The history of the modern state is the history of intelligence gathering. Feudal allegiances are supplanted by organized bureaucracies. Individual authority figures are replaced by complex systems. Individual codes of honor are subsumed under nationwide laws. Turning governance into “the state”—a unified organization—requires the circulation and control of information. As Ioanna Iordanou argues in her new history, Venice’s Secret Service, the creation of a secret service is therefore not secondary to the emergence of the state but, in fact, fundamental to it. At times, Iordanou goes even further, telling us that the state itself, as an early modern creation, is founded on intelligence and the secret services that gather and transmit it.

At first glance, Venice’s Secret Service is a history book. It is packed with fascinating historical color, tales of espionage, ciphers, and underhand plots. The author has plumbed the extensive Venetian...

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