Cornaro Piscopia, Elena Lucrezia

views updated May 29 2018

Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia

Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia (1646–1684) was probably the first woman in the world to receive a Ph.D. degree; she is definitely the first woman to have been recorded doing so. She was a respected and noted philosopher and theologist, although she never received a degree in the latter because the church would not allow it. Students and scholars from around Europe would come to discuss philosophical issues with Piscopia and to learn at her side. Monuments to her honor have been placed around the world, all in dedication of her amazing intelligence and accomplishments.

Born in to the Noble House of Cornaro

Piscopia was born on June 5, 1646, in Venice, Italy, into the noble Venetian House of Cornaro. The Cornaro family is most famous for commissioning over many years the creation of palaces, chapels and church art, villas, paintings, theaters, and more, assuring their place in Venetian history as most of them still stand in the twenty-first century. The Cornaro family was also well known for being able to trace its roots all the way back to the noble Roman family of Cornelii, which included such people as the famous general Scipio Africanus and numerous consuls of Rome. They were also distinguished for having turned out four Venetian Doges, a Queen of Cyprus, and nine Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church. Cornaros were involved as fierce soldiers in leading Venice in battle against Hungary, Milan, the Ottoman Turks, and the League of Cambrai. They too were involved in expanding the empire of Venice into the Eastern Mediterranean. The husband of the queen of Cyprus—who was related to the family—gave the Piscopia castle to the Cornaros, and it became the seat of the family thereafter.

It was Piscopia's family background, then, that is most likely responsible for opening doors to education for the young scholar that most women at the time were not allowed through, although Piscopia must have shown a capacity for study very early on for her father to encourage her as he later did. Piscopia's father, Gianbattista Cornaro Piscopia, was the Procurator of San Marco, which is a term that denotes the civilian job of agent for the church, and her mother, Zaneta Giovanna Boni of Val di Sabia, was of common origins. Piscopia had two older brothers, one older sister, and one younger sister. She grew up in a rather erudite atmosphere, full of studying and learning and a knowledge of what their family's history represented.

Showed Early Aptitude for Learning

Piscopia began her studies early, being tutored by the family priest, Monsignor Gianbattista Fabris, in philosophy and theology. Other teachers, including John Valier, Doctor Bartolotti, Alexander Anderson, and Luigi Ambrosio Grandenigo, filled in the gaps in her education by teaching her grammar, dialectics, mathematics, astronomy, music, science, and languages. She excelled especially at philosophy and theology, as well as at languages; she spoke and read Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, French, Arabic, and Chaldaic. Her excellence in languages earned her the title "Oraculum Septilingue," a phrase which meant that she was a master (an oracle) at seven languages besides her own native language of Italian.

Her education also incorporated the arts, considered to be more feminine, including reading and writing music. Piscopia played the harpsichord, clavichord, harp, and violin. She was also an accomplished singer. Her father encouraged her to continue with her learning, and by the time Piscopia was 19 she was widely acknowledged to be the most learned woman in Italy. People from all over Europe, some of the best scientists, clergymen, and noblemen in the European world, came to the Palazzo Cornaro in Venice, and later to the smaller Palazzo Cornaro in Padua, to meet Piscopia. She was always being asked to participate in academic debates, something the young scholar loved to do and excelled at. She also learned the skill of debating early on, something that would stand her in good stead later on in her academic career.

Wanted to Bcome a Nun, But Father Refused

In addition to her academic development, Piscopia was also a very devout Catholic. When she was 11 she took a secret vow of chastity, one she took seriously and never broke. Because of her vow she never married, although, of course, coming from such a noble family and being so well known herself, she had many offers. She secretly kept to the codes and laws of the Benedictine Order of Nuns, which she wanted and had plans to enter. When she was old enough, she asked her father if she might do so. Her father, however, refused her, insisting instead that his incredibly intelligent daughter attend university, a thing that was not at all common for women at the time. He was exceptionally supportive of his daughter, but he wanted her to make the most of her God given talents, and those talents leaned towards higher education. Piscopia was disappointed at being denied to take orders as a nun, but she came around to the idea quickly and soon expanded her learning with enthusiasm.

In 1672 Piscopia's father sent her to the University of Padua to study, buying a house for her to live in near the school. While in Padua, Piscopia studied theology. She had been suffering from sickness before she matriculated at the University of Padua, but the illness seemed to disappear once she had commenced her studies. Piscopia wrote to her father from Padua a little while after she'd been at the university: "With the joy of my studies, the salubrity [healthfulness] of the air, and the diligent care of the physicians, I feel much stronger; therefore, I hope that in the future I may resume my studies and thus rescue the name of our House from extinction and oblivion." While she was attending classes, Piscopia continued meeting with people from around Europe, and especially carried on her debates with renowned scholars that she enjoyed so much. These debates became famous throughout Venice and even more widely throughout Europe. On one occasion in 1677, Piscopia held a debate in front of the entire University of Padua, a great part of the Senate of Venice, many citizens of Venice, and even those from other parts of the continent. The debate was a philosophical one, done in Greek and Latin, against Giovanni Gradenigo and Fathers F. Caro and G. Fiorello. The three were well-known and highly respected, and Piscopia held her own against the trio with much aplomb. It was thought that her performance at this debate had a lot to do with the fact that she was allowed to get her degree from the University, since the school had never granted one to a female before, and even though she was attending classes there, it had not been assumed that she would have received an actual certificate for her work.

Became First Women to Obtain a Ph.D.

Piscopia eventually earned all the necessary credits to receive her Ph.D. in Theology, the year after the famed debate took place, but she was not awarded the degree, nor was she allowed to graduate. The reason for this was that the Roman Catholic Church did not think it was proper that a woman earn a degree in theology. Up to and including the early twenty-first century the Catholic Church banned females from being ordained as priests, and although that was not what Piscopia wanted, the church felt that granting a female such a degree was close enough to being ordained to be dangerous and against their precepts. Members of the University were upset by the Church's decision, and so after it was made high members of the school assembled and decided on a solution. Rather than obtaining her Ph.D. in theology, the University allowed Piscopia to graduate with her Ph.D. in Philosophy instead.

Piscopia, at 32 years of age, became the first documented woman in the world to obtain the degree of Ph.D. According to the Lindenburg Home Page from the University of California at San Diego Web Site, "[Piscopia's] doctoral examination became legendary. Elena's brilliant answers dazzled her examiners, who determined that her vast knowledge was far beyond that necessary for the Doctorate in Philosophy, which she received on June 25, 1678." She was awarded her degree at a ceremony at the cathedral in Padua. Ceremonies of the sort were usually held in one of the University's buildings, but there were so many people who wanted to come watch the proceedings that they could not all fit into University Hall, and thus they chose a larger place to hold the ceremony. It was a remarkable feat for a woman of her time period. It was especially so when it is considered that the University of Padua, where Piscopia received her degree, did not award another Ph.D. to a woman for over 300 years.

Taught and Became a Benedic tine Oblate

After graduation Piscopia finally fulfilled her desire to become a Benedictine oblate. She spent the rest of her short life ministering to the poor as well as continuing to pursue her philosophical studies with people from all over the world who continued to travel to discuss the matters with her. She also became a lecturer on theology and music. In another unprecedented move, she became an instructor at the University of Padua in mathematics in 1678. She was a member of many academies and remained highly esteemed all over Europe.

Piscopia died on July 26, 1684, of tuberculosis. She was buried very simply in the Church of Santa Giustina at Padua. In 1895 Abbess Mathilda Pynsent of the English Benedictine Nuns in Rome had Piscopia's tomb opened in order that her remains could be put into a new, more elaborate casket with a tablet inscribed to her memory placed on it. Throughout her life Piscopia wrote many essays and treatises on religious and philosophical issues, including academic discourses, translations, and devotional treatises. They were published at Parma in 1688. Unfortunately, very few of her writings have survived, and those that have are mainly poetry and letters; most of her academic works have been lost. Despite this loss, Piscopia has not been forgotten by the world. The year after her death, the University of Padua coined a medal in Piscopia's honor. Many years later in tribute to such a great intellectual, Vassar College created a stained glass window, visible in the Gothic Library, of her commencement. The University of Pittsburgh painted her portrait on the wall of its Italian classroom of the Cathedral of Learning, and the University of Padua created a statue to commemorate her doings, which stands inside the old University Building in Padua.


Notable Women Scientists, Gale Group, 2000.


"Dott. Elena Lucrezia Cornaro-Piscopia (D-94)," Italian Culture and History, (January 6, 2006).

"Elena Lucrezia Piscopia Cornaro," New Advent, (January 6, 2006).

"Elena Cornaro Piscopia," Women's History, (January 6, 2006).

"Piscopia," University of California at San Diego,∼kl/piscopia.html (January 6, 2006).

Cornaro Piscopia, Elena Lucrezia (1646–1684)

views updated Jun 27 2018


CORNARO PISCOPIA, ELENA LUCREZIA (16461684), first female university graduate. Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, born into a prominent Venetian noble family, was the first female to graduate from a university. She early manifested her learning and piety and studied theology and philosophy with tutors in Venice for many years. After performing brilliantly in a public disputation, an academic debate in which the disputant defended arguments against all comers, in Venice on 30 May 1677 she asked, with her father's support, to be examined for the doctorate of theology from the University of Padua because Italian universities did not confer bachelor's degrees. Obtaining a degree by examination without attending university lectures was unusual but possible in the Italian university system. A number of men, including the famous humanist Desiderius Erasmus at the University of Turin in 1506, had done the same. The archbishop of Padua, chancellor of the university and the person who conferred degrees, objected, but agreed that she might be examined for a doctorate of philosophy. The College of Doctors of Arts and Medicine examined her; she discussed issues based on Aristotle's Posterior Analytics and Physics, the required university texts in logic and natural philosophy on which professors lectured and on which doctoral examinations were based. The college voted unanimously in her favor, and she received the doctorate of philosophy on 25 June 1678. But she did not establish a precedent to be followed. A Paduan professor immediately asked if his daughter might be examined for the doctorate of philosophy, but she was rebuffed. Cornaro Piscopia wrote a number of works on religious and philosophical topics and poetry, always in Latin. But ill health soon limited her studies. She died in 1684.

A large modern statue of Cornaro Piscopia in the entrance of the main university building in Padua, where her doctoral examination was held, commemorates her accomplishment. She represents the highest academic achievement of a woman to that point in history, as well as the limits imposed by society. The next female university graduate was Laura Bassi (17111778), a highborn Bolognese woman, who obtained a doctorate of philosophy from the University of Bologna on 12 May 1732 and taught at the university there from 1732 to 1738. She was the first woman to teach at a university. The third was Maria Pellegrina Amoretti, who earned a doctorate in law from the University of Pavia on 25 June 1777.

See also Bassi, Laura ; Universities .


Fusco, Nicola. Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, 16461684. Pittsburgh, 1975. Contains English translation of Latin diploma.

Maschietto, Francesco Ludovico. Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia (16461684), prima donna laureata nel mondo. Padua, 1984. The basic source with documents.

Paul F. Grendler