On Alliances and Opportunism
Updated: Jan 13, 2019
It really needed an artist of different calibre. And clearly, Bernardino Contino did not comprehend the significance of what he was portraying. His altogether uninspiring, emotionless and stodgy, metre high frieze must surely qualify for one of the great missed opportunities in the history of art (alongside not a few runners-up). Placed above the door of the Cornaro family tomb in the Venetian church of San Salvador, it represents the so-called “Donation of Cyprus”, the act of transferring the kingdom of Cyprus to Venice in 1489. When Queen Catherine Cornaro, the last Lusignian ruler and the only Venetian to serve as a crowned head of state, ceremonially handed over her crown to the Doge, it was the end of an era and the final nail in the coffin of the Crusader East.
For the Italian city-states, the crusades were a godsend. They gave the merchants of Genoa, Pisa and Venice bases from which to carry out their commercial enterprises. The communal quarters in Acre and Tyre, and later their properties in Famagusta, were ideal for this. The Franks also benefited from this arrangement, in the support they received from Italian fleets that enabled the conquest of the Levantine coast, carried their goods, and transported armies and pilgrims to and from the East.
But this was no perfect alliance. The Italian presence was occasionally detrimental to the fragile existence of the Latin states. When the Italians fought with each other in the War of San Sabas (1256-70) and involved others in their fight, they severely weakened the Latin states at the very time that they were exposed to a new threat, one that would ultimately bring about their demise - the rise of Mamluks in neighbouring Egypt.
The Italians could not have, and never would have considered attempting to take over the Latin states in Syria. They worked with them, and quite successfully took advantage of them. But in the Fourth Crusade (1204) their opportunism and egocentricity reached new heights. Venice redirected an entire crusade against another major Christian power, the Byzantine Empire, occupied it, and established in its place a Latin Empire, receiving for itself substantial and significant land holdings. It was still a long way off, but perhaps now that they had tasted blood, the fate of the kingdom of Cyprus, was foreseeable. Three centuries later the Lusignian kingdom would become just another coin in Venice's purse.
And can one really blame Contino? He, and the commissioners of this work, saw the Venetian acquisition of Cyprus as a diplomatic success, and a fine addition to Venice's territorial possessions. And the crusades? What had they ever been, but a tool for the republic?