Monday, July 29, 2019

Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia

Annamaria on Monday

Here's a Jeopardy moment you will never see on the screen:

Contestant: Historic Firsts for $500

(BING sounding in the background)

Alex Trebek, reading: This Italian PhD was the first woman ever to earn a university degree.


 If this fact were not entirely too obscure to be used in such a context, the correct question would be:  Who was Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia?

Today, I will fill in this serious gap in our collective knowledge.

In human history, the very first university degree awarded to a woman was a doctorate in Philosophy to Elena Cornaro Piscopia.  She earned it at  the University of Padua on the 25th of June 1678 .  She was 32 years old at the time.  Her journey to that moment is fascinating.

Her father was Gianbattista Cornaro-Piscopia, a nobleman who eventually became second only to the Doge in Venice's heady power structure.  Her mother was Cornaro's peasant mistress, Zanetta Boni.  A first child, illegitimate at birth, Elena could not be recognized as a member of the nobility - a fact that galled her father.

By 1664, however, the ambitious Gianbattista has risen so high in Venetian society that he was able to throw his weight around.  He threw it in favor of his monumentally talented and brilliant child: Elena.

The family's palazzo

Plaque commemorating Elena's birth

  When a priest who was a friend of the family began her classical education, Little Elena's talents showed up early and continued to develop.  By age seven she had mastered classical Greek and Latin as well as French and Spanish.  Following which she learned Hebrew and Arabic, earning the designation Oraculum Septilingue, Oracle of Seven Languages.  She also studied mathematics, philosophy, and theology, at the same time as she was  becoming expert at the harpsichord, clavichord, the violin, and the harp.  She wrote music, too.  By her late teens, she had taken up physics, astronomy and linguistics.

By age 23, she was translating scholarly texts from Spanish into Italian.  And by 24, she was president of the Venetian society Accademia dei Pacifici.  Considering her astonishing accomplishments, her tutors, at the insistence of her father, petitioned the University of Padua to award her a PhD in Theology.  The Bishop of Padua, Cardinal Gregorio Barbarigo refused on the grounds that she was a woman.  But by now she was famous for her scholarly accomplishments, and her father wasn't taking no for an answer.  The university relented and offered her a PhD in Philosophy instead.  So many people wanted to observe her performance in her oral exams that they had to hold them at the Padua Cathedral, instead of in a university lecture hall.

Etching of her oral examination

For an hour, Lady Elena discoursed on randomly chosen passages from Aristotle's Posterior Analytics and Physics.  In Latin!  The awe-struck university examiners not only awarded her the degree, but a laurel wreath, a scholar's ring , and an ermine cape to wear on academic occasions.

Statue of Elena at the University of Padua

She became a lecturer in mathematics at the University of Padua - as had been Galileo before her.

Lady Elena lived only another six years, much of the time  as a lay woman in a convent devoting herself to charitable works.

She died on 26th of July 1684, three hundred and thirty-five years ago just this past Friday.

Memorial services were held for her in Venice, in Padua, in Siena, and in Rome.

Her gifts and achievements, however, still go largely unknown outside Italy.

Francesco Ludovico Maschietto, a monk-scholar, wrote a brilliantly researched biography of her, published in Italian in 1978.  It took until 2007 for it to be published in English translation. 

Satined glass window of Elena Piscopia at Vassar College


  1. What a fascinating story! Perhaps if she had lived longer (and been a man), she would be as well known as Galileo...

  2. “ Had been a man” I am afraid is the operant issue here, Michael. She was lauded in some ways, but pretty much as if she were a performing monkey. Another ultra famous laureate of the University of Padua was Giacomo Casanova, and we all know all it was that he had to do to earn immortality.

  3. I'm always amazed at how you come up with these overlooked historical gems, sis. I can almost see the movie now...