Images of Cyprus at the Folger

Matthew Zarnowiecki, Touro College

Images of Cyprus in the Folger’s collections illustrate the complex connections between Cyprus, Venice, England, and the Ottoman Empire during the early modern period. On the one hand, cartographic and militaristic accounts help us to place the island on the eastern-most corner of the Mediterranean, closest to Turkey and farthest from England. Cyprus was an important site of conflict between east and west, Ottoman and Venetian, the Turk and the Christian. The siege of Famagusta (1570–1571) and the battle of Lepanto (1571) were thus decisive moments in the continuing struggles over the island’s identity. On the other hand, images created after the Venetians ceded Cyprus in 1571 demonstrate its continuing accessibility in the imagination. These texts and images show Cyprus to be a site of multiple potential meanings, including loss, triumph, aggression, and (as the legendary birthplace of Venus) love. They also illustrate Cyprus’s history as a palimpsest of occupiers and as a crucial, signifying territory for Christians and Muslims.

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Some of the Folger’s images depict military conflict. The Folger’s image of a fortress in Steffano Lusignano’s brief history of Cyprus (1573) is a fairly conventional one. In the text, the image and description of the fortress and siege take their places in a larger environment of religious and mercantile conflict, and Lusignano takes care to attend to both the particular dimensions and numbers of each town and fortress, as well as the larger narrative of struggle with the Ottoman Empire.

A striking contrast to the fortress image is a much later portrait by Wenceslaus Hollar of Catarina Cornaro, who was a Venetian Queen of Cyprus (1474–1489). Cornaro is an intriguing figure who came to power under dramatic and suspicious circumstances, played a key part in Venetian-Cypriot political and mercantile alliances, and was eventually forced to abdicate. In another version, this portrait bears the title “La bella Laura del Petrarca,” and the Folger’s version was likely re-titled by former owners, the van Veerle brothers, who were seventeenth-century merchants of Antwerp. Catarina Cornaro’s politically fraught reign is thus associated with Petrarch’s symbol of ideal and unattainable love. The act of re-titling accents both mercantile connections between Venice and Cyprus, and traditional associations of Cyprus with Venus, since Paphos is the legendary birthplace of the goddess of love.

Other Folger images, like those of Cornelis de Bruyn, John Woods, and the celebrated Theatrum orbis terrarum of Abraham Ortelius (1606), place Cyprus within the larger Mediterranean map. These images exemplify opposing impulses. Views of the shoreline and storm-tossed ships tend to exoticize the island with adventurous, romantic associations. Mapping the island within the Mediterranean, on the other hand, accents its range of cartographic, mercantile, political, and religious information and alignments.

A third perspective is found in the Folger’s unique copy of an Italian manuscript dated 1565–1571. These records of Alessandro Magno, a real-life merchant of Venice, provide fascinating and vivid pictures of life on the island. Like Lusignano, Magno is interested in presenting a comprehensive picture of Cyprus, including descriptions of its coastline, cities, and people. But his manuscript glances into everyday life as well; he sketches places and items of interest and documents his travels throughout the island. The rough sketches he must have made while traveling are sometimes converted into beautiful, full-color renditions of everyday life on the island, including a typical house, a Cypriot farmer threshing wheat, and a rather precise sketch and description of a Cypriot ox-cart. Elsewhere in the manuscript are drawings of exotic locales such as the pyramids and sphinxes of Egypt, and St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Magno’s wide travels help to place Cyprus at one end of a mercantile, military, religious, and experiential map that included England as well.

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For Shakespeareans, Cyprus is the island of Othello. But interest in the island is often limited to a few footnotes that stress the emptiness of Shakespeare’s references. For him, it is said, Cyprus is a much less real place than Venice. Shakespeare does begin with the threat of warfare with the Ottoman enemy, but in the play, Venice’s military problem is solved by a miraculous tempest that disperses the Turkish forces while leaving the Venetians unscathed. Magno’s manuscript images, and the Folger’s other images of Cyprus, ought to facilitate comparisons between Shakespeare’s Cypriot action in Othello, his Venetian merchants, and the concerns of Magno and other real-life merchants of Venice. Students of Othello might examine the Folger’s many images of the Moor of Venice in performance alongside Magno’s firsthand depictions and Lusignano’s military records. Students of early modern English-Italian relations can track Magno’s first-person descriptions of both Cyprus and England. The result might reveal both the reach, and the limitations, of Shakespeare’s imagined Cyprus.

Suggested Reading

Peacock, A.C.S., ed. The Frontiers of the Ottoman World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Gillies, John. Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Lusignano, Stefano. Chorograffia, et breve historia vniversale dell’isola de Cipro : principiando al tempo di Noè per in sino al 1572 / per il R.P. Lettore Fr. Steffano Lusignano di Cipro dell’Ordine de Predicatori. Bologna: Alessandro Benaccio, 1573.

Martinengo, Nestore. The true Report of all the successe at Famagosta, of the antique writers called Tamassus, a citie in Cyprus … Englished out of Italian by William Malim. London: John Day, 1572.

Magno, Alessandro. Voyages: (1557–1565). Trans. Wilfred Naar. Paris: Presses de l’Université de Paris-Sorbonne, 2002.

Magno, Alessandro. SAccount of Alessandro Magno’s journeys to Cyprus, Egypt, Spain, England, Flanders, Germany and Brescia, 1557–1565. Folger MS V.a.259.

Nesvet, Rebecca. “Martinengo’s ‘Grecians’ and Shakespeare’s Cyprus.” Shakespeare International Yearbook. 6 (2006): 280–310.

Pennington, Richard. A Descriptive Catalogue of the Etched Work of Wenceslaus Hollar, 1607–1677. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Vaughn, Virginia Mason. “Supersubtle Venetians: Richard Knolles and the Geopolitics of Shakespeare’s Othello.” In Visions of Venice in Shakespeare. Edited by Laura Tosi and Shaul Bassi, 19–32. Surrey: Ashgate, 2011.