Cornaro crest

Dott. Elena Lucrezia Cornaro-Piscopia (D-94)

Born: 5 June 1646

Married: [Did not marry]

Died: 26 July 1684, Padua

Vassar windowELENA LUCREZIA CORNARO, a member of the Piscopia branch of the Cornaro family, blazed her name in history as the first woman ever to be awarded a university degree. Descended from a long line of educated intellectuals, Elena had gained a reputation throughout Europe for her erudition, scientific knowledge and mastery of foreign languages even before she received her degree. Foreign visitors sought her out for demonstrations of her learning.

On one occasion in 1677 in the presence of the entire College, a great part of the Senate, and many Venetians and foreigners, she held a philosophical debate in Greek and Latin with Giovanni Gradenigo and Fathers F. Caro and G. Fiorello. The demonstration prepared the way for her to receive a degree in theology, but that effort was blocked because of her sex; eventually a degree in philosophy was awarded to her instead, 25 June 1678 at age 32.

Dott. Elena Cornaro is buried in the Church of S. Giustina at Padua. Among numerous other tributes, she is commemorated by a statue at the University of Padua and in the United States by a stained glass window at Vassar College (detail shown at right). Her most recent English language biography, by Jane H. Guernsey, is The Lady Cornaro: Pride and Prodigy of Venice (College Avenue Press, 1999).

Earlier biographies include: Nicola Fusco, Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia: 1646-1684 (Pittsburgh: U. S. Comm. for the E. L. Cornaro Piscopia Tercentenary, 1975); The Life of Helen Lucretia Cornaro Piscopia, Oblate of the Order of St. Benedict and Doctor in the University of Padua (Rome: St. Benedict's, 1896); and Antonio Lupis, Eroina Veneta Quero la Vita di Elena Lucretia Piscopia (Venice: Curti, 1689). Her collected works, with a biography, were published following her death in B. Bacchini, ed., Helenae Lucretiae (quae et Scholastica) Corneliae Piscopiae . . . Opera quae quidem haberi potuerunt . . . (Parma, 1688).

1997-9 C. I. Gable