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Elena Cornaro Piscopia



Dates: June 5, 1646 - July 26, 1684

Occupation: mathematician, philosopher, theologian

Known for: first woman to earn a doctoral degree

Also Known as: Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia

The Cornaro family of Venice traced its heritage back to the Roman family of Cornelii. Ancestors included cardinals and popes. The castle Piscopia was given to the family by the husband of a (related) queen of Cyprus.

Elena Cornaro Piscopia was born in 1646 into this family. Her father was a public official who educated his children personally. A parish priest recognized Elena as a child prodigy when she was seven, and then she began to study with tutors in Latin, Greek, music, theology, and mathematics. She eventually learned Hebrew, Arabic, Chaldaic, and also French, English, and Spanish. She studied philosophy, and astronomy. Musically talented, by the time she was 17 years old she could sing, compose, and play such instruments as the violin, harp, and harpsichord.

Her achievements attracted the attention of many, including clerics, royals, and scientists. Many came to Venice to meet and speak with her.

Elena herself wanted to enter the Benedictine Order. She secretly practiced the disciplines of the Order and turned down marriage proposals, spending time serving the sick and the poor. But her father refused permission for her to enter the Order, and had her apply instead to the University of Padua.

Although some other women had studied science and math at the university level in Italy in her time, Elena Piscopia was the first to apply in theology. She studied there from 1672-1678, and in 1678, she received her master's and doctorate of philosophy degrees. The ceremony awarding her these degrees had to be held in the cathedral to accommodate the crowd that came to see her receive them.

Elena Piscopia became a lecturer in mathematics at the University, where she served until her early death in 1684.

She was honored after her death as a woman of learning. The University of Padua has a marble statue of her. Vassar College in New York has a stained glass window depicting her achievement.

Her achievement did not immediately open doors for many others, though. No other woman earned a doctorate at the University of Padua until the late twentieth century.

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  • Guernsey, Jane Howard. The Lady Cornaro: Pride and Prodigy of Venice. 1999.
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Text © Jone Johnson Lewis.

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