Venice’s Secret Service: Organizing Intelligence in the Renaissance


Dr Ionanna Iordanou, Oxford Brookes University



According to conventional wisdom, systematised intelligence and espionage are ‘modern’ phenomena, spanning  from the eve of the First World War to the present. Venice’s Secret Service overturns this academic orthodoxy, recounting the arresting story of one of the world’s earliest centrally organised state intelligence organisations. Headquartered in the imposing Doge’s Palace, overlooking the Venetian lagoon, and headed by the infamous Council of Ten – the governmental committee responsible for the security of the Venetian state – Renaissance Venice’s intelligence service resembled a public sector institution that operated with remarkable corporate-like complexity and maturity, serving prominent intelligence functions, which included operations (intelligence and covert action), analysis, cryptography, steganography, cryptanalysis, and even the development of lethal substances, such as poison. These centralised intelligence pursuits were in stark contrast with other Italian and European states, where disparate spy networks served the personal interests of men (and women) in power or those aspiring to power.

Combining a wealth of archival sources from Venice, Rome, Simancas and London with secondary literature and concepts from Sociology, Organisation Studies, and early theories of Management, Venice’s Secret Service details systematic attempts to organise and manage a central intelligence service made up of innumerable state servants, official informants, and amateur spies. Exploring secrecy as a vehicle of knowledge exchange that fostered identities, alliances, and divisions, the book also reveals Venice’s fabled department of professional cryptology, and recounts some of the extraordinary measures deployed by the Venetian authorities in their ongoing effort to maintain the security of the Venetian state. These included tortures, assassinations, and chemical warfare.

Venice’s Secret Service serves several purposes. Specifically, it is:

A book about early modern intelligence: As the book argues, the early modern period played a decisive role in the evolution of organised intelligence. Lacking in contemporary technology, Renaissance Venice was emblematic in the creation of a robust, centrally organised state intelligence apparatus that played a pivotal role in the defence of the Venetian empire. Official informants and amateur spies were shipped across Europe, Anatolia, and Northern Africa, conducting Venice’s complex intelligence operations. While revealing a plethora of secrets, their keepers, and their seekers, the book explores the social and managerial processes that facilitated these operations and that furnished the foundation for the creation of one of the world’s earliest centrally organised state intelligence services.

A book about preindustrial organisation and managerial practices: Employing a transdisciplinary perspective, the book shows that organisational entities and managerial practices existed long before contemporary terminology was coined to describe them. Combining the narrative construction of theoretical concepts with archival records, Renaissance Venice’s secret service is analysed as a proto-modern organisation with distinct managerial structures that enabled the coordination of uniform patterns of working across long distances. The Venetian intelligence organisation, made up of geographically dispersed state representatives and their state officials, men of the military and the navy, in-house and expatriate white collar state functionaries, as well as casually salaried spies and informers, all headed by the Council of Ten, were, ultimately, a social structure held together through commonly accepted rules and regulations – the purest form of organisation according to Max Weber. Consequently, through the lens of early theories of organisation and management, Venice’s secret service emerges as a primordial intelligence organisation whose governance structure does not diverge greatly from contemporary organisational entities.

A book about the Venetian empire in the sixteenth century: Much as the focal point of the book is the central organisation of Renaissance Venice’s secret service, I have abstained from focusing solely on Venice as the capital of the Venetian Republic. Instead, the book explores the Ten’s operations both within the city and, importantly, in the geographically dispersed territories of the Terraferma – Venice’s possessions in the Italian mainland – and the Stato da Mar – the Venetian overseas empire. On the whole, as Venice’s systematised intelligence pursuits crossed borders, traversing the European continent and the Levant, and even the shores of Northern Africa, the book endeavours a quasi-global history of Venice’s secret service.

A book on people’s history: As it become apparent throughout the book’s pages, Venetian citizens and subjects of all walks of life were invited to contribute to Renaissance Venice’s state security undertakings by participating in risky operations. A variety of incentives were offered for such endeavours, of which monetary sums, the opportunity to reduce political sentences, and income deriving from state services were the most prevalent. Numerous such instances related in the book demonstrate that, in the early modern era, systematised intelligence was not an outcome of a rigid top-down process of authority and control. On the contrary, ‘bottom-up’ contributions of lay individuals are suggestive of intelligence ‘from below’ that is fundamental for our understanding of both early modern intelligence but also the relationship between society and the state. Seen in this way, the study of early modern intelligence is as much a people’s history, as it is a history of elites.

Taken as a whole, Venice’s Secret Service investigates and evaluates the function of Venice’s state intelligence apparatus from political, socio-economic, and organisational perspectives. It is, accordingly, as much about political, economic, and social history, as it is about intelligence and organisational history. Ultimately, I hope it offers a fresh vista on systematised intelligence in the long Renaissance, adding the concept of ‘organisation’ to the study of early modern politics, economy, and society.



Venice’s Secret Service: Organizing Intelligence in the Renaissance
is published by Oxford University Press

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About the Author: Dr Ioanna Iordanou is a Reader in Human Resource Management at Oxford Brookes Business School and an Honorary Research Fellow at the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance at the University of Warwick. Her research focuses on the development of organisational entities and managerial practices in the early modern era.She is the co-editor of Spy Chiefs, Volume 1: Intelligence Leaders in the United States and the United Kingdom (Washington, DC, Georgetown University Press, 2018) and Spy Chiefs, Volume 2: Intelligence Leaders in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia (Washington, DC, Georgetown University Press, 2018). She has published extensively in the fields of social, economic, and organisational history, and her research has been featured in journals such as The Economic History Review, Enterprise and Society, and Intelligence and National Security.

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