- Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia (1646-1684): The First Woman in the World to Earn a University Degree
Readers of the considerable body of literature on the learned women of Renaissance Italy will already know the name of Elena Lucrezia Coronaro Piscopia (1646–84), the first woman graduate of the University of Padua. Piscopia was the daughter of the Venetian nobleman and procurator of San Marco, Giovanni Battista Cornaro, and his peasant (or at least ignoble) consort Zanetta Boni, whose offspring were legitimated and ennobled after a stupendous gift of 105,000 ducats to the Venetian Senate in 1664. Conversant in many languages ancient and modern, Piscopia benefited from her father's impressive library and from the constant presence of distinguished tutors, who offered her an intensive course of study in philosophy and theology. Her reputation for piety and learning made her one of the ornaments of the city.
In fulfillment of her father's ambitions to restore his family's honor, and with the encouragement of her tutor Carlo Rinaldini, professor of philosophy at the University of Padua, Piscopia received a highly publicized degree in philosophy on 25 June 1678, after failing to receive permission for a theology degree. Therein lies her claim to be the first woman university graduate, and she is certainly the first that we can document in any detail, though wider research suggests that she was not an absolute first, since Costanza Calenda's medical degree of 1422 in Naples does seem to have been recorded in the city—unlike Bitisia Gozzadini's legendary degree of 1236 in canon law or any of the others that may have occurred in Bologna.
The English translation of the Benedictine scholar Francesco Ludovico Maschietto's biography of Piscopia is a welcome addition to the literature on women and learning in Renaissance Italy. Originally published in 1978 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Piscopia's degree, it is the first fully archival study of her life and work. The result is a richer and more accurate portrait of Piscopia than any study of her prior to 1978. Reading the new translation of this book, I was reminded how often Maschietto dispelled myths and errors regarding Piscopia, not only minor issues such as dating the key events in her life properly but also more important misconceptions such as the idea, proposed by her seventeenth-century biographers, that she made a vow of virginity at age ten and repeatedly attempted to enter the convent. In an unfussy, old-fashioned manner, Maschietto offers a sympathetic and engaging account of why Piscopia became the most famous woman in Venice in the mid-seventeenth century and how this led to her degree and a fascinating debate about the possibility of allowing women to be credentialed in theology.
Maschietto presents Piscopia as an interesting example of Catholic erudition and as a product of an intellectual world in which the mathematics of Galileo, the philosophy of Aristotle, and the religion of Borromeo were not necessarily [End Page 878] incompatible. His account of Piscopia is unapologetically biographical, though he also provides crucial information about the Cornaro family, her intellectual and spiritual mentors, and the process by which the university and the Archbishop of Padua, Gregorio Barbarigo, decided to approve her request. He analyzes her extant writings, her role in the academy life of the Veneto, her reputation beyond Venice, and her legacy.
As one would expect from a book written thirty years ago, this is not an account that situates Piscopia's public recognition by the Venetian Republic in relationship to other women of culture and learning in the Veneto. A contemporary reader, however, cannot look at this material without considering her in light of the considerable work that has been done on Venetian convents, on writers such as Veronica Franco, Moderata Fonte, Lucrezia Marinella, and Arcangela Tarabotti, and on the role of women...