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Sometimes you can learn something about today's world from a history book — even a book about obscure characters in a long ago time in an obscure corner of the planet featuring conflicts between regimes that ceased existing at least a century ago. For me, one such book has been Agents of Empire, by the Oxford historian Noel Malcolm, gaudily subtitled Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World.

The subjects of the book, members of two intermarried Albanian families, the Bruni and Bruti, between them filled all those roles in the years from 1560-1600. They started off in Ulcinj, a small port on the Adriatic Sea in present-day Montenegro and in the 1560s part of the sea-connected mercantile empire of the Republic of Venice.

The Bruni and Bruti got around. Giovanni Bruni was a Jesuit and archbishop who took a lead role in 1563 at the Council of Trent, which launched the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Gasparo Bruni was a Knight of Malta who fought the Huguenots in the papal enclave of Avignon in France.

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