilities to the next person. So it's not centralized and bureaucratized. So help us understand how that all came together. Tell us about the Council of Ten. Tell us a little bit more about the Doge? How is Venice organized and structured, and what role does the Council of Ten play in all of this information landscape?
Ioanna Iordanou: So, as I said before, Venice was an oligarchy. It was ruled by several governmental committee that were -- committees that were sort of composed by the Venetian ruling class, the Venetian nobility. And these were all men, of course.
Andrew Hammond: Just very briefly on that, was it a closed system? Could your pull yourself up by the bootstraps and become one of the people that's on the Council of Ten? It was a closed system? You were either born into or not. Okay.
Ioanna Iordanou: You were born within the nobility. There was something called the Libro d'Oro or the Golden Book where Venetian families were registered. So you -- even if you were an extremely wealthy member, sorry, man or merchant, if you were not born in formally in the Venetian nobility, you cannot be part of the ruling class.
Andrew Hammond: Okay.
Ioanna Iordanou: And this is a very important characteristic of the Venetian society that actually all the -- well, the great majority of the noblemen were actually merchants, as well. And understanding the business acumen is really important in order to understand early modern Venice. So there were different governmental committees, all of them made up by Venetian nobleman, one of which and one of the most exclusive was called the Council of Ten, which just to confuse people, was made up not of ten but of seventeen members, ten ordinary members who only had voting rights. So for every decision they would vote, and they needed to reach a majority in order for that decision to be taken and then be converted into decree or regulation or law. Six Ducal councilors that were them. They didn't have any voting rights that were there. There were those sort of refereeing figures. And then also the Doge. But, again, he was just a ceremonial figurehead and nothing more than that. So these ten members out of the seventeen were basically the spy chiefs. They were responsible for the domestic and foreign security for Venice and, by extension, of course, Venice's intelligence operations. And they acted more or less as the spy leaders or spy chiefs or sort of the managers of the whole intelligence organization. The reason why I called it intelligence organization is two things. The one is there's a very specific organizational hierarchy. So you've got the Council of Ten who then manage all the other informers, who are the diplomats who are always members of the nobility, who are expected to act as informers or spies; then all these merchant seamen but also all the ordinary spies that the Venetians employed. So they managed all these people. And then they also managed the bureaucracy of intelligence. So the state secretaries who are responsible for transcribing letters, collecting letters, creating all their secret archive but also the state cryptographers who were based in the Doge's Palace because this was one of the first states to have created a central cryptography department again in the 16th century. So they manage all these people and they managed them through letters, which is very interesting because, if you think about it, it takes about a month for a letter to reach the Ottoman Empire and another month for the decision for the reply to come back. If you want to send a letter to Japan at that point in time, it's two and a half years to get there and two and a half -- so imagine having to dismiss somebody, right? So that was the technology. But the second element, which is really important, the authority of the ten stemmed from decrees, rules and regulations. They couldn't just wake up one day and just order something, right? They couldn't make an order. Everything they actually ordered, instructed, and expected was the outcome of a regulation. And this is where the whole point of an organization comes in. So they managed everything. And also there's this notion of accounting for everything they requested of the different -- the different underlyings, everywhere around, as I said, Europe, Northern Africa, and sort of the Near East, they expected at least one written report, that is, an account. So, again, that's where the notion of accounting comes in. And we don't see this as much in other early modern European states, but we have to be a little bit careful. There is evidence in states like in that period of 16th century like France or England, indeed, you do not have this centralized intelligence. What you do have is very strong intelligence networks that were employed either by the monarch or by the monarch's rivals. However, a lot of the early modern states have not been studied yet, either because people haven't delved into the documents or maybe because the documents don't exist. So that's why I'm saying I'm not -- there's no such thing as Venetian exceptionalism. The reason why the case of Venice is so prominent is because the documents are there. In fact, I am suspicious that same period Florence [inaudible] Florence is very much similar as Venice.
[ Music ]
Andrew Hammond: Ioanna, you spoke at length about some events that happened during this period that ended up on the cutting room floor but what I think will be useful for listeners to hear in a more condensed form in order to help them understand the episode at a deeper level. One, this period sees the invention of the printing press around 1440 by the German Johannes Gutenberg. Just think about this for a second. If the Renaissance was in one sense about rediscovering knowledge from the ancient world, then imagine how much more widely this knowledge could now be shared from a few pages by hand copy to thousands of pages per day. The printing revolution had begun, ushering in increases in literacy, the widespread dissemination of knowledge, and Venice becoming the book printing capital of Europe by the end of the 15th century. Two, sustained contact between the old world and the new precipitated by Columbus's 1492 expedition. Again, Italy played an important role. Columbus was from Genoa, and Amerigo Vespucci, from whom we get the term America, was from Florence. Nevertheless, Ioanna points out that, for the Venetians, this was much less important than the Portuguese explorer Bartholomew Diaz becoming the first European to round the Cape of Good Hope. Why? Firstly, it opened up the sea route to India, which, on the one hand, provided economic opportunities for the mercantile Venetians. But it also opened up a new threat, but the Portuguese were much better placed geographically to take advantage of this route, which is partly why Angola and the west central coast of southern Africa and Mozambique in southeastern Africa are part of the Portuguese speaking world. Stay tuned for in the next interlude. We'll round us off by talking about a third major event that happens during this period.
[ Music ]
That's kind of interesting, isn't it. It's like history is not what happened in the past. That's just what records exist that tell us what happened in the past, which is something very different. Let's just back up for a second. So the Council of Ten, so they're making -- that's the premier decision-making body for the Republic of Venice. Doesn't matter what the topic is. It's there -- they're not just there for espionage and state security; is that correct?
Ioanna Iordanou: Yes. So they end up having nearly exclusive power of Venetian politics by the beginning of the 15th century because they started us primarily focusing on domestic and foreign security. So anything security related was their jurisdiction. It's the Senate that makes -- was to make the primary legislative organ of the Venetian government. But the Council of Ten end up taking nearly all the power. And by late 16th century, their power has subsided. But the problem is that anything related to Venetian politics or Venetian economy is state security because the Venetians, while Venice is primarily a maritime and trade empire, so anything that threatens economic is a matter of state security. The other interesting thing is, by 1539, the Ten and, by extension, Venice, that they're so obsessed with state secrecy and with actually legislating enormously around state secrecy that they create a formal counterintelligence magistracy. So you do have a former counterintelligence body there called the Inquisitors of the State. And this is not the Venetian Inquisition. This is something different. So they do basically assume power around everything around Venetian politics and economy by the beginning of the 16th century so 1500s.
Andrew Hammond: And how would that decision be made by the Council of Ten? So let's say the Council of Ten are some decision comes in. There's actually 17 of them. Do you have an example of a key decision that they all had to make and how it all shook out?
Ioanna Iordanou: Yeah. Ta. And, basically, every single decision was recorded. And this is again the evidence I had to write the book. For every decision, they would have to have an assembly. So it'd be a meeting, basically, where they would talk about the pros and the cons of a decision. And then they had to vote. They needed, I think, a two-thirds majority to make a decision. So it could be anything. Just to give you an interesting example, the Venetians were masters at letter interception. They're absolute masters. This is how they survived. Again, as I mentioned before, the postal routes at the time in the 16th century all around Europe were controlled by the Venetians. So, if you wanted to send a letter from, I don't know, England or from the Ottoman Empire to the other side of Europe, it has to pass through Venice, right. So there were -- they were masters of intercepting letters, opening them, reading them, and then resealing them. And they became very good by late 16th century in creating counterfeit seals. So you have a particular individual called Celio Malespini, who is a novelist. That's late 16th century. And he basically had created a name for himself for being able to forge different signatures. So he sends a petition to the Council of Ten saying, I've got this skill. How about I create these bogus ciphers? Because we know how the states try to intercept letters. So I create this bogus ciphers, basically to deceive our enemy. So they would receive this bogus ciphers. But because they were phony, they wouldn't be able to understand what they say. So we throw them off the scent, right? He even, you know, said, I'm very good with Latin and Latin originating languages, such as Italian and Spanish and French. I can write in those. It's not a problem. But if you give me an interpreter, I can do the same for Greek, German, Hebrew, Slavic, Turkish. So, yeah. Exactly. And he requested 800 ducats per year, which is a colossal amount of money, if you consider that the most senior cryptanalysts who had 20 or 30 years experience wouldn't paid about 100 to 120 ducats a year. So what we have in the documents is their voting system. And, initially, they consider that they voted yes, let's employ this guy. But eventually they voted it down. And doesn't say in the document whether they did it because the sum he was asking was astronomical or whether they realized he can't do that. He's just bluffing here. So for every single thing they wanted to decide, from choosing one spy to sending that spy to either Spain or the Ottoman Empire, you do have the record of when they met, what they discussed, and how they voted for it.
Andrew Hammond: I want to go and to discuss more about the tradecraft and some of the organization of intelligence and the Republic of Venice, but I feel like it would be quite good at this point just to help give them an understanding of what the Republic of Venice was and what it was all about. So, if you could just help me out here, what dates are we talking about? When does the Republic of Venice come into existence? And when does it go out of existence?
Ioanna Iordanou: Oh, it's quite lengthy.
Andrew Hammond: Just ballpark.
Ioanna Iordanou: Lengthy period. So we have from the Fourth Crusade 1204, and the Republic of Venice dies in 1789 when Napoleon walks in, marches in and basically takes over. But the rise of the intelligence service as -- it starts sort of -- I'm pretty sure it starts around the 14th century. But, unfortunately, the documents are more detailed starting 16th centuries. So 1500s. So it doesn't mean it didn't exist before. But we don't have much before and recorded before the 1600s. And when we talk about the Republic of Venice, we don't just talk about the island of Venice. The Republic of Venice, was made up of a great part of northern Italy, sort of the Balkan Peninsula so where the Balkans are today so former Yugoslavia and Croatia and now all these different states, all the way down on the Adriatic to a great part of what is contemporary Greece. And the reason why that was very, very important geographically was actually just strategic position is that the trade from the east, particularly spices and silk from the East was taken advantage of, was -- by the Venetian, so the Venetians would trade with all the Eastern merchants. They will bring all the products in Europe and then -- and then take them, send them all to North Central and Northern Europe. So the Venetians were controlling that trade from the East to the West until sort of the mid 15th century when the basically the Venetian Republic starts declining.
Andrew Hammond: And they also for a period of time are in control of Crete and Cypress --
Ioanna Iordanou: Cypress. Yeah.
Andrew Hammond: And Corfu. Yeah. It's kind of fascinating. It's almost this chain that goes from Venice all the way through to the eastern Mediterranean.
Ioanna Iordanou: And, indeed, if you -- if you -- I mean, if you're like me, you understand Greek because, of course, it's my mother tongue. And you speak to people from Santos or [inaudible] or Crete or Rhodes or even Corfu, they've got a very melodic way of speaking, which sounds very much like Italian.
Andrew Hammond: Oh, really. Wow.
Ioanna Iordanou: So there are a lot of remnants there, as well, but particularly Crete and Cyprus. I mean, Crete was really important for the current and the wine trade, and Cyprus was basically the entry to Europe from the East. And this is where losing Cyprus in 157 -- in the early 1570s, '73, that's the war of Cyprus, or what we call the fourth Ottoman Venetian War was really detrimental to the Republic of Venice. After that, the Republic declines quite -- quite quickly.
Andrew Hammond: And it's quite interesting because this whole area of the Mediterranean, the Adriatic, seagoing and seafaring is a way of life for them, right. A couple of examples. One is Homer. He's from one of these islands in the -- in this part of the world. And also my wife's grandfather is from a small Croatian island called Onea [phonetic]. And he -- he's basically a fish. He was born to the water. But this is just a way of life for people in that region, right?
Ioanna Iordanou: Yeah. And he was like that man. I mean, though -- and again, if you read this, the communication between the Council of Ten and the Venetian governors in all these areas, especially around the Balkans and the Adriatic, it's just, you know, that they're expected these people to monitor the whole harbor just to see if, you know, spies are coming in and out. And you're thinking, how on Earth are you doing it? But that was part of who they were. They lived and breathed, you know, that harbor and that sort of sea life, which was so important. And, of course, they knew everyone at that point in time because communities were a lot more smaller but also were close knit.
Andrew Hammond: And for this period, as well, so in the title of your book, it talks about organizing intelligence in the Renaissance. So just a brief reminder or primer for our audience. What's the Renaissance? I feel like most people have a fuzzy idea of what it was, but you're a scholar of it. So tell us what the Renaissance was.
Ioanna Iordanou: That's because, as scholars, it's a very complex question, right? For a lot of scholars, Renaissance is considered to be this cultural movement that somehow started in -- you know, there are different -- different starting points, depending on the school of thought, let's say 13th, 14th century where a lot of, again, prominent men, usually, primarily in Italy, Florence, and they went back and started rereading the ancient Greek philosophers and Latin philosophers and scholars, and then that's where sort of Renaissance arts like painting and sculpture flourished, and so on and so forth. So that's one view of Renaissance. But we also talk about Renaissance in terms of a historical period, and this is more or less how I use it in the book. So it's a historic period from 14, mid 15th century to, I mean, I would say the 1630s. That's where I have it in the book, which coincides with the early modern period. We're not just talking about cultural revival, but we're talking about focusing in on socioeconomic standards and understanding how people lived and thought and how they interacted with each other. And this is more or less how it's said in the book. I said more as I was challenged with this question during my -- in my doctoral viva, actually, my doctoral examination, that I see it like that. And that's why I placed even six-some scholars say 16th century's not the Renaissance. And I say no, it absolutely is because people are still informed by all these new ideas. And we understand a lot more. So if you think of cryptography, a lot of the cryptography, the Venetian cryptographers, a lot of the intellectual underpinning of their work in the 16th century very much goes back to the Renaissance period, which is really important to consider.
Andrew Hammond: And the Renaissance also takes place north of the Alps, right. It's not just an Italian phenomenon,
Ioanna Iordanou: Yeah, yeah. Not at all. Again, there are different schools of thoughts, and a lot of scholars say started in Italy. But absolutely. And there are different terminologies around, you know, Northern Renaissance and so on and so forth. But it happened everywhere in Europe.
[ Music ]
Andrew Hammond: The other major event during this period that Ioanna and I spoke about was the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks on May 29, 1453, an event of genuine world significance. Why? Well, let's take a step back first. Rome, the tradition goes, was founded in 753 BC by Romulus and Remus. It became a republic in 509 BC with the overthrow of the last king, an empire in 27 BC, with the accession of Augustus as the first emperor, and then it moved its capital to New Rome, later named Constantinople, in honor of the emperor who made the move in 300 AD. In 390 AD, it was split into the Eastern and Western Empires, headquartered in Constantinople and Rome, respectively. And this is where the story gets interesting. The Western empire survives for not too much longer. Traditionally, it's seen as coming to an end in 476 AD with the overthrow of Romulus Augustus, the last emperor in the West. What is less well-known but of tremendous importance is that the Eastern Empire lives on for another 1000 years. Yes, a mere millennium, that is, until 1453. The fall of Constantinople changed the nature of the relationship between Christianity and Islam around the Mediterranean Sea, and it was integral to the rise of the Ottoman Empire, which went on to conquer Egypt, the Holy Land, Steria [phonetic], Mesopotamia, the Arabian Peninsula, the Balkans, and Greece. It was important for the Venetians because this empire would eventually encroach on its own Mediterranean possessions, such as Cyprus and Crete. But in the shorter term, it led to a large exodus of Greeks who would contribute mightily to the Italian Renaissance, and many of whom would end up in, yes, you've guessed it, Venice. For those of us who live in the Western Hemisphere, the fall of Constantinople is also important because it played a key role in the European Age of Exploration because, now, the overland trade routes between East and West, which ran through the city, were broken. Fun fact: Rome was founded by Romulus, and its last emperor was Romulus Augustus, while Constantinople was founded by Constantine the Great, and its last emperor was Constantine 11th. Coincidence? Some people don't think so.
[ Music ]
So just jumping forward, Ioanna, let's try to just dig into a little bit more of Venetian intelligence. So they have what's essentially foreign intelligence gathering. Do they have some of the other things that we think about when we think about centralized intelligence? Do they have a counterintelligence capability? Like, how are they protecting their own secrets? How are they -- you know, did they have a sort of FBI MI5 that's working within the Republic of Venice to protect the domestic part of the whole enterprise. They -- did they even have covert action? Did they have these other types of things that we think about? So just round out the story of Venetian intelligence for us.
Ioanna Iordanou: Yes. So the primary functions of that, of the Venetian Secret Service is, of course, intelligence gathering, counterintelligence, cryptography, steganography, cryptanalysis all happening in house and also the in-house production of poisons for the enemy. Covert action, I am always a little -- much as I use the phrase in the book, and you can have samples of that, but I'm a bit reluctant to use it because it's not exactly what we mean by covert action in contemporary terms because of lack of technology. But primarily, you know, your pure espionage and intelligence gathering, this sort of covert operations and counterintelligence, they're formalized. They're sort of enshrined in legislation. It's just a very primitive. So just briefly start from counterintelligence. And so the protection of state secrets, this, again, is formalized by the introduction of the Inquisitori d'Estato [phonetic], the state inquisition of 1539. And what we've got is a strain of regulations around the protection of state secrecy. And they're very strict, and they keep being -- they keep being revisited and amended every few years. And they're so strict that, even if you are a member of the Ten or of the nobility and you break these rules, you either lose all your political rights and your property or you're even threatened with a death penalty. Okay? And, again, it's very clear to see that function of the Venetian Secret Service with regards to intelligence. But, again, we did not have professional spying at that particular point in time. In fact, we've got spying; we don't have professional spies. There's no sense of professionalization the way sociologists talked about professionalization. So you don't have people who've got this sort of sense of professional identity or sort of an appeal to expertise or reliance or theoretical knowledge around espionage. You don't even have gadget and gizmos. You know, you just have these minor things that I mentioned like using walks or different, different, different things. But, most certainly, there's not that sense of fellowship or pride that other professions have created like the shipbuilders or the glassmakers or, indeed, the Venetian cipher secretaries. You do not have that. But they employ spies everywhere. And spies are generally everywhere and employed by all the different states, not the Venetians. And, as I said before, they've got a very well functioning -- functioning cryptography department, cryptology. So it's cryptography and cryptanalysis. Lots of engagement with the production of invisible ink and a very good training school of cryptologers, of cryptographers as well. Tell us a little bit more about that training school. I was actually -- that was one of my questions. Is it on-the-job training? Is it a formalized course? Help us understand that.
Ioanna Iordanou: It is, it is, yes. It is training development specifically for the state cryptology department. So the Venetians were scouting for talent. But usually these white collar positions, such as being a state secretary or in any legal sort of capacity serving the state and, indeed, cryptography and cryptanalysis, these were saved for the descendants of current secretaries because -- primarily because Venice was constantly involved with wars with the Turks at that particular point in time. Sometimes they couldn't pay in cash, so they paid at getting benefits. So whenever they would scout talent, they would sort of recruitment from -- recruit them from a very early age. They would get them trained within the Doge's Palace, or the most experienced members of staff. The most experienced cryptologists were expected to produce cryptography manuals. And, of course, there was several by different philosophers of the -- of the Renaissance period, anywhere that they were using. And they were expected to go through training, most certainly at the beginning of their career but also to refresh their training every few years. And that would lead to a promotion, which would then lead to an increase in their salary. So -- and all of that was very much organized and orchestrated by the Council of Ten. They oversaw all that process, which, again, was very interesting. And, again, the good thing is we've got evidence of that because it's been recorded and is there.
Andrew Hammond: What's the interaction like with England at this period? And, you know, Sir Francis Walsingham is often called the father of English espionage and has cryptanalysts, is quite well-known amongst people that study England in this period. So is there any kind of crossover there? I know they're quite different types of intelligence setups, but I was just wondering if there's any interaction. And, of course, during this period, we have the Merchant of Venice. So, yeah. Just help us understand that link.
Ioanna Iordanou: Yeah. There's a lot of myth around, you know, did Shakespeare actually go to Venice or -- and so on and so forth. There's interactions all the time. I mean, one of the things, you know, going back to talking about the lack of professionalization of spying is, because of that, the spying was -- spies were masteries, right? They would go where the money went. So they would be easily double spies, or they will have different paymasters. So there is -- there is communication there. I know that there's a lot of things that there -- that the English tried to emulate because the Venetians were quite famous about their organization. I know that, similarly, with Philip II of Spain, just like with Elizabeth I, they were aware of theoretically the Venetian superiority when it comes to -- when it came to intelligence organization. They tried to emulate it. And there were indeed certain people who you find in England and in Venice more or less at the same time, and they -- I'm pretty sure they work for potentially Walsingham or the Council of Ten at the same time. That's quite common. Again, news and gossip traveled, traveled fairly quickly. But most of the information I would say again is debated. What do you call intelligence at the time, what do you call information was also transferred by merchants. And that was what I said before, that capacity to act as an informer because you were serving either your state that is England or your state that is the Spanish. But of course there's communication going on. Yeah. Even through the ambassadors. Yeah. Even through the ambassadors.
Andrew Hammond: And final question. How does the legacy of the Republic of Venice as a espionage power or an intelligence power, how does this live on in the present day? If any of our listeners rock up to do the, you know, Florence, Rome, and Venice, when they -- when they arrive in Venice, is there anything that can see or do that's going to remind them of this history?
Ioanna Iordanou: Yeah. Absolutely. I would definitely recommend -- and I'm not -- I'm not being sponsored in any way by the Doge's Palace. But if you are interested in Venetian intelligence and this centralized aspect of it, if you ever go to visit Venice, book to do the secret itineraries tour of the Doge's Palace, which they do anytime in English or French. Yeah, which gives you free access to the whole Doge's Palace. But they take you to all the places that were used as the headquarters of the Council of Ten, that if you just pay the ticket to go and see the Doge's Palace, you will not be able to access. So I would definitely recommend that, just to be a little bit more serious about the legacy. I do think that there is an educational value just trying to understand the analogy and affinity with that period and considering that some of the most significant, you know, challenges we face right now such as disease -- we just got over a global pandemic -- or migration or trade or climate change or cybersecurity, all these issues do not stop at the borders like any early modern spies. They cross borders. So even reflecting how people dealt with these things in the past might help us make better political, social, economic decisions. It might not, but that -- even that element of reflection I think is really important.
Andrew Hammond: Well, this has been incredible. Thanks so much. It's been really great to chat. I feel like I could keep going for a few hours, but I think we've done a pretty good job in the time that we've had available. So thanks so much for your time, Ioanna.
Ioanna Iordanou: Thank you very much. Thank you for the opportunity to talk about the Venetian Secret Service.
[ Music ]
Andrew Hammond: Thank you for listening to this episode of SpyCast. Please follow us on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Next week, in celebration of the Fourth of July, we'll be re-releasing an episode we did last year on America's favorite pastime. Grab a dog and a cold beer or two and tune in to learn the surprising connections between intelligence and baseball. If you have feedback, you can reach us by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at INTLSpyCast. If you go to our page at thecyberwire.com/podcasts/spycast. You can find links to further resources, detailed show notes, and full transcripts. I'm your host, Andrew Hammond. My podcast content partner is Erin Dietrick. The rest of the team involved in the show is Mike Mincey, Memphis Vaughn III, Emily Coletta, Afua Anokwa, Elliott Pelzman, Tré Hester, and Jen Eiben. This show is brought to you from the home of the world's preeminent collection of intelligence and espionage related artifacts, the International Spy Museum.
[ Music ]