Holly Hurlburt. Daughter of Venice: Caterina Corner, Queen of Cyprus and Woman of the Renaissance. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. 360 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-20972-3.
Reviewed by Celeste McNamara (University of Warwick, Department of History)
Published on H-Italy (August, 2016)
Commissioned by Maartje van Gelder (University of Amsterdam)
Although Caterina Corner, the Venetian queen of Cyprus, is not an unknown figure, Holly Hurlburt’s new book still accomplishes one of the major goals of women’s and gender history: recovering the stories of those overlooked by more traditional historiography. Caterina has been the subject of much popular and scholarly study, but Hurlburt’s contribution is significant for two reasons: scholarly studies focusing solely on Caterina and properly contextualizing her significance are rare, and even those that attempt a holistic perspective tend not to take Caterina seriously as a powerful woman in her own right, instead seeing her as a pawn in the hands of her family and natal city. Hurlburt’s book is a successful attempt to correct these issues, presenting the reader with a sensitive, nuanced portrayal of the development of a teenaged Venetian girl into a mater familias of the powerful Corner family.
One of Hurlburt’s most effective goals is to give Caterina due credit for her own political intelligence. Caterina was in her early teens when she married Jacques Lusignan, the king of Cyprus, which has led many historians to discount her potential for political acumen. Little is known of Caterina’s education, though Hurlburt does speculate that in addition to the likely start of a convent education, Caterina may have been allowed to share lessons with her brother Zorzi or have been educated by one of the many humanists who looked to her father, Marco Corner, for patronage. Although evidence for Caterina’s education is unfortunately lacking, Hurlburt’s suppositions are plausible, given the evidence of other exceptional young Venetian women who were allowed a humanist education (for example Cassandra Fedele, born only about a decade after Caterina). Even if she had only received basic convent education up to the point of her marriage, she had four years to prepare for her departure for Cyprus, and neither Venice nor the Corner family would have wanted to send the young girl off to be a queen without some preparation. As Hurlburt skillfully demonstrates in the first few chapters of the book, Caterina certainly demonstrated political knowledge and skill during her turbulent time in Cyprus and later in life back in Venice and Asolo. She withstood a coup soon after her husband’s death only nine months after her arrival in Cyprus; carved out space for her own power as Venice increasingly assumed de facto possession of the island; fought off the consistent attempts of her late husband’s half-sister Charlotte Lusignan to regain control of the kingdom; attempted to make marriage alliances to protect her reign and her family’s interests; maintained ties with Muslim Egypt; balanced the complex religious life of Cyprus, which included Latin, Greek, and Armenian Christians with small populations of Jews and Muslims; and attempted to resist Venetian takeover of her kingdom in 1488. In the fifteen years she ruled Cyprus, she proved herself to be an able monarch dedicated to protecting her sovereignty and her people.
Eventually, in 1488 the Council of Ten decided to remove Caterina because they felt leaving her on the throne was a great risk; they feared the growing power of the Ottoman Empire and the possibility that Caterina would remarry. In order to avoid the outright appearance that they had unseated a monarch, Venice proclaimed that Caterina freely offered her abdication to better protect the island. While Hurlburt acknowledges that Caterina was clearly coerced to go along with this farce, she goes on to demonstrate exactly how Caterina made the best of this new situation. In the negotiations of her marriage to the king of Cyprus, the doge had been required to name Caterina an adoptive daughter of Venice, a fictive title that Caterina made full use of when she returned to the Serenissima, frequently employing it to remind the doge, the Senate, and the Council of Ten of their obligations to her and to Cyprus. When the Venetian government made her the Lady of Asolo (partly to avoid the uncomfortable situation of having a queen living in a republican city), she continued to use the title to fight for the Asolani as well. Hurlburt convincingly argues that Caterina clearly understood the power of the title and the delicate position that Venice had created when they removed her and coerced her into corroborating their lie of abdication.
During the roughly two decades that Caterina lived as the Lady of Asolo, she focused on four political goals: protecting her own rights, both political and financial; protecting the rights of the Cypriots now under Venetian rule; helping the Asolani under her protection; and advancing the interests of the Corner family. Hurlburt shows how Caterina and her brother Zorzi often worked in tandem, each using their own political prerogatives to advance the other, thus demonstrating the power of the family as a whole. This is most clear in an event orchestrated by Zorzi when he was the rettore, or regional governor, of Brescia. Rettori were not allowed to self-aggrandize, but Zorzi found a way around this by inviting his sister the queen to visit. The arrival of a queen was an honor to the Brescians, who put on a massive spectacle that cost over 10,000 ducats and allowed Zorzi to bask in the reflective glow of his royal sister; he later became procurator of San Marco, one of the highest positions in the Venetian Republic. Caterina also worked throughout the rest of her life to secure offices and benefices for many of her male relatives and strategic marriages for female relatives, and made sporadic appearances in Venice for certain public rituals to remind the city of her, and by extension the Corner family’s, importance. When she died in 1510, she had a public funeral procession that began at the doge’s palace and went across the city to Santi Apostoli, where she was honored with a funeral oration delivered by the future Venetian historian Andrea Navagero; it was the first such oration dedicated to a woman in Venice. Clearly she succeeded in making her mark.
One of the strengths of Hurlburt’s book is that she does not end here with Caterina’s death: the final chapter is dedicated to how the Corner family used Caterina’s memory and built upon her legacy to continue the family’s impressive rise. Zorzi was her biggest champion, attempting to create an impressive tomb for her in a succession of churches, though he died before the project (finally in San Salvador) could be finished. Then in 1532, when the Corner family palace burned down, the family continued to use Caterina’s legacy, claiming that they were owed her dowry; when they got some of the funds back, they used the money to rebuild the palace and included the Lusignan/Corner arms on the ground floor, reminding all who entered of their most famous female family member. And although Caterina was certainly not the only famous or important member of the Corner family, Hurlburt makes a convincing argument for her significance in the family’s rise, which by the seventeenth century included a number of cardinals, bishops, and another doge. It is admirable that Hurlburt’s analysis of Caterina’s continued legacy extends to the seventeenth century, but here is one place where more detailed discussion would have been welcome, given the family’s continued prominence, and particularly the importance of another Corner woman in the late seventeenth century, Elena Lucrezia Corner Piscopia, the first woman to receive a university degree. One wonders if the image of Caterina was again raised as the family fought for Elena’s right to graduate, to establish a lineage of capable and significant women.
In addition to providing a compelling argument for the political savvy of Caterina Corner, in contrast to the usual image of her as either a Venetian pawn or a court lady in bucolic Asolo, Hurlburt’s book makes excellent use of a range of sources. Beyond the archival material commonly used, she has scoured the Venetian civic archives and archives elsewhere in northern Italy, and incorporated a wide variety of literary and artistic sources that help to provide a fuller picture of Caterina’s life. The book is fluidly written and beautifully produced with reproductions of the artwork analyzed and includes a glossary of terms for those less familiar with Venetian history, making it an interesting and fruitful read for scholars of early modern Venice and Italy, women and gender, the Mediterranean, and many other subfields, as well as for students and the wider public.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-italy.
Celeste McNamara. Review of Hurlburt, Holly, Daughter of Venice: Caterina Corner, Queen of Cyprus and Woman of the Renaissance.
H-Italy, H-Net Reviews.
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