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In a new series, we look at under acknowledged women through the ages.
The life of Caterina Cornaro could easily be the plot of a novel or TV drama. One of the most significant woman of Venice’s golden age, Cornaro (1454-1510) was an important figure in Renaissance politics, diplomacy and arts. She reigned as the queen of Cyprus for 16 years under immense pressure.
Caterina was the last monarch of the Kingdom of Cyprus between 1474 and 1489. Her tragic reign saw the Mediterranean island transfer from the hands of the Lusignan dynasty who had dominated the island since the Crusades, to the Republic of Venice, one of the clearest signs of the mercantile nation-state flexing its imperial muscle.
This significant event took place against the backdrop of interference from Venice’s rival, Genoa, and the rise of the Ottoman Empire in the east. Despite the complex political intrigue, Caterina became a much-admired figure in contemporary European society. Still, separating the real Caterina from the romanticised version of her can be a challenge.
Caterina was born in 1454, into one of the most noble and influential Venetian families. (It had produced four Doges, the senior-most elected official of the Republic.) She grew up in the family palace on the Grand Canal. Amongst the family’s many financial interests were rich sugar plantations on Cyprus. They developed close relations with the Lusignan family who had reigned over Cyprus since 1192.
After a period of instability, James II became King of Cyprus in 1468 and chose Caterina as his wife. The marital bond was supported by Venice: commercial rights on the island were now secured for Venetian interests. She was presented with a dowry of 100,000 ducats; a not inconsiderable sum of gold and silver coinage.
She and James married by proxy in St Mark’s Cathedral on 30 July 1468 when Caterina was 14-years-old. She set sail for Cyprus in 1472 to finally meet her husband.
Caterina arrived and married James in person at the Cypriot harbour city of Famagusta. James, however, died a mere ten months after the two met, leaving the heavily pregnant queen consort to become regent to her newborn son James III. Tragedy struck the young queen again on 26 August 1474 when her son and last legitimate heir to the Lusignan line died. The child’s passing left Caterina as queen regnant, a role she would hold for 16 years. Rumours spread that James II had been poisoned by the queen’s relatives.
Thrust into a position of power and prestige through the title, Caterina was immediately the centre of various intrigues within the court. She survived conspiracies from within to overthrow her, and pressure from Naples and the Papal state.
It was Venice that exerted the greatest threat to Caterina. Control of Cyprus would consolidate the Republic’s influence over the entire Mediterranean, so they removed many of the queen’s trusted advisers and replaced them with commissioners and counsellors influencing decision making. While it is easy to portray her as a victim of Venetian manipulation, for years she faced down considerable pressure by the Republic to surrender the throne.
Removal from Cyprus
In 1489 Caterina finally relented to the Republic’s exertions, mediated by her brother, to abdicate. Although she lost political power, she was still able to stage manage her image successfully. Contemporary chronicler George Boustronios’s account tell us
on 15 February 1489 the queen exited from Nicosia for Famagusta to leave … she went on horseback wearing a black silken cloak, with all the ladies and the knights in her company …. Her eyes, moreover did not cease to shed tears throughout the procession. The whole population was bewailing.
The reality was more complex. Cyprus was locked into a feudal system which was retained by the Venetians; for most Cypriots life would not change with their queen’s exile and the collapse of the monarchy.
The pageantry of the fleet carrying the exiled Queen home was played as a brilliant piece of propaganda by both the Doge and by the former Queen. Her disembarkation in Venice became a common scene in contemporary painting.
Queen of the arts
On return to Italy, Caterina was granted for life the fiefdom of Asolo, a town in the Veneto region of northern Italy, in 1489.
Under Caterina, it became a flourishing court for Late Renaissance art and learning. Painters such as Gentile Bellini and poet Andrea Navagero were welcomed. The reputation of the Queen’s court soon spread, particularly after humanist Cardinal Pietro Bembo used it as the setting for his famed dialogues on platonic love, Gli Asolani.
There is some debate about who really spent time in Asolo, leading to one historian to describe the “mirage of Asolo”. Whatever the true nature of the court; the image of the cultured Queen in exile was manipulated by Caterina. She became a standard figure of portraitists. In later life, and in even in death, Cornaro had far greater control than she ever did during her reign.
In 1510 she died in Venice. The crowds wanting to participate in the funeral of Caterina were so large that a bridge of boats was constructed to allow greater pedestrian movement. She was buried in the church of San Salvador near the Rialto Bridge.
Death was not the end of Caterina’s story. Even centuries later she continued to influence the arts. The audience hall of Caterina’s castle at Asolo was converted to a theatre in 1798; the theatre itself was later purchased by the John Ringling Museum of Art where it has been reassembled in Sarasota, Florida.
In 2017, a portrait of Caterina from a private collection underwent conservation and was exhibited in the Leventis Museum in Nicosia in Cyprus for the first time. The conservation work included both art historical research and scientific analysis and confirmed a 16th century date for the portrait.
Copies of original portraits of the queen continued to be made into the 18th and 19th centuries. The University of Sydney has within its art collection a large oil painting of unknown hand, but from the tradition of a lost Titian. The queen wears a black widow’s gown, a coronet and necklace.
Robert Browning wrote of Asolo. The libretto based upon her life by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges would go onto to form the basis of five operas. A highly romanticised novel Royal Pawn of Venice: A Romance of Cyprus was published in 1911.
It is time her story was once again better known. The story of the republican queen of arts.
The Hougoumont, the last ship to take convicts from the UK to Australia, docked in Fremantle, Western Australia, on January 9, 1868 – 150 years ago. It brought an end to a process which deposited about 168,000 convicted prisoners in Australia after it began in 1788.
Convicts had ceased to be sent to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) decades earlier, but Western Australia still wanted convict labour to help with building projects. By the time the Hougoumont landed its shipment of 281 convicts, the Swan River penal colony in Western Australia had been reliant on convict labour for 18 years, and received almost 10,000 male prisoners from Britain.
The convict system may have ended with the arrival of the final convicts on the Hougoumont and the disbandment of Australia’s penal settlements, but the people who were its legacy lived on. Some prisoners achieved a kind of celebrity status. Mary Reibey, who was transported to Sydney, became a successful businesswoman and charitable benefactor, and is commemorated on the Australian $20 note.
In Western Australia some of Britain’s “bad” men made also “good”. Alfred Chopin, transported for receiving stolen goods, became a famed and sought-after photographer. Embezzler John Rowland Jones became a reporter for the Western Australian government, and later editor of the West Australian newspaper. Their stories are extraordinary, but they have been used to present a generally favourable narrative which contrasts their heroism against the long-established stain that supposedly blighted those generations of Australians descended from convicts.
It is easy to find thousands of ex-convicts who left crime behind and forged new, ordinary, lives in Australia. Yet, while some ex-convicts became pillars of their communities, got married, and became much-loved and valued friends and neighbours, others struggled.
Our ongoing research shows that the impact of transportation could last a lifetime for those in Western Australia. Many convicts were left struggling with unemployment, personal relationships, and alcoholism, and drifted through both life and the colony. Many re-offended for decades after they were freed in Australia, but only committed low-level nuisance and public order offences – mainly drunkenness and vagrancy – rather than the more serious crimes for which they were initially transported.
The Western Australian records we’ve been using for our recent research and digitised for the Digital Panopticon project reveal the story of Samuel Speed, the last living Australian convict. He was transported to Western Australia in 1866 and died in 1938, just short of his 100th birthday.
Speed was born in Birmingham, England in 1841. He had one brother and one sister, but little else about his family or early life is known. He was in his early twenties when he was tried in Oxfordshire in 1863 for setting fire to a haystack. Homeless and begging for food, he had committed arson in order to get arrested and spend some time in a warm cell. He was sentenced to seven years of convict transportation to Australia.
Speed was conditionally released in 1869 and was allowed to live outside of the prison walls and undertake employment, provided he did not commit any further offences. He found work as a general servant in Western Australia and was finally granted his certificate of freedom two years later. He went on to help build bridges across the vast Swan River, and spent the rest of his working life at various companies around the state. He was never re-convicted of any offence and went on to live a perfectly ordinary and law-abiding life, only coming to the attention of the papers a few months before his death.
By that time, old and frail, and dependent on the care of attendants, Speed’s memories of transportation were faded. Among the few recollections of his former life he remembered that:
Among those unfortunates transported … were men of every walk of life; doctors, lawyers, shirt-soiled gentlemen, and social outcasts tipped together in the hothouse of humanity that was the Swan River Colony.
A kind of rehabilitation
Speed lived long enough to see his former penal settlement become part of the federated commonwealth of Australia. He witnessed the death of an old archaic system, and the birth of a new and confident Australian nation.
To the early 20th-century press, his life was a gratifying confirmation that they system had worked. Western Australia had taken corrupt British convicts and turned them into productive members of society. The report of his death in Perth’s Sunday Times confidently asserted that Speed’s conduct was all that a reputable citizen should aspire to.
He was not by any means the only ex-convict who stayed out of trouble, however, as our research is showing, his behaviour was far better than most of his fellow ex-convicts. It was also better than the rumoured conduct of free settlers who flooded into Western Australia after gold was discovered in the 1880s and 1890s.
Our preliminary research is showing that about 80% of men who arrived on the last convict ship (discounting 67 Irish political prisoners) committed either a regulatory infraction such as absconding, possession of contraband or violent conduct, or a criminal offence during their time under sentence. Given the number of convicts who re-roffended both during and after their sentence, it’s better to think of the transportation system as encouraging enough reform for society to progress. The convicts as a cohort may not all have rehabilitated, but few committed serious offences after they were transported.
As for Speed, he died in Perth’s Old Men’s Home in 1938. Seventy years after the last British convict ship arrived in Australia, the convict period had finally ended.
USA: The USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) Launched
On this day in 1967, the US Navy aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) (John F. Kennedy-class aircraft carrier) was launched and was commissioned on the 7th September 1968. It was the last conventionally powered aircraft carrier built for the US Navy. ‘Big John,’ as it is known, was named after former US president John F. Kennedy. The carrier was decommissioned on the 1st August 2007. The carrier’s name will be carried by the future Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy (CVN-79).
Australia – New South Wales: Transportation of Convicts to New South Wales Ended
On this day in 1840, the transportation of convicts to the colony of New South Wales in Australia ended. Transportation of convicts to New South Wales began with the departure of the first convicts from England on the 13th May 1787, with the first convicts arriving at Botany Bay on the 20th January 1788. Transportation of convicts continued in to other areas of Australia until the last ship arrived in Western Australia on the 10th January 1868.