Advancing Epigenetics Towards Systems Biology

Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia

The prodigy of Venice

Name: Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia
Nationality: Italian
Lived: 1646-1684
Fields: Theology, philosophy, mathematics, languages and music
Claim to fame: First woman to be awarded a doctorate

Despite not being familiar to the modern reader, Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia (1646-1684), a genius who lived in the 17th century, earned her place in history as the first woman in Europe to earn a doctorate degree.

Daughter of Venice

Born into Venetian aristocracy, Elena Piscopia shone at an early age. Her birthplace Venice had been a major centre of the Renaissance and Piscopia carried on the tradition started by her male predecessors, such as Leonardo Da Vinci, of being a polymath.
Her enlightened father, Giovanni Baptista Cornaro-Piscopia, who held the high office of Procurator of St Mark‘s, was to play a pivotal role in cultivating Piscopia’s genius, mainly by providing her with the best learning opportunities available at the time and advocating her cause in the male-dominated corridors of academia. As a child, her profi ciency at languages and her multilingualism earned her the honorific title ‘Oraculum Septilingue’, and from early on, she exhibited extraordinary reasoning powers. The young genius was also a talented musician, mastering the harpsichord, the clavichord, the harp, and the violin. She also composed music.

Nun’s habit or doctor’s robes?

Before turning 20, her passion for theology and philosophy led her to want to join the Benedictine order, but she only took its habit without ever becoming a nun. Instead, her father persuaded her to go to the University of Padua in 1672, the third oldest university in Italy, which was established in 1222, where she became the first European woman to earn a doctorate. This singular achievement earned her respect and adulation throughout Europe.
Passionate about learning and helping the poor, she rejected numerous suitors to focus on these pursuits. In fact, she devoted the last years of her life exclusively to study and charity. She died in 1684 and was buried in the church of Santa Giustina at Padua. A statue of her was erected in the university grounds and the university issued a medal in her honour.
Piscopia’s example has inspired generations of women – and men – throughout the ages. One recent example of Piscopia’s lasting influence was a book entitled The Lady Cornaro: Pride and Prodigy of Venice, by Jane Howard Guernsey, which was published in 1999. It was the first in-depth study of her life.

The language of learning

With the encouragement of her father, who had a strong faith in her intelligence and ability and wanted it recognised by the world, Elena Piscopia began her education at an early age. Aged seven, she began her classical education with the study of Latin and Greek, as well as grammar and music, under distinguished instructors. She quickly mastered these two languages, as well as Spanish,
French, Arabic and Hebrew.
Her later studies included mathematics, philosophy, and theology. At the University of Padua, she excelled and her brilliance became apparent to everyone who encountered her. Given her strong interest in theological matters, she applied and re-applied for a doctorate in theology.

Thorny theological questions

However, conferring the title of doctor of theology on Piscopia would have granted her the automatic right to preach which went against the church’s accepted position of the time that women had to “learn in silence with all subjection”, according to Timothy I: 11-12.
This naturally led to confusion and resistance among the clergy. A compromise was formulated which would present her with “a book closed and open, in order to meditate on and describe the divine mysteries”, instead of “a book closed and open, with the right of interpreting, expounding, glossing, preaching, and opening the divine mysteries”. But this proved insuffi cient to still the concerns of the clerics and so she was offered the chance to apply for a doctorate in philosophy instead.

Her examination was to be held in the University Hall, but due to the large number of spectators who wanted to watch, it was transferred to the city’s Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin. She spoke for an hour in classical Latin, explaining difficult passages selected at random from the works of Aristotle.
The young prodigy’s performance amazed and awed her examiners and she breezed through to gain her doctorate, in 1678, at the age of 32. Her professor awarded her the insignia of the doctorate, placing a laurel wreath on her head and placed the Doctor’s Ring on her finger.
Piscopia became a member of various academies and societies  throughout Europe, and was visited regularly by foreign scholars.

Scientific achievements

Elena Piscopia’s greatest single scientific achievement was to prove that women could be accomplished academics and polymaths by receiving the first ever doctorate awarded to a woman. The same year she received her doctorate, the young woman became a lecturer in mathematics at the University of Padua. Piscopia’s writings, published posthumously in Parma in 1688, include academic discourses, translations, and devotional treatises.