The origins of the Regata Storica in Venice are unclear. One version is that it commemorates the occasion on which twelve poor but honest and beautiful girls, who had been given dowries by the state and were about to be married en bloc at the cathedral of Venice, San Pietro di Castello, were abducted by pirates. The outraged citizens leapt into their boats and rowed so vigorously that that they caught up with the pirates, rescuing the girls. Their skill and speed in rowing was subsequently commemorated in races up the Grand Canal on the first Sunday of every September.
The other version is more firmly based in history: according to this, the Regata celebrates the return of Queen Caterina Corner to her native land, and her handing over to the Republic of her crowns of Cyprus, Jerusalem and Armenia. This happened in 1489, and the splendid ceremonies surrounding the remarkable event have been remembered and (sort of) re-enacted ever since.
We watched once before, in low cloud and drizzle, from a set of stone steps to the side of the Accademia Bridge. This year, Him Indoors got a rush of blood to the head and paid for seats at the ‘macchina’ at San Vio – think American bleachers with comfy seats – from which we could sit in glorious (and extremely hot) sunshine, cheering at the procession of boats and quietly commiserating with their heavily gowned and befurred, hatted and booted occupants. (All pictures of the event courtesy of Him.)
After the grand procession came the races: the juniors do a shorter course, but the adults go a gruelling distance from the Castello Giardini right across the Molo and up the Grand Canal to Santa Lucia and back to Ca’ Foscari, seat of the university.
We were placed about halfway, so didn’t know who the winners were (except in a couple of cases where one crew had an apparently unassailable lead). We did however learn from a later TV report that in the ‘University Boat Race’, local favourites and reigning champions Ca’ Foscari/IUAV (IUAV is the international university based on San Servolo, the former lunatic asylum) were beaten into first place by the University of Bari. (The University of Warwick (which has an outpost in Cannaregio) was another participant.)
But back to Caterina Cornaro (Corner is the Venetian spelling of the family name). Her story is famous: at the age of fourteen, she was married off to James (Giacomo) II (aka James the Bastard), king of Cyprus, Jerusalem and Armenia, at the command of the Senate, in order to secure Venetian commercial interests in the island, where the Corner family was already well established as merchants and sugar millers. They were as aristocratic – in Venetian terms – as you can get: four Doges in the family tree, Patricians, enrolled in the Golden Book, etc., etc.
She was married by proxy in Venice on 30 July 1468, and in November 1472 arrived at Famagusta in Cyprus and was married in person. Pregnancy followed quickly: equally quickly followed the sudden death of James, in his early thirties. Suspicion of poisoning fell on both the Senate and the Corner family, though nothing was proved.
Caterina became regent for her son, also James, but he died before his first birthday (again, there were suspicions), and Caterina continued to rule the island, until, like a good ‘Daughter of Venice’, she ‘voluntarily’ handed her inheritance to the Serene Republic in 1489. It remained in Venetian hands until its capture by the Ottomans in 1571. (Volume 3 of Sir George Hill’s great History of Cyprus covers this period.)
Caterina was given a little compensatory kingdom of her own in Asolo in the Veneto, where her court attracted the intellectual elite of the age, including Pietro Bembo and Gentile Bellini, who painted a famous portrait of the queen in old age (above). She died in Venice in 1510, and is buried in the church of San Salvador in Venice.
What about her husband? The epithet ‘Bastard’ given to King James II seems to have been metaphorically as well as legally appropriate. The illegitimate son of John II of Cyprus by Marietta de Patras (a Greek lady whose nose was ordered to be cut off by John’s wife Helena Palaiologina – don’t mess with the Palaiologoi!), he was made archbishop of Nicosia by his father, but was deprived of the see (and fled to Rhodes) in 1457 after he murdered the Royal Chamberlain. He was however recalled and forgiven by his doting father, on whose death in 1458 he plotted with the Mamluk sultan of Egypt to seize the throne from his legitimate, 14-year-old half-sister Charlotte, who (with her second (!) husband, Louis of Geneva) was besieged in the castle of Kyrenia for four years before fleeing to Rome in 1463: James’s coronation followed shortly afterwards. Following family tradition, at his death he left four illegitimate children.
I was going to finish this post with the story of how a family from the French minor nobility ended up as titular (and occasionally real) kings of Cyprus, Jerusalem and (most weirdly) Armenia, but I’ve run out of space to do it justice – watch for this gripping sequel soon!