CATARINA OF VENICE: THE GIRL OF THE GRAND CANAL.
(Afterward known as Queen of Cyprus and "Daughter of the Republic.") A.D. 1466.
"Who is he? Why do you not know, Catarina mia? 'T is his Most Puissant Excellency, the mighty Lord of Lusignan, the runaway Heir of Jerusalem, the beggar Prince of Cyprus, with more titles to his name—ho ho, ho!—than he hath jackets to his back; and with more dodging than ducats, so 't is said, when the time to pay for his lodging draweth nigh. Holo, Messer Principino! Give you good-day, Lord of Lusignan! Ho, below there here is tribute for you."
And down upon the head of a certain sad-faced, seedy-looking young fellow in the piazza, or square, beneath, descended a rattling shower of bonbons, thrown by the hand of the speaker, a brown-faced Venetian lad of sixteen.
But little Catarina Cornaro, just freed from the imprisonment of her convent-school at Padua, felt her heart go out in pity towards this homeless young prince, who just now seemed to be the butt for all the riot and teasing of the boys of the Great Republic.
"Nay, nay, my Giorgio," she said to her brother; "'t is neither fair nor wise so to beset one in dire distress. The good sisters of our school have often told us that 't is better to be a beggar than a dullard; and sure yon prince, as you do say he is, looketh to be no dolt. But ah, see there!" she cried, leaning far over the gayly draped balcony; "see, he can well use his fists, can he not! Nay, though, 't is a shame so to beset him, say I. Why should our lads so misuse a stranger and a prince?"
It was the Feast Day of St. Mark, one of the jolliest of the old-time holidays of Venice, that wonderful City of the Sea, whose patron and guardian St. Mark, the apostle, was supposed to be. Gondolas, rich with draperies of every hue that completely concealed their frames of sombre black, shot in and out, and up and down all the water-streets of the beautiful city; while towering palace and humbler dwelling alike were gay with gorgeous hangings and fluttering streamers.
In noticeable contrast with all the brilliant costumes and laughing faces around him was the lad who just now seemed in so dire a strait. He had paused to watch one of the passing pageants from the steps of the Palazzo Cornaro, quite near the spot where, a century later, the famous bridge known as the Rialto spanned the Street of the Nobles, or Grand Canal—one of the most notable spots in the history of Venice the Wonderful.
The lad was indeed a prince, the representative of a lordly house that for more than five hundred years had been strong and powerful, first as barons of France, and later as rulers of the Crusaders' kingdom of Jerusalem and the barbaric but wealthy island of Cyprus. But poor Giacomo, or James, of Lusignan, royal prince though he was, had been banished from his father's court in Cyprus. He had dared rebel against the authority of his step-mother, a cruel Greek princess from Constantinople, who ruled her feeble old husband and persecuted her spirited young step-son, the Prince Giacomo.
And so, with neither money nor friends to help him on, he had wandered to Venice. But Venice in 1466, a rich, proud, and prosperous city, was a very poor place for a lad who had neither friends nor money; for, of course, the royal prince of a little island in the Mediterranean could not so demean himself as to soil his hands with work!
So I imagine that young Prince Giacomo had any thing but a pleasant time in Venice. On this particular Feast Day of St. Mark, I am certain that he was having the most unpleasant of all his bitter experiences, as, backed up against one of the columns of the Cornaro Palace, he found himself surrounded by a crowd of thoughtless young Venetians, who were teasing and bullying him to the full content of their brutal young hearts.
The Italian temper is known to be both hot and hasty; but the temper of oriental Cyprus is even more fiery, and so it was not surprising that, in this most one-sided fray, the fun soon became fighting in earnest; for anger begets anger.
All about the young prince was a tossing throng of restless and angry boys, while the beleaguered lad, still standing at bay, flourished a wicked-looking stiletto above his head and answered taunt with taunt.
At this instant the door of the Cornaro Palace opened quickly, and the Prince Giacomo felt himself drawn bodily within; while a bright-faced young girl with flashing eye and defiant air confronted his greatly surprised tormentors.
"Shame, shame upon you, boys of Venice," she cried, "thus to ill-use a stranger in your town! Is a score of such as you against one poor lad the boasted chivalry of Venice? Eh via! the very fisher-lads of Mendicoli could teach you better ways!"
Taken quite aback by this sudden apparition and these stinging words, the boys dispersed with scarce an attempt to reply, and all the more hastily because they spied, coming up the Grand Canal, the gorgeous gondola of the Companions of the Stocking, an association of young men under whose charge and supervision all the pageants and displays of old Venice were given.
So the piazza was speedily cleared; and the Prince Giacomo, with many words of thanks to his young and unknown deliverers, hurried from the spot which had so nearly proved disastrous to him.
Changes came suddenly in those unsettled times. Within two years both the Greek step-mother and the feeble old king were dead, and Prince Giacomo, after a struggle for supremacy with his half-sister Carlotta, became King of Cyprus.