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Elizabeth A.Sackler Center for Feminist Art

Helen Cornaro

b. 1646, Venice; d. 1684, Padua, Italy

The correct name of this person is ELENA CORNARO PISCOPIA.

Not until 1678 did a European university confer a degree upon a woman. That woman was Elena Cornaro Piscopia. Elena received an extraordinarily comprehensive education under the direction of many tutors, but she favored the study of philosophy and theology and was drawn to a religious life, becoming an oblate of the Benedictine order at the age of eleven. She successfully resisted family pressure to marry. Her breadth of knowledge attracted attention from all corners of Italy and she was the first woman to be inducted into the prestigious Accademia de’ Ricovrati (1669). In 1672, Piscopia’s father, procurator of the Basilica San Marco—a position of authority second only to the doge of Venice—sent her to the University of Padua to continue her studies. At his insistence, she applied for a doctoral degree in theology; the church objected to the official legitimation of a female theologian, and her application was denied. However, the university accepted her second application, for a doctorate in philosophy. Piscopia successfully defended her thesis before an audience of thousands, including dignitaries of church and state, and the degree was awarded in 1678. (Immediately after, university rectors issued a directive prohibiting the granting of further degrees to women.) Piscopia lectured in mathematics at the university but soon retired from academic life to devote herself to charity. She died of tuberculosis at the age of thirty-eight.