Giorgio Cornaro (H-4)

Born: 27 May 1517, Candia [Crete]

Married: 14 March 1554, Elena Contarini

Died: January 1570/1, Vallona

GIORGIO CORNARO (H-4) is remembered in history for a reason that neither he nor his contemporaries would ever have expected.

The Cornaro family had produced political and military leaders to Venice for more than 600 years. Yet Giorgio Cornaro found lasting fame not by politics (though he was descendant of a Doge and was a member of the Grand Council at age 20) nor by military achievement (though he died in battle) nor by wealth (though he owned large agricultural estates on the mainland and in Crete).

Giorgio Cornaro will be remembered because in 1551 he commissioned Andrea Palladio to design and build Villa Cornaro at Piombino Dese, one of the most influential structures in the history of Western residential architecture.

The commission at Piombino underscores the remarkable transformation of Palladio from a talented provincial architect into the architect of choice for the bright stars of the Venetian nobility. Indeed, Giorgio Cornaro, the engaging but enigmatic young man who ordered his new country home for Piombino in 1551, was one of the bridges between the predominantly provincial patrons of Palladio's career in the early 1540s and the remarkably small circle of interconnected Venetian families who increasingly became his patrons toward the end of the decade.

Palladio spent all of 1539 and much of 1540 not in Vicenza, but in Padua, in the company of his benefactor and mentor Giangiorgio Trissino. The stay brought him into the orbit of that celebrated theorist, dilettante and patron of Padua, Alvise Cornaro (B-26), and the circle of wealthy young scholars -- primarily Paduan and Vicentine -- who surrounded him.

Fortuitously, young Giorgio Cornaro stepped into this circle at Padua at the very time of Palladio's sojourn there. By happy coincidence, his father Sen. Girolamo Cornaro (B-64/H-1), newly-appointed as Capitano [military commander] of Padua, in January 1539 transferred his family to that city for a two-year stay.

Giorgio Cornaro appears as an important connection between the concentration of Palladian patrons gathered at Padua in the shadow of Alvise Cornaro and another documented group of future Palladian patrons centered in Venice in the early 1540s. In Venice Giorgio was part of a circle of 31 young patricians whose relationship is celebrated in Giovini di Vinetia [Youths of Venice], a terza rima by an anonymous poet. The work proclaimed that the hearts and souls of the young nobles were bound together by love.

How great a sweetness and great our attraction
To admire the handsome Giorgione Corner,
So shy to show forth his pure affection.

Thus the anonymous poet of Giovini di Vinetia described the future patron of Palladio's Villa Cornaro. Perhaps that same shyness discerned by the poet contributed to the most extraordinary circumstance of Giorgio's adult life: From the day he was admitted into the Maggior Consiglio [Grand Council] in 1537 at age 20 until his death as a commander in battle in 1571 at age 54 -- a span of 37 years -- Giorgio Cornaro never held a single political post in the Venetian government.

His patriotism and ability are both evidenced by the sole outlet that he chose for his public service: ten times in the space of 20 years he was elected to captain one of the war galleys of the Republic. His death ultimately came as he led his command in one of the military engagements with Turkish forces preceding the historic 1571 battle in the Gulf of Lepanto.

Giorgio Cornaro's interests spanned both the rural life of a landed proprietor and the cultural life of an urban patron of art. That combination of interests is less puzzling than it might otherwise seem, if the philosophical foundation of country life in the period is considered. Palladio himself expressed the prevailing view that a country house was a place "where the mind, fatigued by the agitations of the city, will be greatly restor'd and comforted, and be able quietly to attend the studies of letters, and contemplation." Perhaps Giorgio Cornaro was among those contemporary examples pictured in Palladio's mind as he expanded on the concept:

Hence it was the ancient sages commonly used to retire to such like places; where being oftentimes visited by their virtuous friends and relations, having houses, gardens, fountains, and such like pleasant places, and above all, their virtue, they could easily attain to as much happiness as can be attained here below.

The most persuasive documentary evidence of Giorgio Cornaro's preeminence as a cultural arbiter is a beautiful and suggestive tribute to his taste which Francesco Sansovino wrote in 1554 in dedicating to him a book entitled L'Avocato [The Advocate]. The dedicatory encomium is a small masterpiece of typically Mannerist literary conceits. Portraying himself as a lowly artisan offering his work to the high noble, the author (himself the son of Jacopo Sansovino, the official architect of the Republic) suggests that magnanimous patronage is Giorgio's standard role and that his "pure and refined judgment" in artistic matters "are marvelous to all." Sansovino closes with references to Giorgio's loving good humor and to his basic instinct, an absolute and pervading courtesy.

Even in the context of a dedication, such praise from a figure so prominently-connected as Francesco Sansovino testifies to Giorgio Cornaro's close involvement in the front rank of Venice's literary affairs at mid-century. Giorgio seems to have been a prominent patron of painting as well. In addition to sitting for his own portrait by Titian, he also must have been the Cornaro who collected the numerous canvases by Jacopo Bassano, Polidoro Lanzari, Paolo Farinati, the Tintoretto circle and other mid-sixteenth century artists which embellished the Cornaro homes in Piombino and Venice for centuries thereafter. (A print of the Titian painting, engraved by Skelton, was published in 1811 under the title A Nobleman of Cyprus). (The pioneer art historian Giorgio Vasari noted in 1568 that Giovanni Bellini's painting Cena in Emaus was at that date in the collection of Giorgio Cornaro, although he may have been referring to a first cousin of the same name [F-4].)

Ultimately, from the union of Giorgio Cornaro's interests in rural life and in art emerged the Palladian palace at Piombino, the crowning achievement of his life and one of the milestones of Western architecture.

1997 C. I. Gable