First woman in Europe to earn a doctorate; scholar of theology; author of Latin and Italian letters, four philosophical discourses, eleven encomiastic orations, and poems in several genres
Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia was born on 5 June 1646, the fifth of seven children to the Venetian nobleman Giovanni Battista Cornaro Piscopia and the plebeian Zanetta Boni. Giovanni Battista married Boni only after fathering four of their children. This fact excluded Elena Cornaro Piscopia’s elder siblings from the registry ofVenetian nobility, though their father served the republic as procurator of Peschiera, as captain of Bergamo (1641—1642), and, from 1649 on, as one of nine procurators of San Marco in Venice, gaining this last position through a competition that required a donation of a substantial sum to the republic. In 1664 he paid an additional one hundred and five thousand ducats to acquire noble titles for his first two sons.
Noted for her erudition at an early age, Elena Cornaro Piscopia studied Greek with Giovanni Battista Fabris and Latin with Giovanni Valier, despite strong Venetian opposition to the serious education of girls. Following fifteen years of study with Fabris, she was tutored in both ancient and modern Greek by Alvise Grandenigo, premier Hellenist in Venice and librarian of San Marco. Her curriculum also included French, Spanish, mathematics, the natural sciences, astronomy, and geography—a program on the basis of which she was considered ready to undertake the study of philosophy and theology. For the former, she enrolled with Carlo Rinaldini, professor of philosophy at the University of Padua; the latter she studied with Father Felice Rotondi of the same university. To enrich her theological studies, she learned Hebrew from the renowned rabbi, Shemuel Aboaf. With organist Maddalena Cappelli she studied music.
By 1678, Cornaro Piscopia was deemed ready for the doctoral examination in either philosophy or theology. She chose theology. The university board (Rtformaton) posed no opposition to the request, but the examining professors sought the consent of Cardinal Gregorio Barbarigo, bishop of Padua, who refused. Despite a prolonged campaign of letters, Barbarigo held firm, evidently on grounds of Catholic orthodoxy, which prohibited women from becoming expert instructors in the faith.
Cornaro Piscopia then applied for her doctoral examination in philosophy. On the appointed day, 25 June 1678, the assembled crowd was so large that proceedings had to be relocated in the chapel of the Madonna in the Paduan cathedral. The examiners, stupefied by her encyclopedic command of the material, dispensed with voting and granted her the Ph. D. by acclamation, presenting her with the traditional ermine robe, laurel crown, ring, and philosophy book. One immediate result of her success was renewed hostility toward women candidates for university degrees. The next request for examination, by Carla Gabriella, was never granted. It would be decades before any other woman would earn a doctorate.
Cornaro Piscopia was a celebrated member of the elite literary academies of five cities: the Ricovrati of Padua, the Infecondi of Rome, the Intronati of Siena, the Erranti of Brescia, and the Dodonea and Pacifici of Venice. She was also a secular oblate of the Benedictine order. When she died in Padua on 26 July 1684, thirty-seven members of the college of philosophers and doctors, together with the local religious orders and a crowd of citizens, marched through the city. Shops closed for a day of collective mourning. Her request that her sister destroy her writings was carried out immediately upon her death. The few that remain include four academic discourses in Italian, thirty letters in Latin and Italian, a short work translated from Spanish, two supplications to the pope, eleven encomia in various languages, five epigrams in Greek and Latin, one acrostic in French, six sonnets in various languages, and one ode in Italian. A funerary monument in her honor was torn down by her brother, Girolamo, in 1727. Memorials to Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia may be found today at the University of Padua, Vassar College, and the University of Pittsburgh. Her tomb lies in the Cornaro chapel in Padua’s St. Giustina basilica.
See also the subheadings Latin Learning and Women; Greek Learning and Women (under Education, Humanism, and Women); the subheadings Letter Writing; Sonnet Writing (under Literary Culture and Women).
Bruhns, E. Maxine. “The Cornaro and Her Impact in the United States and England.” In
Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia. Prima donna laureata nel mondo. Terzo centenario del dottorato (1678—1978). Edited by Maria Ildegarde Tonzig, 141—147.Vicenza: Universita degli studi-Abbazia di S. Giustina (Padua), 1980.
Labalme, Patricia H.“NobiIe e donna: Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia.” In Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia. Prima donna laureata nel mondo. Terzo centenario del dottorato (1678—1978). Edited by Maria Ildegarde Tonzig, 163—167. Vicenza: Universita degli studi-Abbazia di S. Giustina (Padua), 1980. (In English.)
Labalme, Patricia H.“Women’s Roles in Early ModernVenice:An Exceptional Case.” In Beyond Their Sex: Learned Women of the European Past. Edited by Patricia H. Labalme, 129—152. NewYork: NewYork University Press, 1980.
Maschietto, Francesco Ludovico. Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia (1646—1684). Prima donna lau-reata nel mondo. Padua: Antenore, 1978.
Maschietto, Francesco Ludovico.“Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia.” In Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia. Prima donna laureata nel mondo. Terzo centenario del dottorato (1678—1978). Edited by Maria Ildegarde Tonzig, 108-138.Vicenza: Universita degli studi-Abbazia di S. Giustina (Padua), 1980.
Pynsent, Mathilde. The Life of Helen Lucretia
Cornaro Piscopia, Oblate of the Order of St. Benedict and Doctor of the University of Padua. Rome: St. Benedict’s, 1896.