Caterina Cornaro was a pawn in superpower intrigues five centuries ago, but she ruled as queen of Cyprus for almost 16 years and won a lasting reputation as a fascinating Renaissance personality.
Caterina, a Venetian aristocrat, inspired dozens of portraits as a dark-eyed beauty, a string of biographies and five operas, including one by the Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti.
Her life story reads like a pulp romance, starting with a short-lived marriage at 18 to James the Bastard, king of Cyprus, and ending with retirement near Venice presiding over a glittering salon of poets, painters and musicians.
But a new book published to mark the 500th anniversary of Caterina’s enforced abdication in 1489 avoids depicting her as a tragic heroine.
Instead, she comes across as a tough survivor, maneuvering to stay alive in an maelstrom of violence and political treachery between Greeks and Italians on this east Mediterranean island.
According to one of the three contributors to “Caterina Cornaro, Queen of Cyprus,” the chroniclers’ references to her as la bella donna (the beautiful lady) probably were inaccurate.
“She must have had what we would call charisma, but I don’t think she could be considered beautiful . . . more a woman of character,” Terence Mullaly, a British art critic and Renaissance specialist, said in an interview.
“She was certainly hard-headed and realistic, and not the sad deposed queen of the sentimental legend.”
Mullaly said that none of the portraits of Caterina as a young woman were definitely contemporary. The only one that dates from her lifetime, by the renowned Venetian painter Gentile Bellini, shows a plump matron “with shrewd eyes and a capable air,” he said.
Caterina rose to fame when she sailed to Cyprus in September, 1472, to marry James, a ruthless but popular king who seized the throne from his half-sister, Charlotte, the legitimate heir.
But James died suddenly nine months later, apparently of dysentery, and so did Caterina’s infant son, both in suspicious circumstances, according to Joachim G. Joachim, a Cypriot historian who also contributed to the book.
“I’m convinced that both James and his son were poisoned, and the Venetians are the prime suspects,” Joachim said in an interview.
The historian, who researched Caterina’s life in libraries around Europe, added: “It was their favored method of assassination. They had professional poisoners on the state payroll . . . and they benefited most from James’ death.”
Caterina succeeded to the throne. But she was hemmed in by her Venetian relatives and advisers who accused her of spending extravagantly. They also blocked her plans to marry Prince Alonzo of Naples, when she was 34 and he was 22.
Caterina fought back, writing letters to Venice complaining that her counselors spoke to her rudely and failed to consult her on financial and judicial issues.
But in the face of a growing threat from Ottoman Turkey, Caterina was finally persuaded to abdicate in 1489 and make a gift of Cyprus to the Venetian republic.
In return, she got a pension of 8,000 ducats a year for life and sovereignty over the small hill town of Asolo, 33 miles from Venice. Histories say 8,000 ducats was a comfortable royal stipend for that time. According to calculations based on the amount of gold in a ducat, the stipend would be worth around $450,000 today.
“The Venetians were the all-time masters of diplomacy,” Joachim said. “They knew when to act, and Caterina knew when she had to give in.”
In Asolo and her three other homes in the Veneto, Caterina sponsored theatrical performances and concerts and entertained the leading intellectuals of the day.
Caterina died in 1510 and was buried in Venice. The Venetians held on to Cyprus until 1570, when it was captured by the Turks.