Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Sunday, July 26, 2015

Elena Cornaro Piscopia: "The Prodigy of Venice"

Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia (died 26 July 1684)


Born in Venice on 5 June 1646, Elena Cornaro Piscopia was the first woman known to have been awarded a doctoral degree by a university.

Elena Cornaro Piscopia
She was the daughter of Giovanni Battista Cornaro Piscopia, a member of the extraordinary Cornaro family--a family that produced doges (the chief magistrate of Venice), cardinals, soldiers, and a queen (Caterina Cornaro, the last queen of Cyprus).

Giovanni Battista Cornaro Piscopia himself was a procuratore di San Marco, a position second only to that of the doge of Venice. (A fourteenth-century king of Cyprus who stayed at the Cornaro palace, Palazzo Loredan, had given his hosts a Cypriot castle, Proscopia, which was added to the name of this branch of the Cornaro family.)

Elena's mother was Zaneta Giovanna Boni of Val di Sabia, variously described as "a peasant" or as a woman "of common origins"--and not married to Giovanni Battista at the time of Elena's birth, although she was the third child the couple had together. 

By the age of seven, Elena Cornaro Piscopia was being tutored by the family priest in philosophy, theology, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, French, and Arabic, among other subjects. Whew!!

The young Elena Cornaro Piscopia was also devout--she secretly made a vow of chastity when she was eleven, and in 1665, at the age of nineteen, Elena Cornaro became a Benedictine oblate, a lay monastic-- though her father would not allow her to become a nun, which is what she wanted to do. 

Instead, in 1672, he sent her to the University of Padua where she could continue her education. Having completed her studies in 1677,  Elena applied for a degree in theology, but that degree was refused--she was a woman, and Catholic authorities refused to award the title of doctor of theology to a woman. She was given a doctor of philosophy degree instead. 

Given the extraordinary interest in her, her defense was schedule at the Cathedral of Blessed Virgin, Padua, rather than at the university's hall, on 25 June 25 1678. She was thirty-two years old, the first woman known to have received a doctoral degree. 

She devoted the last seven years of her life to study, rigorous penance, and ministering to the poor. Her academic discourses, translations, and devotional work were published posthumously in Parma (1688--I've been unable to locate a title page or the volume itself).

The Encyclopedia of World Biography offers an excellent essay here. There is also a brief chapter on Elena Cornaro Piscopia in a 2009 European Union publication, Women in Science--it's an entire book you can access and download for free (or you can listen to an audio version)! There is also a new English translation of an Italian biography, written in 1978, by Francesco Maschietto, Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia (1646-1684): The First Woman to Earn a University Degree. The original publication of Maschietto's book commemorated the four hundredth anniversary of Cornaro Piscopia's doctoral examination in Padua. 

A commemorative plaque in Venice,
noting the place of Elena Cornaro Piscopia's birth