Saturday, 14 March 2015

"From the moment she left Nicosia, her eyes kept streaming with tears" - Catherine Cornaro, Cyprus and the end of the last Crusader kingdom

14 March 1489, Cyprus, the last Crusader Kingdom, became a colony of Venice when its queen Catherine Cornaro was forced to sell her crown.

“ ...the Queen dressed in black and accompanied by the Barons and their ladies, set off on horseback. Six knights held her horse's reins. From the moment she left Nicosia, her eyes kept streaming with tears. Upon her departure, the whole population was bewailing.“ (George Boustronios “A Narrative of the Chronicle of Cyprus 1456-1489“)




Titian: "Portrait of Catherine Cornaro" (1542)


Actually, Richard the Lionheart did not plan to be near Cyprus at all. In 1191, though, slightly detoured due to the weather while en route to join the Third Crusade, he was washed upon the shores of the renegade Byzantine island, took the place in a coup de main and rang in the medieval, western European-dominated period of Cypriote history that would last for the next three hundred years. After a lot of political hither and tither, Richard installed his crony Guy de Lusignan, the ex-King of Jerusalem, as Lord of Cyprus after the man had somehow gambled away his former kingdom and caused the Crusade in the first place. House Lusignan continued to supply the rulers of Cyprus throughout its varied medieval history while their actual kingship actually was deduced from the Lusignans being nominally still Kings of Jerusalem as well, even after the last outpost of the Crusader Kingdoms on the mainland fell in 1291. However, for the following two hundred years, the island became a hotspot for Christian trade with the Muslim world of the Eastern Mediterranean and a springboard for a few latter day crusading attempts while the Kings of Cyprus acquired a reputation of being the most effete and decadent rulers of Europe. Until King Peter came forth, toured Europe as a tournament champion, gathered an army made of volunteers and lots of mercenaries from the companies fighting in the Hundred Years’ War and the Italian conflicts and led it in a crusade against Alexandria. The city was sacked in 1365, a few other places along the Levant followed, until, finally, Peter was bribed by the Venetians to stop disrupting trade, pretty please, the mercenaries returned home, Peter, for a while King of Armenia as well, was murdered in 1369 and the fortunes of the Kingdom of Cyprus went completely downhill.



15th century illustration from Froissart's Chronicles,
showing the assassination of Peter of Cyprus


After intense power-mongering among the Genoese and the Venetians for control of the strategically rather important island, several plagues of locusts ruining the harvests and a long overdue major raid of the place by the back then admittedly rather hydrophobic Mamluks of Cairo, Venice forced a daughter of the patrician Marco Cornaro and granddaughter of the Byzantine Emperor of Trebizond Manuel III as wife upon King James II of Cyprus who was engaged in a Civil War with his Mamluk-supported half-sister Charlotte. A year after the arrival of the new queen Catherine Cornaro, James died, probably poisoned by Venetian agents, and Catherine was left as regent for their infant son. The child was gathered among his Lusignan ancestors just a year later in 1474 and Catherine became queen regnant of Cyprus by the grace of Venice’s merchant houses. However, Catherine ruled, at least in name, for 15 years, until the Venetians, hard pressed in the meanwhile back home in Italy and having lost a war against the Ottoman Turks, decided to end that state of affairs, ordered the queen to abdicate and established their own direct colonial rule. One of the worst times of the Cypriote rural population began and when the Ottomans finally conquered the island in 1570, they were, by and large, greeted as liberators.



Gentile Bellini: "The Miracle of the Cross at the Bridge of S. Lorenzo" (1500), showing Catherine Cornaro kneeling on the left bridgehead 


The disempowered queen was shipped back to Italy and interned in a castle 40 miles north of Venice. She nominally kept her royal titles, became Lady of Asolo and made the place "The Pearl of the province of Treviso", a centre of Renaissance art and learning, eternalised in Pietro Bembo’s “Gli Asolani”. She had to flee from her arty court in 1509, when the League of Cambrai took the place in 1508 and forced her to return to her native Venice where the last Crusader Queen died in 1510 at the age of 55. Her life and patronage of the arts in Asolo echoed through art history until well into the 20th century, with Titian painting her probably rather idealised likeness in 1542, depicted below and now at the Uffizi in Florence, various composers, most notably Donizetti in 1844, felt compelled to write operas inspired by her and several authors eternalised her in novels and dramas.

And more about Catherine Cornaro on:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catherine_Cornaro