Of course, this was an elite market, but it was a market nonetheless, accommodating a larger public than Sanudo’s retrieval of copies through acquaintances did at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Moreover, the step to print was short. In the decades between 1589 and 1618, several printed collections appeared, most (but not all) outside the Venetian state or under the cover of false imprints, and without the names of the relazioni’s authors. They were appropriately titled ‘Tesori Politici’, containing ‘relazioni, instructions, treatises and speeches of various ambassadors, apt to the perfect knowledge and intelligence of the states, interests and dependencies of the world’s greatest princes’. Such and later collections, generally in small formats so as to ensure greater diffusion, consistently boasted their authenticity—for example, ‘on the basis of an Italian Manuscript which had never seen the light before’. Some relazioni also appeared shortly after being delivered. And such was the demand for relazioni that forgeries appeared too. The movement between manuscript and print went both ways. For example, the Donà collection, as we have already seen, included several reports about France transcribed from the Thesori. Finally, many published historical works summarized or excerpted entire passages of relazioni, which became veritable classics by the eighteenth century, regarded as ‘one of the most solid foundations of historians’, as the erudite historian and future doge Marco Foscarini put it. As already implied by a nineteenth-century expert of Venice’s archives such as Rawdon Brown, Ranke walked in well-trodden steps.
To speak of publication in general must not make us forget that we are talking of people, each with their different motivation for seeking, disclosing, or mediating the circulation of, relazioni. Some were minor nobles, real or self-styled. Cavalier Giulio Cesare Muzio repeatedly sold relazioni which he drew from his high-placed connections.¹⁰³ Secretaries and servants of patricians also acted as moles. A copy of ambassador Girolamo Lando’s report on England bears the signature of Lando’s maestro di camera, who obviously prepared the copy (with or without his master’s approval). Francesco Paisio, who had served as a secretary for the patriarch as well as for the governor of the fortress at Palma, was accused of having ‘disseminated many relazioni of ambassadors from England, France, Spain and elsewhere, descriptions of the Arsenal, expenditures and income of the Republic and every business of land and sea, including a description of all the fortresses of this state, indicating the number of soldiers on land and sea.’
Even more than supply, it was demand that drove this market. The Inquisitors’ informers tell us above all about ambassadors—the people they were interested in. The Spanish ambassador, for example, was reported to be on the look out for any relazione; most of all, he desired those concerning Spain and in 1612 was prepared to pay dear (una buona mano di cechini) for the most recent one. But beyond ambassadors, relazioni appealed to many other people. Like renghe, relazioni had a recognized educational value inside the ruling class. Outside, they were known as repositories of information and political maxims. As Gabriel Naudé’s celebrated bibliography of political texts shows, Venetian relazioni were an irrenounceable item in the personal libraries of the politically informed throughout Europe, collectors, antiquarians, and travellers. People whose birth excluded them from direct involvement in Venetian politics, but who constructed their status over the intelligence which they offered to their more powerful contemporaries, all sought relazioni.Now that the initial furore over Wikileaks has passed, its longer-term implications and effects are becoming a little clearer. On the one hand, the sensationalist-muckraking aspect of the projects has, it turns out, not panned out. Information by itself, no matter how outrageous or incriminating, has not been enough to mobilize politicians and other actors; without sustained access to confidential sources the material is basically no more useful for potential activists than tabloid innuendo. (The Tunisia scenario is more complicated, and it will likely not serve as a blueprint for future leak-related events.) On the other hand, the reactionary view that Wikileaks revealed nothing that we didn't already know has not been borne out either, and it's clear that in certain cases American diplomacy has been seriously embarrassed. Meanwhile, both Assange and the United States have moved away from the initial mise en place: Assange's organization has apparently given up on publishing anything, while his American opponents have suddenly turned bizarrely excessive and nearsighted in their treatment of Bradley Manning. In any event, the most significant outcome of the Cablegate memos will likely be the stimulus they have given to other leaking projects around the world, which look to have become a permanent feature of the media-political landscape. (Of course, it's too soon to tell for sure.)
- Filippo de Vivo, Information and Communication in Venice: Rethinking Early Modern Politics (2007)
What I have noticed about the Wikileaks discussion is how quickly the frame of reference seems to shift from "a new and uniquely dangerous sort of leak" to "a new and uniquely dangerous problem the government has to deal with." There has been little effort to make clear that leaks are nothing new in great-power politics. The only point of comparison that seems to be available to most of the participants is the leak of the Pentagon Papers, and there the argument is always the same: Assange is not like previous leakers because he is not a courageous muckraking journalist, or Assange is just like them because he wants to take down the system. This, of course, is wrong. If anything, it's Ellsberg who, as a "leaker of conscience," is a historical aberration. As we can see from Filippo de Vivo's book, leaking in early modern Venice was a pervasive practice guided by all kinds of calculations: vanity, greed, scrambling for political advantage, treason, and even simple inertia.
Ellsberg was a historical aberration not because of his distinctive personal qualities, but because his antagonist was a historical aberration too. The hermetically sealed national-security state, not immune to espionage but largely protected from public disclosure of information, is a profoundly novel historical development. Eighteenth-century rulers could expect the most sordid sex scandal and corruption rumor to end up in the press within a few days. (So much was written about ragioni di stato and other forms of privileged state information in this period precisely because information security was so fleeting.) Even in periods when formal protection of journalistic or other speech was weak, leaking seems to have been more pervasive than today. In part, this is a question of culture, but there are more material explanations too, first among them being the dramatic growth in specialized bureaucratic knowledge that makes juicy documents so much more difficult to identify and disclose. The Cablegate memos, though, are about as close to de Vivo's relazioni as any document can get.
I bring up this historical parallel because there's a dangerous tendency emerging both among Assange's defenders (where it can be called wishful thinking) and his detractors (where it can be called paranoia). This tendency consists of turning Assange into the bearer of a new kind of politics driven by exteriority. His old theoretical reflections on the subject are illuminating: by destroying their monopoly on information, we are making them self-destruct. No wonder he ends up looking so much like a V-for-Vendetta figure. Conversely, of course, from the other side's point of view he looks not only dangerous and foreign but incomprehensible.
In order to make sense of Assange, this veil of mystery should be examined more critically. He's not in any serious danger of forcing real changes to "the system." In his more conciliatory moments, he has said that all he really wants is more openness within existing regimes. For all the overreactions of both sides, this in fact boils down to a rejiggering of the balance between privileged and electronically-protected bureaucratic national-security-state information and publicly accessible "free speech" information. In Venetian terms, this would be equivalent to the relazioni-buying chattering classes encouraging a looser archival policy. While the people on whose behalf Assange speaks are and remain excluded from politics itself (as those Venetians were and as people in contemporary liberal democracies are), they are supposed to form an indispensable part of the legitimation apparatus through which state decisions are understood and vetted. To put it briefly: Past regimes accepted some degree of peeking behind the curtain as inevitable and adjusted their tacts accordingly. Contemporary liberal democracies pretend there is a wall behind the curtain and get outraged when there turns out to be a dungeon there. Whether Assange knows it or not, he's acting to return us to the former model. This is probably better on the whole, but as with the French Revolution, it's too soon to tell.