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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in the
American Catholic Quarterly Review
Vol. 21 (Jan. 1896), pp820‑827

The text is in the public domain.

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 p820  A Daughter of the Doges

The Venetian family of the Cornaro had made its name illustrious by the several doges it had given to the state from the fourteenth century onward, and by one of its noble daughters, Caterina, queen of Cyprus. This young woman, daughter of a rich merchant, was given in marriage to James de Lusignan on his being made king of Cyprus, when that island was wrested from the Greeks. Proud though the Venetians were of the wealth brought by their enterprising merchants to the ancient city, it was deemed scarcely fitting that the new king should wed a wife without a title, although her family was one of the oldest in Venice, so the republic adopted the youthful Caterina; it pronounced her a daughter of St. Mark, and became her guardian. And nobly it fulfilled this self imposed trust, for later, when her royal husband was killed in the defence of his kingdom, Venice watched over the welfare of the widow and her infant child. Finally, her position becoming most precarious, Caterina cast aside the unsafe burden of sovereignty and abdicated in favor of the republic; later she retired to Asolo, where she kept up a mimic court for many years. Pietro Bembo, afterwards cardinal, wrote about the innocent but rather unreal life led there, with its fantastic pastimes and revels.​1 The story of Caterina has fascinated more than one  p821 painter of mediaeval life, notably Titian, whose portrait of her in the Uffizi Gallery charms us to‑day, and Makart, whose "Venice Paying Homage to Caterina Cornaro," was one of Austria's contributions to the World's Fair at Chicago.​a

Another distinguished member of the family, Luigi, was a great advocate of temperance. In youth he had led a rather wild and irregular life, but when forty years old he reformed completely, and became noted for his sobriety and abstemiousness. After his eighty-fifth year he wrote a "Treatise on a Temperate Life," which was translated into various languages.​b The work was commended by Addison in the "Spectator," who mentions the author's having reached the advanced age of one hundred and three. A different branch of the family, claiming descent from the Roman "gens Cornelia," also produced many eminent men, among them a pope, Gregory XII, a doge, several cardinals and other prelates, captains, generals, and ambassadors.

But a daughter of the queen's branch was destined to shed the greatest glory upon the name, already so celebrated in the history of its country. Helena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, born in 1646, attracted the attention of all Italy by her virtues, talents and learning. At the time of her birth the office of procurator​2 of St. Mark, second only to that of doge, was held by her brother, Jean-Baptiste.​c Thus the little Helena had all the advantages of a high station and historic name, and was surrounded from her infancy with the splendid and gorgeous environment characteristic of Venetian life. Surely an enviable position, and yet the child was not dazzled by so much brilliancy; a keen insight into the emptiness of it all appears to have been her birthright. Her chroniclers speak of her as a grave and thoughtful little soul, and tell us of her profound disgust for the ordinary amusements of childhood. She was endowed with an astonishing memory, and the original conclusions she drew from the facts presented to her gave evidence of remarkable reasoning power. Such varied gifts drew the attention of Jean-Baptiste Fabris, a friend of her brother's, who early foresaw the brilliant future of this charming and attractive child; at his suggestion it was decided to train her thoroughly in the ancient languages,​d and accordingly some of the most learned men of the time were engaged as her tutors. She soon gave evidence of  p822 great proficiency, with an indication that she might eventually surpass her instructors. While still a young girl just budding into womanhood, she spoke with fluency and purity both ancient and modern Greek, Latin, French and Spanish, and it is even recorded that no rabbi could surpass her in a knowledge of Hebrew. Her poems, too, of which many were written at this time, were greatly admired.

Not satisfied with her success as a linguist, Helena studied in turn music, philosophy, theology, and mathematics, in each of which she attained a high degree of perfection, and her reputation spread throughout Europe. To these intellectual gifts and great personal loveliness was added the crowning glory of rare moral beauty. It would have seemed only natural that one so fitted for every enjoyment would have given herself up to all that life proffered so temptingly, above all in a country where nature and art seem to invite one to drink to the full of their charms, and to seize the passing pleasures with no thought of future responsibility. But a high sense of religion and an austere spirit of self-sacrifice guarded the young girl, and made her flee from the seductions of her brilliant surroundings and the more subtle attractions of the applause that followed her every appearance.

Women were still admitted to many of the great universities, and Venice, with pardonable pride, desired its accomplished daughter to give a public proof of her learning by defending a thesis and submitting to the examination for the degree of Doctor of Arts​e at the famous university of Padua, then under the patronage of Venice. The young girl's native modesty shrank from so public a display of her learning, but finally in deference to the repeated entreaties of her family and the Signoria, she consented to the ordeal. Great preparations were made for the event. On the appointed day the vast cathedral was filled to overflowing with the most distinguished people in Italy, and a crowd of students from the various universities, eager to hear and see this new aspirant for academic honors. The bishop, as was customary, celebrated a solemn high mass; as he pronounced the final blessing, the examiner of the day arose. A more picturesque scene can scarcely be imagined; the dignitaries of the Church in their robes of various hues, the nobles and merchant princes of the great republic, the fair patrician women, framed by the solemn background of the old cathedral, and facing them the pure modest figure of the learned Helena. Perhaps the staid and solemn professor was moved with pity for this girlish candidate; mayhap he even wondered at her audacity, who knows? In any case he was bound to do his duty to his Alma Mater, and not allow mere youth and beauty to gain access to the famed university, unless they were  p823 accompanied by the more solid acquirements of philosophy. No leniency must be shown on account of age or sex, no superficial examination allowed. As question after question of the most difficult nature was answered by the youthful student with a simple ease and dignity that won all hearts, cheers burst forth from the sympathetic listeners. So brilliant were the replies, and so deep and varied the learning evinced by Helena in the subsequent discourses delivered by her, that the judges even declared their willingness to bestow upon her the degree of Doctor of Theology; surely no greater honor could have been offered by the ancient university. The final decision withheld the title, however, but with public recognition of the Cornaro's great and unqualified merit.​f

A few months later Venice prepared to celebrate its annual fete. The republic desired to honor the daughter who had won so signal a triumph at Padua, and at the same time add greater splendor to the national holiday by espousing her on this occasion to one of its most valiant defenders. The Great Council selected as her husband a nephew of the doge, a young general who had many times led the Venetian fleet to victory. But alas for the plans of these well-meaning and worthy lords, who with all their knowledge of men had failed to read aright the heart of a woman. The Cornaro is not free to wed. From her eleventh year she has consecrated her affections to her Saviour. This secret, religiously guarded, explains her indifference to the homage paid alike to her beauty and her talents. Even now, with maidenly reserve, she hesitates to assign her real reason, but contents herself with modestly declining the honor of the proffered alliance, revealing the true cause of her refusal to her brother alone. He, furious with disappointment, declared her childish promise rash and invalid, and continued to insist upon the marriage, so advantageous from every human point of view.

The day was fast approaching when the historic ceremony of the betrothal​3 of the doge and the Adriatic was to take place. Venice, whose vast commerce made her queen of the sea, was indebted to it for her beauty, her supremacy among mediaeval  p824 nations, even her existence. Her very foundations, scanty and shifting, were wrested with effort from the surrounding waters; in truth the beautiful city owed but little to the land. The waves, as if conscious of the dependence of the city upon them, kissed its stones lovingly; they softly bathed its beautiful marbles in time of peace and proudly carried its victorious fleets to new honors when Venice waged war against its neighbors, or sought to put down the power of the haughty Turk. Brightly, too, they danced in the sunlight when the mighty ships returned to the lagoons, bringing back the treasures of the East, and filling with pride the hearts of the merchant princes who were its rulers. This mutual dependence was most fittingly shown by a ring, symbol of an indissoluble alliance, and blessed like that which the bridegroom places upon the finger of his bride when he solemnly plights his troth at the foot of the altar. Many were the brilliant scenes enacted upon the fair blue sea, but none that called forth the pride and patriotism of the valiant republic as that pageant that marked the anniversary of her great victory. In the lovely month of May, under the calm sky and the soft sunshine, on the beautiful feast of La Sensa, Ascension Day, all Venice proceeded to make holiday. We may be sure that every Venetian who could secure a boat of any description made his way through the various canals as near to the place of meeting as his little craft could carry him amid the great throng of vessels. On the blue waters of the gulf lay the thousands of gondolas decked with flowers and bright with gayly-dressed pleasure seekers; the famed Bucentaur, the barge of the republic, resplendent among them all with its gorgeous tapestries and flags, bore proudly through the crowd the doge with the representatives of senate and council. Martial music resounded over the waters and alternated with the fresh, pure voices of young girls singing patriotic hymns in mingled praise of the republic and the sea, celebrating the magnificence, the glory and the profits of the illustrious alliance about to be renewed. A beautiful altar on the ducal gondola was prepared for the celebration of the sacred mysteries. The prelate in solemn pontifical robes stands ready to bless the betrothal, while the doge, kneeling upon a cushion splendidly embroidered with the arms of the city, sees around him, their heads bowed in homage, the great personages of the State. At the right of the altar stood a number of young boys, careless and happy children of the sea, a living embodiment of the essentially maritime existence of the republic; on the left, emblem of her aristocratic element, was a group of young girls, members of noble and illustrious families, at their head Helena Cornaro, the cynosure of all eyes. Suddenly from that immense throng is heard a loud joyous cry, followed by the silence of intense expectation.  p825 The doge has just received the blessed ring; he advances to the gilded railing of the gondola and exclaims aloud: "O thou, our strength and power, limitless wave of the ocean, be thou blessed! On this happy day Venice, by my voice, chooses thee for master and spouse. In exchange for this protection, this help that has never failed, she offers thee her gratitude and fidelity. May He who has created thee in all the immensity of thy power even while assigning thy limits receive and guard our promises and our vows." "Long live the Adriatic! Long live the doge!" resounds from a thousand throats; "glory and prosperity to Venice, the queen of the seas!"

The ceremonies over, all gave themselves up to pleasure as became the citizens of a great and prosperous nation, and in the gay and child-like spirit that characterized their age and clime. Gayly-colored banners hung from gondola and balcony, garlands and streams brightened the somber walls of old palaces. As evening came on fireworks were set off on the shores of the lagoons; arrows shot from the church towers carried their flaming crowns far into the air and the limpid waters of the canals reflected all the sparkling lights from sky and shore. Everywhere was brightness and gayety; here the shrill voices of the children at play, mingled with women's low laughter, there snatches of song or some national air sung by a party of brave sailors as they glided by, keeping time with their oars.

In the palace of the doge a scene of splendor charmed the eyes of all; from the open windows came floods of light and harmony; the balconies were brilliant with flowers and the gorgeous costumes of stately Venetian dames and their cavaliers. Hundreds of gondolas, swaying under the weight of the merry parties they bore along, crowded close to the walls, for all were eager to take part in the official celebration, or, failing that, at least to witness the festivities from as good a point of vantage as could be obtained.

Among the beautiful and honored women in the venerable palace of St. Mark's, Helena Cornaro moved with the modest simplicity that ever characterized her. In the world, but not of it, no thought of jealousy or intrigue disturbed the sweet serenity of her manner. A grave graciousness marked her greeting to all and underwent no change when conducted by her brother to a small oratory concealed from the grand salon by heavy hangings, she saw entering in affectionate discourse the doge and his noble nephew, the most popular hero of the day's fête. Yet Helena understood but too well the motive that had actuated the Signoria in the special honors showered upon her of late, and more particularly during the event­ful day now drawing to a close.  p826 She felt that the triumph at Padua had not alone influenced the doge in assigning her so prominent a place in the public ceremonies of the morning. Nerving her heart for the ordeal from which she saw no escape, she listened with a gentle gravity as the doge, with the tenderness of a father, said: "My daughter, do not any longer refuse to crown with joy the whole republic by accepting as your husband the suitor she has chosen for you: both your brother and I join our entreaties with those of all the people." Helena was about to reply, when her brother, anticipating her refusal and the religious motives she would assign, unrolled before her eyes a parchment bearing the authentic seal of Rome, and exclaimed: "Obey, Helen, obey! It is not only your privilege, but your duty, for you are free!" Helena seized the parchment, glancing rapidly over it, and seeing that it was a papal brief granting her a formal dispensation from her vow, she uttered a frightened cry and fell senseless to the floor.

Very early the next morning "the pious Godaninus,"​g abbot of the monastery of St. George, received the following note from Helena: "Hasten, my father, come and save one of your children; hasten, for the danger is imminent." The holy and learned Benedictine repaired hastily to the Cornaro palace in answer to this urgent appeal. Upon seeing him, Helena threw herself at his feet: "Save me, father, save me from a freedom that I have never demanded and that I do not wish to accept." After trying in vain to change the determination of the noble young girl, the venerable abbot could in conscience no longer refuse to receive her vows as an oblate of St. Benedict. Scarcely had he withdrawn, than Helena, calling up all her strength of mind and heart, presented herself before her brother and disclosed to him the new ties by which she had again bound herself unreservedly to God."

Such prompt and energetic firmness had its effect. Both father and brother were finally won over and consented to allow Helena to be happy in her own way. One cannot help wondering whether the young officer took her decision as calmly and whether he, like Helena, was merely being urged to the marriage for state reasons. One almost hopes that such was the case, and that before long he was allowed to unite himself to a maiden of his own choosing, although it would, of course, be far more romantic to picture him as pining away for love of the inexorable Helena.

Her father, while giving his consent that his daughter should lead a celibate and religious life, merely stipulated that she should not enter a convent. To this Helena agreed, grateful for the permission accorded her for leading the life of her choice, and realizing that some sacrifice of her own wishes was due to her family, whose plans she had so materially changed, and to the doge,  p827 whose disappointment she deeply regretted, and for whom she ever retained a warm regard. She passed the remainder of her life under the paternal roof, devoting herself to study, the care of her father and the service of the poor. In the midst of the splendors of the palace she led a life of the greatest simplicity, practicing, as far as possible, the discipline of the cloister and wearing under her rich attire the white habit of St. Benedict. Seeing her Saviour in the person of the suffering and the afflicted, she healed their sorrows with words of pity and hope, and gave for their material wants those comforts she denied herself. Some eighteen years were thus spent in the service of God and humanity, winning for her the admiration of those who had not the courage to follow in the thorny path of self-abnegation and the devoted love of the poor, who recognized in her the perfect disciple of Him who said: "In as much as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me."

At the early age of thirty-eight, in the year 1684, Helena Cornaro passed to her reward, followed by a mourning crowd of those to whom she had been a mother and a protectress. Her brother, inconsolable at the loss of his gentle companion, grieved unceasingly for her and erected in her honor a magnificent mausoleum in the Church of St. Justin.​h Padua, too, placed her statue among those of its illustrious citizens. But her most enduring monument is in the hearts of a grateful and admiring people, who have enshrined her in their memories as a shining example of learning, modesty and religion.

Anne Stuart Bailey

The Author's Notes:

1 It is probable that this book was among those printed by the famous Aldus; for Cardinal Bembo, both before and after his elevation to the Sacred College, was a friend and patron of Aldus.

Thayer's Note: Pietro Bembo, Gli Asolani, Venice, in aedibus Aldi, 1505 (and subsequent editions, also Aldine): "a dialogue in three books, interspersed with poems, which takes place in Asolo, at the court of Caterina Cornaro, former Queen of Cyprus and Bembo's cousin. The six protagonists dialogue of the intimate nature of love, expressing varied points of view; in the third book, Bembo looks for a philosophical and religious solution to the problem of love, deeply influenced by Neoplatonism and specifically by Marsilio Ficino's theories."

2 The Procurator of St. Mark lodged in the palace in the piazza di San Marco; he was obliged to hold three audiences a week, and was not allowed, without express permission from the great council, to be absent more than two days a month. His chief duties were to superintend the cathedral and treasury of St. Mark, take legal guardian­ship of orphans, and be public executor to such as chose to appoint him. The procurators were held in great consideration throughout Italy, and were remarkably free from intrigue. — Sketches of Venetian History.

3 The privilege had always been cherished by the Venetians with the most tenacious pride, and its anniversary was their greatest holiday. The original ceremony was very simple and touching. The clergy in their most beautiful vestments, and the doge in gorgeous robes of State, met at the Lido, and all the people gathered near. Solemnly various litanies and psalms were recited, then the bishop prayed aloud: "Grant, O Lord, that this sea may be to us and to all who sail upon it tranquil and quiet. To this end we pray. Her us, good Lord." How heartfelt must have been the Amens of these dwellers by the sea, so many of whom lived upon its bosom and experienced its treachery as well as its beauty. At the conclusion of the prayers the bishop sprinkled with holy water the doge and the court, the chanters intoning meanwhile, "Aspergimi, O Signor," after which the holy water remaining was thrown into the sea.

Thayer's Notes:

a Both paintings are posthumous. Caterina Cornaro died in 1510. The famous portrait by Titian (1542) depicts a beautiful woman depicted as St. Catherine of Alexandria, who may in fact have been a young Turkish model. Hans Makart's dates are 1840‑1884.

b Alvise Corner, to give him his Venetian name, wrote his short book, not much more than a pamphlet, in 1558 when he was 74, and it went thru many editions. Corner died at the age of 82, having made a career of gradually puffing up his age over the years: the long article in Gullino's Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani is illuminating. A posthumous edition, titled Discorsi della vita sobria del sig. Luigi Cornaro. Ne' quali con l'essempio di se stesso dimostra con quai mezzi possa l'huomo conseruarsi sano insin'all'vltima vecchiezza (Venice, 1620, appresso Marc'Antonio Brogiollo) is online at Gallica.

c An error. At the time of her birth in 1646, the procurator of St. Mark was Nicolò Cornari; Gianbattista — here peculiarly called "Jean-Baptiste" — would become procurator only in 1649. (Sansovino, as updated after 1580 by Martinioni, Venetia, città nobilissima, et singolare, p301.)

d Elena was seven years old when Fr. Giovanni Battista Fabris recommended she be made to take up the study of Latin and Greek.

e An error. Doctor of Philosophy.

f According to an inscription on a lead plaque inside her coffin, Cornaro was awarded her doctorate on June 26, 1678. Carlo Ferraris, "Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia e la sua tomba", Atti e memorie della R. Accademia di scienze, lettere ed arti in Padova, XIV.132 (1898).

g Sic; but should be Codaninus, as read on Cornaro's tomb, according to Prof. Ferraris, op. cit. p132, who stresses his correct transcription of her epitaph when previous printed works had got details of it wrong. The abbot's name is also often given in print as Cornelio Codamino.

h A twofold error. The implication is that Cornaro was buried in a church in Venice; the church is that of St. Justina (Santa Giustina) — in Padua.

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