When telling the history of Venice, women have always remained a bit in the background. Doges, officials, captains and merchants have always been the main actors instead. All this sounds ironic, since the name Venezia, or Vinegia, as the city was called in the ancient times, is a female name. As a matter of fact, in all the paintings aiming at celebrating the myth of the city, Venice has always been represented as a woman, and on top of that, as a queen.
However, there is a woman who played a fundamental role in the history of the most Serene Republic. Her name was Caterina Cornaro.
If somebody has ever seen the Historical Regatta, her name may sound familiar. She is on the first boat of the parade opening the regatta, together with the doge Agostino Barbarigo.
The story of Caterina Cornaro starts in the island of Cyprus, very far from the lagoon.
When Constantinople was taken by the Turks in 1455, Cyprus became very important for Venice. The island was rich in sugar, cotton, salt and wines considered some of the best ones. The island was owned by the French Lusignanos, but Venice had a stable presence in the island thanks to the Corner, or Cornaro, family, which could claim the trade monopoly of sugar and cotton.
The death of the king John Lusignan II in 1458 started a long and troubled search for a heir. The king had a daughter and a son, Giovanni, who had been obliged by his father to enter upon an ecclesiastical carrier. He had no vocation at all and secretly aspired to the throne. He got rid of his half-sister, true heir to the throne, and became the king of Cyprus.
One of his most influencing counsellors was Andrea Corner, who had been exiled there. Corner had granted the Crown substantial loans of money asking for an extremely high interest, and the king would have never paid the debt. But as a true pragmatic Venetian, Andrea Corner found a way to sort it out. He had a niece, Caterina, a girl of stunning beauty. In order to have his money back, he convinced the king to marry her and to appoint him as treasurer of the Crown.
Caterina was just a child, so she had to wait until she turned fourteen to marry the king. The marriage took place in the Doge’s Palace on 10th July 1468 by means of a power attorney.
Caterina arrived in Cyprus just in 1472. King Giovanni was thirty-two, and she was just eighteen years old. She soon got pregnant. But happiness ended one day when the king fell from his horse during a hunt, and died. One year later her child would die as well. The accident occurred in sudden and mysterious circumstances so that Andrea Corner was suspected to be responsible for the death of Ferdinand of Aragon, king of Naples, wanted to add Cyprus to his dominions, therefore the death of Giovanni would have been a useful defence against his expansionist ambitions.
Caterina was beautiful, young, and widow. Many political enemies aimed at her kingdom. But Venice was determined to defend its trade post. In 1448 the Venetian government sent Giorgio Corner, Caterina’s brother, to Cyprus, in order to convince her to abdicate in favour of Venice. Caterina accepted reluctantly, and in 1489 left her beloved island.
When she arrived in Venice, on 5th June 1489, the Doge Agostino Barbarigo and the most important members of the government received her on the Bucintoro, the official boat of the State.
Venice thus succeeded in keeping Cyprus, the wealthiest island in the Mediterranean after Sicily, and a port of vital importance for the trade routes to Syria. As a reward, Caterina received the estate of Asolo, and she kept the title of queen of Cyprus.
Thanks to Caterina, Asolo would become a great Renaissance court where Titian and the cardinal Pietro Bembo were usual guests. The latter was one of the most important scholars of the time who wrote “Gli Asolani”, a dialogue on love that is supposed to have happened right in Asolo. The work was dedicated to Lucrezia Borgia, the daughter of the pope Alexander VI and his passionate lover.
Caterina never forgot her island, where she might have come back in the last years of her life. She died on 10th July 1510 in the palace of her brother, on the Grand Canal, which is known now as Ca’ Corner della Regina. She was buried in the church of San Salvador, in the imposing tomb wanted by her brother, as his last homage for the queen he forced to abdicate for the sake of Venice.