October 20, 2010

Writing Caterina Cornaro's Life

My novel The Last Queen of Cyprus is a fictional account of the life of Caterina Cornaro. In the fifteenth century, the Republic of Venice selects fourteen-year old Caterina to marry the king of Cyprus. When the king and his son die under mysterious circumstances, Venice is convinced they have a pawn they can manipulate. Much to their surprise, Caterina fashions herself into a queen in her own right, often favoring the Cypriot people over the Venetians. Repeated assassination attempts, and plots by the dead king's relatives to overthrow her, are unsuccessful but when her brother betrays her, her sense of duty is conflicted. Should she continue to serve her subjects in Cyprus or protect her family in Venice? I am currently seeking an agent for this book that is one of a series about historical Venetian women.

Why Caterina?

Searching for the source of Antonio Vivaldi's passionate music, I went to Venice and fell in love with this watery city and its enigmatic history. Then I became fascinated with the women throughout its history who led atypical lives in their own times. Caterina Cornaro is one of those women. A convent-educated noblewoman, she was thrust into the international political arena and fulfilled the traditional role of wife and mother. History portrays her as a tool of Venice but, as I studied her life story, I began to question that perception. Why did Venice want her to step aside if she was just a pawn? How was she able to resist the pressure to step down as queen for such a long period of time? I began a journey to learn the answers.

God Bless Librarians

Only the library in New York City has a larger circulation than the King County Library here in Western Washington where the librarians are superb. For some years now it has been effortless to request a book online. Within a few days, I receive an email notice that the book is at my local branch. If the library does not hold the book I need, the librarians secure it for me from another lending library. Amazingly, they locate the book within a very short time span and I have yet to pay a fee for borrowing a book, even though my own search of WorldCat often indicates that the nearest libraries charge fees.

In Venice, the librarians at the Marciana Library off of St. Mark's Square are equally resourceful, locating documents, books, and maps from their extensive resources and making references to other locations. Initial entry to an Italian library can be tricky, but the King County Library was helpful even here, writing a letter for me in Italian requesting library privileges. Three years later, the Marciana Library still had our information on file and new library cards required only a small fee. The Correr Library was our main haunt during our last visit. I sat at the sturdy reading table, taking notes on my laptop in the quiet of serious study. The most useful biography was written in French, a boon for me, as I still read French better than Italian.

In Venice

One of the graces of doing research in Venice is that the city still holds much of its history in its buildings and canals. We searched records for the locations of the Cornaro homes, viewed the Grand Canal facades, studied the campi (squares) where some family members resided and searched for hidden entrances.

Caterina spent much of her youth in a Padua convent and only about four years in her family's homes, so we moved on the the countryside and the city of Asolo. The city where she spent the last two decades of her life is charming. Caught between the past and the present, Caterina's castle looks over beautiful cypress trees and fields waving in the wind. Artists and musicians surrounded Caterina and she labored to improve the city, but she still must have felt lonely in her exile, so far from Venice and the island of Cyprus she had grown to love.

In Cyprus

In the midst of my revisions to the book, my desire to see Cyprus grew. What was it about the Cypriot people that drove Caterina to defy Venice? How did the island differ from Venice? Was leaving Cyprus to return to Venice painful for her?

Cyprus is a divided island, held by Greece and Turkey. The Greek claim on the island is recognized by the United States as legitimate. My problem was that I wanted to visit the Turkish side of the island, where Caterina resided. Getting information about travel was difficult and animosities are clear. The Cypriot Embassy website carried a story about how the Turks were looting the island and internet searches for information on places to stay on the Turkish side always showed Greek hotels in other parts of the island.

We decided to take our chances and make arrangements for travel to Cyprus from Turkey. The tour guides told me that there were no hotels in Gazi Magusa (Famagusta) where I believed my research for the book should be centered. (Translation: There are no Turkish hotels.) We wound up in a hotel in Girne (Kyrenia)--50 miles away. Girne is a wannabe resort destination with tacky jewelry, sleazy clothing and casinos.
This did not prevent our having a wonderful time and we certainly ran into an amazing bit of luck there. A local tour guide referred us to a professor who could take us to Famagusta.

Dr. Mahmet Haci┼čevki has trained most of the travel guides in Northern Cyprus and helped set up their tourism industry. He also teaches international relations, has studied in France and Germany, and holds a wealth of information in his head. Because of my interest, he read David Hunt's book on Caterina Cornaro before we met and designed the day around my needs. He was very concerned that my novel contain "the facts but also the romance." It was an amazing day taking us from the heights of St. Hilarion to the Lusignan palace and walls, to the plants that grow in abundance around those walls. He was an amazing teacher, encouraging the goals of the student, and enriching her outlook. It is a blessing that he came to me.

On the last day of our trip we went into Greek Cyprus. The Cornaro family held land in the Limassol region so I rounded out my experience by visiting the southern part of the island. Standing there and gazing out at the sparkling crystal water of the Mediterranean everything seemed possible. We also visited the Greek part of the divided city of Nicosia (Lefkosia to the Turks) where I had read there was a portrait of Caterina. In the Leventis Museum we found a room full of portraits. Fortune has smiled on me throughout this journey of writing Caterina's life.

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