Cornaro Piscopia, Elena Lucretia (1646–1684)

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Cornaro Piscopia, Elena Lucretia (1646–1684)

Italian philosopher and writer. Name variations: Helena. Born Elena Lucretia Cornaro Piscopia in 1646; daughter of John Baptist Cornaro Piscopia (procurator of St. Mark's); Ph.D., University of Padua, 1678; first woman to receive a doctorate in Philosophy.

The intellectual capabilities of Elena Lucretia Cornaro Piscopia were recognized early on by her father, John Baptist, who sought out the best tutors for her. Carlo Rinalin, the first professor in philosophy at the University of Padua, taught her philosophy, and from Fr. Hippolytus Marchetti she learned theology. Though Cornaro Piscopia became fluent in Spanish, Latin and Greek, as well as her native Italian, the academic drive was not hers, but her father's. Her scholarly work seems to have been motivated more by the prestige it would bring to her family—women intellectuals being almost un-heard of—than from a passion for philosophy or from personal ambition.

On June 25, 1678, at age 32, she became the first woman to receive a doctorate in philosophy. (The University of Padua did not award a doctorate to another woman for 70 years.) Given a choice of philosophers on which to be examined, she had chosen Aristotle. Cornaro Piscopia presented philosophical positions in reflection of two passages from Aristotle's work (probably the Posterior Analytics and the Physics) and almost fainted during the proceedings.

Despite the great admiration others had for her philosophical capabilities, she published no works. She had become a Benedictine oblate at a very young age, but never a full nun, wearing her habit underneath her fine clothing. Her vows of humility made it difficult for her to accept the many honorary awards that were offered to her in the scant six years before she died in her late 30s.

Catherine Hundleby , M.A. Philosophy, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada

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