Jonathan Walker


On his book Pistols! Treason! Murder! The Rise and Fall of a Master Spy

Cover Interview of February 02, 2010

The wide angle

Venice in the 1610s and 1620s was the first European state to undertake systematic surveillance of private individuals, and to entrust the supervision of such surveillance to a permanent committee, the Inquisitors of State.  Vano was one of the first people involved in this process to fashion himself as a professional spy—as Venice’s “General of Spies,” no less.  Thus Vano’s career is not only an invitation to rethink historical storytelling, but an invitation to rethink the place of the spy within the genealogy of modernity.

Jacob Burckhardt, in his groundbreaking study The Civilization of the Renaissance, first published in 1860, concentrated on architects, artists and the princely despots who transformed political life by treating the state as if it were also a work of art, which meant that it could be remade and transformed according to its ruler’s wishes.  Since Burckhardt wrote his book, modernity has lost much of its shine.  The alienated, protean figure of the spy, whose existence is defined by bad faith and duplicity, seems more representative of contemporary disillusionment than Burckhardt’s heroic geniuses do.  Baroque cynicism has replaced sunny Renaissance optimism.

The major issue for seventeenth-century Venetians was not how to assert their individuality so much as how to reconcile competing claims on their loyalties.  Nonetheless, this problem itself contributed to the “birth of the individual.”  People became aware of who they were not only by meditating on their own uniqueness, but by outwardly pretending to be someone they were not.  They began to define identity in terms of what separated them from other people.  The origins of this way of thinking lie in the careers of men like Vano as well as those of courtiers and Burckhardt’s artists.

Gerolamo Vano was therefore a kind of performance artist; less idealised and more democratic than the traditional modernist hero, he lived in a compromised, complicated world, rather than existing on some higher, Olympian plane of Truth and Beauty.  In his mind, as much as in that of the princely despot, the state became a work of art, but his art was ephemeral, improvised, and personal.  He left no monuments to his genius except a pile of neglected, handwritten notes, but he explored the relationship between the private and the political in highly original ways.  He was not above the moral obligations of mere mortals.  Rather, he paid for the choices he made with his life—and those of others.