Venice's Secret Service

Venice’s Secret Service by Ioanna Iordanou undertakes to show that organized intelligence is not – as commonly thought – an invention of the modern industrial state, but already existed in Renaissance Venice of the 1500s and early 1600s.

Venice was a Great Power, with colonies and occupations all over the Mediterranean, vying with states like France and England for supremacy.

The major ruling body described in the book is the Council of Ten. Actually seventeen men, the Council of Ten was the state security body under the Doge. Serving in the Council of Ten was both an honour and a source of immense power, but it also brought restrictions and inconveniences. The heads of the ten were not allowed to frequent certain public places, and members who leaked secrets could face executions.

Iordanou argues that Venice’s secret service was special in the concert of European powers. Philip II of Spain was very well informed, because he was a micro-manager. He directed every detail of his secret service and cryptology department personally. Spanish secretaries, for example, worked at their homes, which was highly inefficient and led to misplaced documents and leaked secrets.

In contrast, Venice used managerial practices like delegating tasks to inferior officers and managing whole information flows between several officials, as well as formal reports from its officials and the development of a professional identity, although the words “management” and “professionalization” are problematic when used to describe pre-modern practices.

Secrecy is commonly thought as limiting exchange of information. But it is also instrumental in enabling this sharing, because only by clearly demarcating people “in the know” from outsiders, those in possession of the information can know who is allowed to receive information about secret affairs. People on the inside can freely discuss secret issues, without fear of improperly disclosing them.

Secrecy was also a tool of governing the city. The Ten used secret information to shape internal Venetian politics, even keeping important information from city bodies they notionally reported to, like the Senate. Venice also used anonymous tip boxes distributed like post boxes, where citizens could report on and denuciate wach other, offer information – sometimes directly attaching their price. They did so with some fervor, reporting on other people was very common. Some citizens even paid scribes to pen those denunciations beautifully. Those tips and offers were then scrupulously read, evaluated and, if deemed important and true, acted upon.

Including the class of commoner citizens into handling secret information was a way to give them status, pride and a limited sense of power, even though the higher echelons of state service were closed to them. Venice used such limited inclusion deftly and systematically as an administrative elite.

The most ordinary use of secrecy was keeping communication channels with Venice’s diplomats open and secure. Different ciphers were used for communications of different criticality, which is why Venice and the other powers continuously developed new ciphers. Diplomats and military leaders in a region shared keys, which were exchanged by courier, and officials were often directed to distribute keys for other officials. This had lots of potential for mess-ups, and the archives hold many letters of officials complaining that some other official has been writing to them in undecipherable code. In those cases, the central department of cryptology had to dispatch new keys and ciphers to both, or direct yet another official to share his key with the “out-of-sync” official.

Officials were expected to have practical abilities to encrypt and decrypt messages, but they were also assigned clerks to take off the load in day-to-day operations.

Venice also had an excellent official postal service, but exclusively for official use. Other states also used Venice’s messaging channels, especially toward the Ottomans in the East. Of course, Venice had no scruples opening those communications, deciphering them, and re-sealing the envelopes. Unless the other state was powerful and Venice feared military attacks. In such cases there were official orders from Venice to its diplomats and couriers not to mess with those communications. There are also humourous stories where a papal nuncio wrote unencrypted messages, so that they were not being delayed by the Venetians.

Venice’s cryptology department was usually centered upon a foremost cryptologer, who was also responsible for educating new recruits. He got special affordances, like being allowed to choose new recruits himself. This contributed to the department of cryptology being a nepotic affair. Younger family members were often selected and preferred. Iordanou sees this as much less nefarious than it looks to the modern reader. Venice’s leaders assumed cryptologic talent to run in the family, they assumed that familial exposure to cryptology would have fostered that talent even more, and it was also a form of payment, especially since remuneration for long and well executed services could be lavish, but often weren’t. In general, Venice’s leadership cared for family members of officials having suffered in service, especially to the bereaved of Venetian amateur spys and agents on dangerous missions. Recruits learned either by oral lectures or reading written accounts of earlier cryptologists. After a few years of instruction they had to pass a harsh written examination before being fully appointed, although as favor to the head cryptologer even that could be waived when it came to his family members.

Venice’s Council of Ten deemed cryptology important and fostered cryptology research, they set up training programs for new cryptologers, and they set up a whole department of cryptology that handled both defensive development of new ciphers and offensive breaking of adversaries (and friends’) ciphers. They also handled cryptology as a secret secret, with the death penalty thereatened for cipher or key misuse.

Merchants were expected to collect information and pass it on to Venetian authorities, but they were sometimes also used by the Council of Ten in preference to its own diplomats, when repudiability, convenience or inconspicuousness called for it. Curiously, Venice never developed a professional spy force, like the professional cryptologers. Instead it relied mostly on amateurs, criminals and other people paid for with sometimes huge, sometimes only meagre amounts of money, and sometimes with favors, especially the release or un-banishment of criminals.

The book is academic and mostly dry in style, and Iordanou is much too fond of the word “redolent”, but is is a fascinating window into early professional cryptology.