First woman to receive a doctor of philosophy degree.

Elena Lucrezia Piscopia

Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia (5 June 1646 – 26 July 1684) was a Venetian philosopher of noble descent, and the first woman to receive a doctor of philosophy degree.

She was born in the Palazzo Loredano, at Venice, Republic of Venice on 5 June 1646. She was the third child of Giovanni Baptista Cornaro-Piscopia, and his wife Zanetta Boni. Giovanni Baptista was a Procurator of St. Mark’s, a high office in the Republic of Venice, which entitled him to accommodation in St Mark’s Square. At the age of seven she began the study of Latin and Greek under distinguished instructors, and soon became proficient in these languages. She also mastered Hebrew, Spanish, French and Arabic, earning the title of “Oraculum Septilingue”. Her later studies included mathematics, philosophy, and theology. In 1665 she took the habit of a Benedictine Oblate without, however, becoming a nun.

In compliance with her father’s wishes, she entered the University of Padua, and after a brilliant course of study received the doctorate in philosophy. The degree was conferred on 25 June 1678, in the cathedral of Padua in the presence of the University authorities, the professors of all the faculties, the students, and most of the Venetian Senators, together with many invited guests from the Universities of Bologna, Perugia, Rome, and Naples. The Lady Elena spoke for an hour in classical Latin, explaining difficult passages selected at random from the works of Aristotle. She was listened to with great attention, and when she had finished, she received plaudits as Professor Rinaldini proceeded to award her with the insignia of the Doctorate, placing the wreath of laurel on her head, the ring on her finger, and over her shoulders the ermine mozetta. This scene is illustrated in the Cornaro Window in the West Wing of the Thompson Memorial Library at Vassar College.

Elena was a member of various academies and was esteemed throughout Europe for her attainments and virtues. The last seven years of her life were devoted to study and charity. She died at Padua in 1684 of tuberculosis and was buried in the church of Santa Giustina at Padua and her statue was placed in the university. Her writings, published at Parma in 1688, include academic discourses, translations, and devotional treatises. In 1685 the University of Padua caused a medal to be struck in her honour. In 1895 Abbess Mathilda Pynsent of the English Benedictine Nuns in Rome had Elena’s tomb opened, the remains placed in a new casket, and a suitable tablet inscribed to her memory.The book by Jane Smith Guernsey, entitled The Lady Cornaro: Pride and Prodigy of Venice, published in 1999, is the first full-length study of the life of Lady Elena.

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