Caterina Cornaro by Gentile Bellini – and beyond

One of the most interesting women of the Italian Renaissance, Caterina Cornaro – the Venetian-born Queen of Cyprus – was an important figure in international politics, diplomacy and arts. As a Venetian noblewoman, she ended up to be the last monarch of the Kingdom of Cyprus between 1474 and 1489. Her reign saw the Mediterranean island pass from the Lusignan dynasty who had dominated it since the Crusades to the Republic of Venice at the height of its imperial ambitions. Retired to the Venetian town of Asolo, Cornaro became a patron of the arts. She was painted by Dürer, Titian and Gentile Bellini whose iconic portrait of the queen now hangs at the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest.

Like many noblewomen of the Renaissance, Cornaro was destined to be a pawn in a power struggle. She was married to King James II of Cyprus where her family and Venice itself had extensive mercantile interests. Within a few months of her arrival in Cyprus, her husband and infant son were dead, the latter allegedly poisoned by the Venetians. Now the sovereign Queen of Cyprus, Cornaro herself became the object of various conspiracies as Venice, Genoa, Naples, Spain and the Ottomans vied for control of the island. Her life as a figurehead queen came to an end after 16 years when, under pressure from the Venetians, she agreed to abdicate in exchange for a sizeable pension and a sumptuous estate outside Venice.

Although Cornaro lost political power in Cyprus, she was still able to stage-manage her image successfully. The pageantry of the fleet carrying the exiled queen home to Venice was played as a brilliant piece of propaganda by both the Doge and by Cornaro herself. One of the most prestigious public ceremonies of Venice, the Regata Storica, is said, among several interpretations, to celebrate the return of Queen Caterina Cornaro to her native land and her handing over to the Republic of her crown of Cyprus. One of the most picturesque rituals of the city, both for tourists and Venetians, the Regata Storica is re-enacted every first Sunday of September and includes a historical boat parade.

In later life, and even in death, Cornaro who was allowed to keep the title of queen, had far greater control than she ever did during her reign. At her estate in Asolo, she became a figure of portraitists. Her famous portrait by Gentile Bellini, dated 1500, now in Budapest, could conceivably be the one of Cornaro mentioned by Vasari which he, however, ascribed to Gentile’s father Jacopo. In the portrait, she is dressed regally, with a jewelled coronet, transparent veils over her face and a costume adorned with gold, rubies and pearls. Bellini approaches his model with cartographical accuracy: her dress receives as much attention as her face. This suggests that her reputation as a great beauty was somewhat inflated.

Bellini’s portrait comes from the collection of János László Pyrker, the Hungarian-born Patriarch of Aquileia, which he bequeathed to the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest in 1836. The curious inscription on the portrait reads: “The senate of Venice calls me daughter. Cyprus, seat of nine kingdoms, is subject to me. You see how important I am, yet greater still is the hand of Gentile Bellini, which has captured my image on such a small panel.” Two places associated with Cornaro in Venice today are Domenico Rossi’s Ca’ Cornaro della Regina on the site where she was born and the church of San Salvador where she is buried. She survives as a legend, not least in several operas, most notably by Donizetti and Halévy.