Elena Cornaro Piscopia

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Elena Cornaro Piscopia
Born(1646-06-05)5 June 1646
Died26 July 1684(1684-07-26) (aged 38)
Padua, Republic of Venice[b]
Resting placeChurch of Santa Giustina
Known forOne of the first women to receive a degree from a university

Philosophy career
Alma materUniversity of Padua
Academic advisorsCarlo Rinaldini (philosophy)
Felice Rotondi (theology)

Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia (US: /kɔːrˌnɑːr pɪˈskpiə/,[3] Italian: [ˈɛːlena luˈkrɛttsja korˈnaːro piˈskɔːpja]; 5 June 1646 – 26 July 1684) or Elena Lucrezia Corner (Venetian: [koɾˈnɛɾ], Italian: [korˈnɛr]), also known in English as Helen Cornaro, was a Venetian philosopher of noble descent who in 1678 became one of the first women to receive an academic degree from a university and the first to receive a Doctor of Philosophy degree.

Early life[edit]

Elena Cornaro Piscopia was born in the Palazzo Loredan, in Venice, Republic of Venice, on 5 June 1646. She was the third child of Gianbattista Cornaro-Piscopia and his mistress Zanetta Boni. Her mother was a peasant and her parents were not married at the time of her birth.[4][5] Lady Elena was therefore not technically a member of the Cornaro family by birth, as Venetian law barred illegitimate children of nobles from noble privilege even if recognized by the noble parent. Worse for Zanetta's case, she was from an extremely poor peasant family. Zanetta had likely fled to Venice in order to escape starvation, and soon found herself the mistress of a member of one of the most powerful noble dynasties in the Republic. Gianbattista and Zanetta married officially in 1654 but their children were barred from noble privilege.[citation needed]

In 1664 Elena’s father was chosen to become the Procuratore di San Marco de supra, the treasurer of St Mark's Cathedral, a coveted position among Venetian nobility. That made Gianbattista second only to the Doge of Venice in terms of precedence.[6] Because of this connection Lady Elena was prominent in the Marriage of the Sea celebration, even though she was born illegitimate. Her father tried to arrange betrothals for her several times but she rebuffed each man's advances. Early biographers' suggestion that she took a vow of chastity at age 11 is disputed by Francesco Ludovico Maschietto.[7]

In 1665 she took the habit of a Benedictine oblate without, however, becoming a nun.[4]


As a young girl Lady Elena was seen as a prodigy. On the advice of Giovanni Fabris, a priest who was a friend of the family, she began a classical education. She studied Latin and Greek under distinguished instructors and became proficient in those languages, as well as French and Spanish, by the age of seven.[4] She also mastered Hebrew and Arabic, earning the title of Oraculum Septilingue ("Seven-language Oracle"). Her later studies included mathematics, philosophy and theology.[citation needed]

Elena came to be an expert musician, mastering the harpsichord, the clavichord, the harp and the violin. Her skills were shown by the music that she composed in her lifetime. In her late teens and early twenties, she became interested in physics, astronomy and linguistics. Carlo Rinaldini [it], her tutor in philosophy and at that point, the Chairman of Philosophy at the University of Padua, published a book in 1668 written in Latin and centred on geometry. The book was dedicated to a twenty-two-year-old Elena. After the death of her main tutor, Fabris, she became even closer to Rinaldini, who took over her studies.[4]


In 1669 she translated the Colloquy of Christ by Carthusian monk Lanspergius from Spanish into Italian.[c] The translation was dedicated to Gian Paolo Oliva, her close friend and confessor. The volume was issued in five editions in the Republic from 1669 to 1672. She was invited to be a part of many scholarly societies when her fame spread and in 1670 she became president of the Venetian society Accademia dei Pacifici.[8][9]

Thompson Memorial Library's window depicting Cornaro's conferral.

On the recommendation of Carlo Rinaldini, her tutor in philosophy, Felice Rotondi petitioned the University of Padua to grant Cornaro the laurea[d] in theology.[10] When Cardinal Gregorio Barbarigo, the bishop of Padua, learned that she was pursuing a degree in theology, he refused on the grounds that she was a woman.[10] However he did allow her to be awarded a degree in philosophy and after a course of study she received the laurea in Philosophy.[10] The degree was conferred on 25 June 1678 in Padua Cathedral in the presence of the university authorities, the professors of all the faculties, the students and most of the Venetian Senators, together with many guests from the Universities of Bologna, Perugia, Rome and Naples. Lady Elena spoke for an hour in Classical Latin, explaining difficult passages selected at random from the works of Aristotle: one from the Posterior Analytics and the other from the Physics.[11] She was listened to with great attention and when she had finished she received plaudits as Professor Rinaldini proceeded to award her the insignia of the laurea: a book of philosophy, a laurel wreath on her head, a ring on her finger and over her shoulders an ermine mozzetta. She was proclaimed Magistra et Doctrix Philosophiae [teacher and doctor of philosophy],[12] thus becoming one of the first women to receive an academic degree from a university,[13][e].

The last seven years of her life were devoted to study and charity. She died in Padua in 1684 of tuberculosis and was buried in the church of Santa Giustina.[17]


A few months after Elena's conferral, Charles Patin, lecturer in medicine at Padua, applied for his daughter Gabrielle-Charlotte [Carla Gabriella] Patin to begin a degree.[18] The university, supported by Gianbattista Cornaro-Piscopia, changed its statutes to prohibit women from graduating. The next female doctorate was granted by the University of Bologna in 1732 to Laura Bassi.[19]

Cornaro's death was marked by memorial services in Venice, Padua, Siena and Rome. The Accademia degli Infecondi [it] published two memorial volumes of tributes by members: one to mark her degree,[20] and the other her death.[21] Padua's Accademia dei Ricovrati also produced a volume at her death.[22] Her statue was placed in the University of Padua, which caused a medal to be struck in her honour in 1685.[citation needed]

In 1895 Abbess Mathilda Pynsent of the English Benedictine Nuns in Rome had Cornaro's tomb opened, the remains placed in a new casket, and a suitable tablet inscribed to her memory. Her graduation ceremony is depicted in the Cornaro Window, installed in 1906 in the West Wing of the Thompson Memorial Library at Vassar College.[23] At the suggestion of Ruth Crawford Mitchell, Cornaro is depicted in Giovanni Romagnoli's 1949 mural in the Italian Nationality Room at the University of Pittsburgh.[23] On 5 June 2019, Google celebrated her 373rd birthday with a Google Doodle.[24][f]

Earlier biographies of Elena Cornaro include Massimiliano Dezza's Vita di Helena Lucretia Cornara Piscopia (Venice: Bosio, 1686) and Antonio Lupis' L'eroina veneta (Venice: Curti, 1689). Her collected works, with a biography, were published four years after her death by Benedetto Bacchini.[26] Her most recent English language biography is The Lady Cornaro: Pride and Prodigy of Venice by Jane H. Guernsey (College Avenue Press, 1999).[ISBN missing]

In 2022, the Italian authorities refused to add her statue to the 78 statues of famous male scientists in Prato della Valle in Padua, arguing that the statue of the scientist already exists somewhere on the university campus.[27]



Her writings include academic discourses, translations and devotional treatises.

  • Bacchini, Benedetto, ed. (1688). Helenae Lucretiae Corneliae Piscopiae opera quae quidem haberi potuerunt (in Italian and Latin). Parma: Rosati – via Google Books.
Previously published
  • Lettera overo colloquio di Christo N. R. all'anima devota composta dal R. P. D. Giovanni Laspergio in lingua spagnola e portata nell'italiana. Venice: Giuliani. 1669. (reprinted in Bacchini ed. 1688 pp. 179–183)



  1. ^ The Republic did not fall until 1797.[1]
  2. ^ Padua was annexed to the Republic of Venice in 1405 and was a part of the Republic's territories on the mainland until its fall in 1797.[2]
  3. ^ Lanspergius' Latin original had been translated into Spanish by Andreu Capella [ca], the Bishop of Urgell.
  4. ^ At the time the laurea was the only degree awarded by Italian universities.
  5. ^ Constance Calenda (fl. 1415) may have received a medical degree from the University of Naples.[14] Juliana Morell "defended theses" in 1606 or 1607, although claims that she received a doctorate in canon law in 1608 have been discredited.[15] The putative 13th-century instance of Bittizia Gozzadini at the University of Bologna is discounted by Holt N. Parker.[16]
  6. ^ Doodle was shown in Italy, Greece, Hungary, Czechia, Slovakia, UK, Iceland, Russia, Israel, India, Vietnam, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, Mexico, Peru, and Argentina.[25]



  1. ^ Logan, Oliver (1972). Culture and society in Venice, 1470–1790: the Renaissance and its heritage. Batsford.
  2. ^ J. J. Norwich. A History of Venice. p. 269.
  3. ^ "Cornaro Piscopia, Elena Lucrezia". Lexico US English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Archived from the original on 31 August 2021.
  4. ^ a b c d Guernsey 1999.
  5. ^ Gregersen, Erik. "Elena Cornaro". Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. Retrieved 17 April 2014.
  6. ^ Guernsey 1999, ch. 1.
  7. ^ Maschietto 2007, cited in Findlen, Paula (20 November 2018). "[Review] Francesco Ludovico Maschietto. Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia (1646–1684): The First Woman in the World to Earn a University Degree". Renaissance Quarterly. 61 (3): 878–879. doi:10.1353/ren.0.0207. S2CID 191474641.
  8. ^ Battagia, Michele (1826). Delle accademie veneziane dissertazione storica di Michele Battagia (in Italian). Giuseppe Picotti's typography. p. 50.
  9. ^ Guernsey 1999, p. 101, ch. 8.
  10. ^ a b c "Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia" (in Italian). Università degli studi di Padova. 10 September 2015. Retrieved 22 January 2016.
  11. ^ a b Maschietto 2007, cited in King, Margaret L. (2009). "Review of Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia (1646–1684): The First Woman in the World to Earn a University Degree". The Catholic Historical Review. 95 (2): 355–357. ISSN 0008-8080. JSTOR 27745551.
  12. ^ Maschietto 2007, pp. 73, 74, 188
  13. ^ Paul F. Grendler (1988). John W. O'Malley (ed.). Schools, Seminaries, and Catechetical Instruction, in Catholicism in Early Modern History 1500–1700: A Guide to Research. Center for Information Research. p. 328.
  14. ^ Whaley, L. (2011). Women and the Practice of Medical Care in Early Modern Europe, 1400–1800. Springer. p. 15. ISBN 978-0230295179. Retrieved 6 June 2019.
  15. ^ Morley, S. Griswold (January 1941). "Juliana Morell: Problems". Hispanic Review. 9 (1): 137–150. doi:10.2307/469691. JSTOR 469691.; Morley, S. Griswold (July 1941). "Juliana Morell: Postscript". Hispanic Review. 9 (3): 399–402. doi:10.2307/469606. ISSN 0018-2176. JSTOR 469606.
  16. ^ Morata, Olympia (2007). Parker, Holt N. (ed.). The Complete Writings of an Italian Heretic. The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe. Vol. 52. University of Chicago Press. p. 30, fn.155. ISBN 978-0226536712. Retrieved 6 June 2019.
  17. ^ Frize, Monique (2013). "Famous Women in Science in Laura Bassi's Epoch". In Frize, Monique (ed.). Laura Bassi and Science in 18th Century Europe. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer. p. 142. doi:10.1007/978-3-642-38685-5_10. ISBN 978-3-642-38685-5. Retrieved 15 May 2023. {{cite book}}: |work= ignored (help)
  18. ^ Maschietto 2007 p. 79
  19. ^ de Simone, Maria Rosa (2003). "Admissions". In Ridder-Symoens, Hilde de; Rüegg, Walter (eds.). Universities in Early Modern Europe (1500–1800). A History of the University in Europe. Vol. 2. Cambridge University Press. pp. 296–297. ISBN 978-0521541145. Retrieved 13 June 2019 – via Google Books.
  20. ^ Applausi accademici alla laurea filosofica dell'illustrissima signora Elena Lucrezia Cornara Piscopia Accademica Infeconda composti, e raccolti dall'Accademia stessa (in Italian). Rome: Giacomo Dragondelli. 1679. Retrieved 5 June 2019.
  21. ^ Cassioni, Giovanni Francesco; Cardano, Tommaso; Cadorin, Matteo (1686). Le pompe funebri celebrate da' signori Accademici infecondi di Roma per la morte dell'illustrissima signora Elena Lucrezia Cornara Piscopia accademica detta l'inalterabile: dedicate all sereniss. republica di Venezia (in Italian). Padua: il Cadorino. Retrieved 5 June 2019 – via Hathi Trust.
  22. ^ Accademia dei Ricovrati (1684). Compositioni degli Academici Ricourati per la morte della nob. d. signora Elena Lucretia Cornaro Piscopia dedicate all'eccellenza del signor Gio. Battista suo padre procurator di s. Marco, dal co. Alessandro abb. De lazara principe dell'Academia (in Italian). Padua: Pietro Maria Frambotto. Retrieved 6 June 2019.
  23. ^ a b Forbush, Gabrielle E. (1 January 1976). "The Lady of the Window". Vassar Quarterly. 72 (2): 24–28.
  24. ^ Ritschel, Chelsea (4 June 2019). "Five things you should know about the first woman to receive a PhD". The Independent. Retrieved 4 June 2019.
  25. ^ "Elena Cornaro Piscopia's 373rd Birthday". 5 June 2019. Retrieved 5 June 2019.
  26. ^ Helenae Lucretiae (quae et Scholastica) Corneliae Piscopiae … Opera quae quidem haberi potuerunt … (Parma, 1688)
  27. ^ "Italy: proposal for statue of first woman to get PhD sparks debate". TheGuardian.com. 3 January 2022. Retrieved 14 April 2022.


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