25 June 2016

Elena Cornaro Piscopia – philosopher

First woman to graduate from a university

Portrait of Elena Cornaro Piscopia
An 18th century portrait of Elena Cornaro
Piscopia, which is owned by Biblioteca
 Ambrosiana in Milan
Elena Cornaro Piscopia became the first woman to receive an academic degree from a university on this day in 1678, it is believed, in Padua.

She was awarded her degree in philosophy at a special ceremony in the Duomo in Padua in the presence of dignitaries from the University of Padua and guests from other Italian universities.

Piscopia was born in a palazzo in Venice in 1646. Her father had an important post at St Mark’s and he was entitled to accommodation in St Mark’s Square.

On the advice of a priest who was a family friend, she was taught Latin and Greek when she was a young child. She was proficient in both languages by the time she was seven. She then went on to master other languages as well as mathematics, philosophy and theology.

Photo of Padua Duomo
The Duomo in Padua, where Elena Cornaro Piscopia received
her degree in a special ceremony in 1678
Her tutor wanted her to study for a degree in theology at Padua University but the Bishop of Padua refused to allow it because she was female, although he allowed her to study philosophy instead.

On the day of her degree ceremony Piscopia demonstrated her brilliance in front of the specially invited audience by explaining difficult passages from Aristotle in faultless Latin.

She received congratulations from the distinguished audience and the laurel wreath was placed on her head.

Piscopia died in 1685 in Padua and her academic writings were published a few years later.

Travel tip:

The University of Padua, established in 1222, is one of the oldest in the world. The main building is Palazzo del Bò in Via 8 Febbraio in the centre of the city. The building used to house the medical faculty and it is possible to take a guided tour of the building and see the lectern used by Galileo when he taught there between 1592 and 1610. 

Photo of the Basilica of St Anthony in Padua
The Basilica of St Anthony in Padua
Travel tip:

The city of Padua - or Padova - in the Veneto region of northern Italy is best known for the frescoes by Giotto that adorn the Scrovegni Chapel and for the vast 13th-century Basilica of St. Anthony, notable for its Byzantine-style domes. The old part of the town has arcaded streets and many cafes. 


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