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Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia

The prodigy of Venice

Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, artist unknown

Compared to Florence, Venice was not known for producing great scholars and academics, and one of its best known just happened to be a woman: the first ever to receive a PhD.

Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia (1646–1684) was born in the Palazzo Loredan, daughter of an enlightened nobleman, Giovanni Battista Cornaro-Piscopia, a Procurator of St Mark's, whose grandfather was a friend of Galileo's, and whose father studied physics.

And unlike most patricians, he married for love. Zanetta Boni was of such low birth that Giovanni Battista had to pay a large sum for his sons to enter the Libro d'Or and join the Venetian nobility. But little Elena was the precocious one; a priest noticed she was exceptionally bright, and suggested she study Latin and Greek, which she mastered by age seven, before going on to learn Hebrew, Spanish, French and Arabic, earning the nickname the 'Oraculum Septilingue'. She went on to study sciences, mathematics and astronomy, philosophy and theology, excelled on the harpsichord, clavichord, harp, and violin, and composed music. At age 19 she took vows as a Benedictine Oblate, but without becoming a nun.

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Text © Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls

Image by PD Art