Pars pro toto. The avvisi as a reservoir of microhistories

A small thing can represent something much bigger. That is in short the idea of microhistory. Even though the importance of a single event might be limited in size and direct implications, it can sometimes poignantly illustrate a phenomenon of a much greater magnitude. 

This idea is of great significance for the avvisi, which themselves could be seen as one big reservoir of microhistories. Some storylines might be found in one avviso only, whereas others recur in hundreds of different documents. As a matter of fact, it has been claimed that microhistories are the proper method to really understand the dynamics of the avvisi. Even though we believe that there is a place for macro studies as well – and that micro and microhistories  are not mutually exclusive – we would like to present here a particular microhistory drawn from the avvisi whose context happened to be known from the historiography.

An example of this is the following story of two not all too well-known Albanian families. These two families, who also intermarried, might not have constituted the single most important dynasty of their time but their family history contains a treasure of information. In fact, there are numerous parallels to be drawn between their lives and the stories we find written down in the avvisi, as we gather from the book Agents of Empire in which the its author, Noel Malcolm, paints a picture of the cultural, religious, and political dynamics of the Mediterranean in the sixteenth century.

ASF, MdP 4026, f. 404r

One of Prof. Malcolm’s stories  is about Bartolomeo Bruti, who started out as a giovane di lingua in Istanbul and later worked as an agent for several governments (and as such constitutes one of the ‘agents of empire’). Malcolm is actually a specialist in Albanian history, and indeed I first became aware of Bartolomeo Bruti’s presence in my sources when he was called ‘the Albanian’ (l’Albanese) in one of the documents from the Medici collection – a characterization that is also used on several later occasions. 

ÖNB, 8950, f. 27r

It became eventually clear to me that it was him we were dealing with. We first find him in March 1575, when ‘the Albanian’ returned to Rome from Istanbul. Interestingly, his identity is confirmed by a corresponding copy from the Fuggerzeitungen collection in Vienna where he is explicitly referred to as Bartolomeo Bruti. Furthermore, we are told here that he had an audience with the pope twice where he was treated most courteously. The business that brought him there is also mentioned multiple times; he was to play a central role in a prisoner’s exchange between the Christians and the Turks.

In another aviso from early March, we find that:

“The son of cavaliere Bruno arrived here from Constantinople for the case of the ransom exchange”

[“É giunto il figliuolo del cavaliero Bruno  venuto da Costantinopoli per il negocio del riscatto.”]

ASF, MdP 3082, f. 218r

Does this also refer to Bartolomeo Bruti? Malcolm does mention that he was in Venice by the 26th of February.  He was however a Bruti and not a Bruni, as his father was Antonio Bruti. The Bruni family, on the other hand, also features prominently in Malcolm’s book. Bartolomeo Bruti’s mother, Maria Bruni, formed one of the connections between the two families. In comparison, another document from the Fuggerzeitungen also follows:

“There arrived here from Venice the gentleman that was sent by the bailo [Antonio Tiepolo] who left Istanbul at the 6th of February for the ransoming and liberation of these Turks.”

[“Qui è gionto di Venetia il gentilhomo che manda il Bailo [Antonio Tiepolo] partito di Costantinopoli a 6 Febbraio per il riscatto et liberatione de questi Turchi”]

It reminds us of one of Bartolomeo’s uncles, Gasparo Bruni, who used the title of cavaliere as a member of the Order of Malta. But he had only one son, Antonio, who we know from Malcolm was still enrolled in the Jesuit College in Rome at that time. It is symptomatic that the avvisi leaves one puzzled here, especially since the name of ‘cavaliere Bruno’ is dropped so casually as if we are supposed to know who this was. Is this a piece of information that was once common knowledge now lost to us? It is true that the avvisi generally seem to expect quite a lot of general knowledge from readers. 

There are some other indications however that might lead to a solution. Among the notes in Malcolm’s book we find a reference to Bartolomeo saying that he was:

“the son of the cavaliere Bruti from Dulcigno [Ulcinj]” (Malcom, p. 485)

[“fù figliuolo del Cauallier Brutti da Dulcigno”]
Malcolm, Agents of Empire, p. 485, drawn from ASVen, Dispacci, Costantinopoli, filza 7, f. 529r 

And as a matter of fact, also Bartolomeo’s father Antonio had been appointed cavaliere in 1559 in the Venetian Order of Saint Mark. It therefore seems that our avviso writer simply got confused between these two oddly similar names (and possibly realized on some subconscious level that they were related?) and that we are dealing here with the very same Bartolomeo Bruti.

Malcolm tells us that Bruti had initially left Istanbul as a courier for Gabrio Serbelloni and Giovanni Marigliani (Malcolm, p. 220), two of the most important Christians taken prisoner at the disastrous events at La Goletta in 1574. After his arrival in Rome, the avvisi mention that he headed for the city of Fermo. Here, they had to await the departure of the Christian prisoners from Istanbul. The eventual exchange was planned to take place at Dubrovnik, where they would arrive by the way of Ancona. This course of events is also confirmed by Malcolm’s study. In Fermo, however, not everything went as planned. In July, we find a message in the avvisi that: 

“One of the most important Turks still in Fermo, who arranged that his family in Constantinople ransomed Cesare Carafa in exchange, has been killed with a knife by one of the other Turks who had been slapped by him.” 

[“Un turco delli principali che anchora sono in Fermo il quale per riscatto havea proccurato che dalli suoi in Costantinopoli fussi comprato Don Cesare Caraffa [Cesare Carafa] è stato ammazzato con uno costello da un altra di quei turchi al quale havea dato uno schiaffo.”]

ASF MdP 3082 f. 264v

This is one of the typical moments in which the avvisi seem to give us less information than we might desire. Who got killed here? And who is the murderer? And what did this mean for the exchange?

This might function as a warning that the avvisi are at times hard to interpret. The context in which the events occurred might be much more complex or different than at first appears. Malcom states that Bruti with regard to his affair: 

“also warned the Cardinal [Tolomeo Galli] about a new problem, concerning one of the prisoners, Mehmed Subaşi […] One of this man’s relatives in Istanbul had bought a valuable Italian captive [that must be our Cesare Carafa, red.] and had sent him to Dubrovnik to be swapped one-for-one; it was feared that this would undo the entire collective exchange that was now in train. (Two months later, while they were still waiting, that problem was solved, but in a way that must have seemed even more problematic, when Mehmed Subaşi was stabbed to death by one of his colleagues. Bartolomeo quickly organized the writing of affidavits by the others, testifying to the blamelessness of the Christian authorities).”
Malcolm, Agents of Empire, p. 221

Suddenly the victim gains an identity. Also other characters discussed before make their appearance. For example, it is mentioned how Gabrio Serbelloni sent letters to Rome informing about how he personally intervened in the ransoming of Christian slaves while in Istanbul. In the same avviso, we also find confirmation that the ‘patents’ necessary for the exchange to materialize were received by the way of Venice while ‘the Albanian’ remained with the Turks in Fermo. These references to other documentation are typical for the avvisi, which were dependent on the same information systems for their distribution and contents. 

From later that year, the avvisi report how Gabrio Serbelloni eventually arrived in the Ragusan Republic (Dubrovnik) where the exchange eventually was effectuated. ‘The Albanese’ is however no longer mentioned. 

What have we learned from this microhistory? First of all, it gives of course a general outline of the political and cultural dynamics in the Mediterranean of the sixteenth century. But we also get an insight into the functioning of the genre of the avviso. We have seen how they tell their stories, how they suppose a lot of general knowledge on the part of their readers and how people move in and out of the narrative whose identity is not always clear to us (and about whom the writers sometimes seem to be mistaken). It also gives an idea of how information spread, as people like Bartolomeo Bruti were sent as couriers. In addition, there is also the matter of intertextuality as we find references to other documents that the avvisi relied on. It would not be unlikely to think that it was people like like Bartolomeo Bruti who were interested in the consumption of manuscript newspapers to begin with.

FURTHER READING:

Malcolm, Noel, Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World (London: Penguin Books, 2016)

de Vivo, Filippo, ‘Microhistories of Long-Distance Information: Space, Movement and Agency in the Early Modern News’, Past & Present, 242.Supplement_14 (2019), 179–214 <https://doi.org/10.1093/pastj/gtz042>

Wouter Kreuze

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