Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 25, 2017
Holly S. Hurlburt Daughter of Venice: Caterina Corner, Queen of Cyprus and Woman of the Renaissance New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. 360 pp.; 34 color ills.; 30 b/w ills. Cloth $85.00 (9780300209723)
Thumbnail

Global Renaissance studies, which include the examination of contributions by elite women to early modern European culture and considerations of courtly culture and ritual, have been some of the more productive avenues of recent research in the field. Holly S. Hurlburt’s engaging Daughter of Venice: Caterina Corner, Queen of Cyprus and Woman of the Renaissance, a biographical study of Caterina Corner (1454?–1510), the Venetian-born Queen of Cyprus, engages with these themes. Hurlburt situates Corner within the tumultuous political situation of the eastern Mediterranean in the later fifteenth century, where Cyprus sat uneasily between the Ottomans and Mamluks, and was desired and ultimately annexed by Venice as an addition to its extensive stato del mar (maritime empire). The book is concerned to recover and articulate Caterina’s perspective whenever possible, and to present her as an actor with agency rather than a passive pawn of Venetian imperialism. Hurlburt considers both how Corner skillfully negotiated gendered expectations and was at the same time constrained by those expectations. The dynamics of her court and her ruling strategies both in Cyprus and later in Asolo (a hill town on the Italian mainland) also receive considerable discussion.

Caterina’s story is by turns dramatic, tragic, and frustrating to a modern reader, but is always compelling. Caterina was born to a wealthy Venetian noble family with long-standing ties to the eastern Mediterranean. Her mother, Fiorenza Crispo, was related to Emperor John IV of Trebizond, while her father, Marco Corner, had economic connections to Cyprus, resided there at points, and was an early supporter of Jacques II. As Hurlburt states, “Caterina’s maternal ancestors typify the intricate, multilingual, and multidenominational socio-political milieu of the Mediterranean” (5). Caterina was married as a young teenager to Jacques II Lusignan, the king of Cyprus, an alliance orchestrated by her uncle, a close advisor to the king. The events surrounding Caterina’s betrothal and marriage by proxy together with consideration of the Cypriot context—notably its relation to Venice and the rival factions vying for its crown—are the focus of chapter 1. The marriage alliance between Caterina and Jacques II was a coup for the family, with clear significance for their status, but soon took on the contours of a state-arranged match. Caterina’s tie to Venice was cemented with her honorary adoption by the city as the daughter of Venice, a concept which both she and the city of her birth would invoke repeatedly.

Chapter 2 addresses the challenges faced by Caterina in the first year of her rule. Within months of her arrival on Cyprus, Caterina became pregnant, was widowed, and gave birth to a son and heir. With her position uncertain, she quickly attempted to shore up her legitimacy. Despite these efforts, a coup was staged, resulting in the murder of her uncle and trusted advisor and Caterina’s virtual imprisonment. Her rule was only saved through the direct intervention of Venice, putting Cyprus further into Venice’s orbit and Caterina increasingly under Venetian control. More tragedy followed soon after with the death of her infant son, making Caterina’s position even more vulnerable. Negotiation with Venice, both with the Senate and with Venetian officials on Cyprus, was a constant theme of her reign and a clear source of frustration to her. Despite this, Caterina strategically controlled her royal persona, created and maintained bonds with the Cypriot citizens, and strengthened her authority through ritual, display, and participation in “feudal mechanisms of power” (94).

Caterina’s reign as Queen of Cyprus came to an abrupt end when the Venetian Senate decided to remove her as ruler and annex the island. Her forced abdication and return to Venice are the subject of chapter 3. The immediate spur to these actions was a rumored marriage alliance that Caterina was supposedly attempting to contract. Concerned at the prospect of losing a key piece of Mediterranean real estate, Venice acted quickly and decisively, sending Caterina’s brother Zorzi to ask her to renounce her crown. Caterina’s return to Venice in 1489 was nevertheless grandiose with Venice celebrating its famous daughter with a characteristic display of pageantry.

Caterina’s presence there was problematic due to her status as a deposed ruler in republican Venice whose loss of kingdom and subsequent return to the city of her birth was not by her own choice. The solution was to make Caterina the Lady of Asolo, thus removing her from Venice and giving her an appropriate setting for her court. Her life at Asolo is the subject of chapter 4. Despite her tenure at Asolo, Caterina returned to Venice frequently. Her activities in Venice in this period are the focus of chapter 5. This chapter discusses her artistic patronage, which was relatively limited, her ongoing participation in Venetian civic rituals, and her continued projection of royal status in this context. Caterina’s final years and eventual death occurred against the backdrop of the battles between Venice and the members of the League of Cambrai. Her funerary rites provided a final opportunity for the public presentation of her royal persona with a lengthy funeral procession through the city.

The book concludes with chapter 6, which examines the legacy of Caterina and the development of her legend after her death. Her role in increasing the prominence of her family is highlighted. Caterina’s continued utility to Venice is underscored by her repeated appearances in official contexts. The fictionalized narrative of her abdication became particularly popular as it permitted the rather dubious circumstances surrounding Caterina’s loss of her kingdom to be reframed as a patriotic sacrifice to Venice and also permitted a “look back nostalgically to the glory days of the stato del mar” (230).

Hurlburt notes at the outset the potential of biographical treatments of women to be used as a tool to examine women’s lives through the lens of gendered concerns (12). Caterina clearly engaged in Renaissance self-fashioning, and the image of her that emerges is in many ways one of her own construction. Hurlburt makes extensive reference to sources on Caterina’s life, many of which have not previously received scholarly attention. Due to the formal nature of these sources, including Caterina’s official correspondence, ambassadorial reports, and literary panegyrics about her, Caterina herself remains somewhat elusive. Glimpses of an individual personality appear at points—Caterina seems to have had a flair for the dramatic, a love of the hunt, and a deep devotion to family, for example—but the Caterina the reader encounters is largely her official, public face.

Caterina’s apparent disinterest in art or architectural patronage is somewhat disappointing for an art historian, particularly in comparison to some of her well-known female contemporaries. Hurlburt observes this at points, commenting that “Caterina seems not to have had the same zeal for commissioning her own image as did her friend Isabella d’Este” (211). She also notes, “nor did she emulate other Renaissance monarchs by expressing her magnificence through secular architecture” (98). Images connected to Caterina during her lifetime are scant—a portrait by Gentile Bellini, a Madonna by Antonio de Saliba, a lost portrait by Titian, and a possible lost portrait by Giorgione. The decorations at Caterina’s hunting lodge, the Barco, are in poor condition and cannot be definitively connected to Caterina’s tenure there, nor is their decorative program legible. Hurlburt makes an effort to connect other works to Caterina. A reading of Caterina’s depiction in Gentile Bellini’s Miracle of the True Cross (1500) helps cement claims about her presence within Venetian ceremonial life and adds nuance to the message of Bellini’s work, although some of the identifications proposed remain speculative. A brief attempt to link Caterina to Vittore Carpaccio’s Legend of St. Ursula cycle (1490, 1497–98) is less convincing. The end of the book presents a discussion of images of Caterina in Venice after her death, which underscores both the significance of her legend in general and the utility of the mythologized moment of her abdication to Venetian identity and the myth of Venice. As Hurlburt is not an art historian, the discussion of the images is somewhat cursory, but suggests an interesting avenue for further analysis.

Although scholars of Renaissance Venice and the early modern Mediterranean world are likely familiar with Caterina’s story, Hurlburt makes significant contributions to the existing literature. First, she focuses on Caterina’s agency and political savvy, discussing the strategies Caterina employed to establish, convey, and cement her authority in the face of unending threats to her position. A second important contribution is to situate Caterina and her reign within the larger dynamics of cultural, political, and economic exchange in the eastern Mediterranean in the later fifteenth century. Her gift exchange with the Mamluk sultan Qa’it Bay, her overlord, for example, provides a fascinating glimpse into this network of exchange. The specific attention paid to gender issues in Hurlburt’s discussion is also a necessary reframing. Overall, Daughter of Venice is a comprehensive assessment of Caterina’s life, political career, and legacy that effectively situates her rule within the geopolitical context of her time. It seems set to remain the definitive work on Caterina for some time.

Heather Madar
Associate Professor of Art History, Humboldt State University

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.