Noel Malcolm’s new book ‘Agents of Empire’ is a magisterial history of the Renaissance that uncovers the forgotten frontier where East met West.
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Albania might not seem the most promising place from which to write a history of the Mediterranean but, as Malcolm argues in this magisterial account, it is the forgotten frontier where East and West, Muslims and Christians, Italians and Turks met, clashed, sometimes fought, but more often than not tried to accommodate each other. Albania was a porous border zone where religion – from Catholicism and Protestantism to Islam and Judaism – shaped people’s lives but did not necessarily define them, and where prosperity or even basic survival meant changing repeatedly one’s religious, political and commercial allegiances to meet the needs of a world ruled one day by the Venetians and by the Ottomans the next.
In Agents of Empire, Noel Malcolm has pulled off the quite miraculous feat of combining the stories of late-16th-century Europe’s winners and losers with those of its mediators, in the form of knights, pirates, priests and spies, written not from the metropolitan perspective of Rome, Seville or even London, but from the viewpoint of Albania and the Adriatic coastline, which stretches southwards from modern-day Croatia to Greece.
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