Caterina Cornaro

Queen of Cyprus

Gentile Bellini's portrait of Caterina Cornaro

Caterina Cornaro (or Corner) (1454 – 1510) was born on the Grand Canal in the Palazzo Corner della Regina into the wealthiest family in Venice, who made their fortune on Cyprus, and would produce no fewer than four doges. But they reached the summit of their fame when their daughter Caterina, age 14 was betrothed to James II 'the Bastard', the Lusignan king of Cyprus, the last Crusader state. It was an arranged marriage that promised protection: Venice had helped him to the throne over the claim of his half sister Carlotta, who was married to the Duke of Savoy.

At the time, Venice was slowly losing the Aegean outposts it had claimed after the Fourth Crusade, and the future marriage presented an opportunity too good to be missed. Before the marriage took place, the Republic of Venice held a one-off ceremony that officially adopted Caterina as a ward of the Serene Republic and 'Daughter of Saint Mark' ('I didn't know that he was married,' quipped the Bishop of Turin).

When Caterina turned 18 she sailed to Cyprus, leaving Venice with great pageantry. The bucintoro sailed up the Grand Canal with all the great men of the city aboard, to escort the future queen to her galley.

By adopting Caterina, the Republic made sure that it would become Caterina's heir, and that's exactly what happened. James II died of a sudden illness (everyone presumed poison), leaving Caterina as regent. Their infant son, James III died in 1474 before the age of one, again under suspicious circumstances. And not long after, Venetian councillors, merchants and a fleet of sixty galleys arrived in Cyprus to 'advise' the Queen, but in reality to bully her and make all the decisions.

Venice did have to act quickly. There was a strong faction on the island that supported the claims of Carlotta, James II's half sister, and there were plots against Caterina. Carlotta and family was shipped off to Venice, and other claimants to throne were exiled from Cyprus or sent to convents. Gradually the administration was taken over by Venetians.

Finally, when rumours swirled that the Turks or Sultan of Egypt might attack Cyprus, of that she might remarry and ruin the Republic's plans, she was forced to abdicate, at age 34, on 14 March 1489. 'Is it not enough that Venice shall inherit when I'm gone?' she asked. The answer was no. She was made to undergo a ceremony of abdication in every town on Cyprus and watch the flag of St Mark replace the old Lusignan flag.

She left in tears, but Venice offered her some consolation by allowing her to keep her title of Queen; they also made her the Sovereign Lady of Asolo, in 1489, and under her reign the town became famous for its arts and literature. Giorgione spent time, wandering through the gradens, playing his lute. Her court became the fictional setting for Pietro Bembo's platonic dialogues on love, Gli Asolani. Caterina died in Venice in 1510. The history and beauty of the place would later inspire Robert Browning, whose final work, Asolando, was published the day after he died in 1890.

In her lifetime Caterina was painted by Titian, Gentile Bellini and Giorgione; she was also the subject of operas in the 1840s by Franz Lachner and Gaetano Donizetti.

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