Elena Piscopia – The First Woman to Receive a Ph.D. In European History

Elena Piscopia

Elena Piscopia

Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia was a Venetian philosopher and thought to be the first woman to receive a Ph.D. degree in European history.

Elena was born in Venice on June 5, 1646, the child of Giovanni Battista Cornaro-Piscopia, and his wife Zanetta Boni. At the age of seven, she began to study Latin and Greek. She soon mastered these languages as well as Hebrew, Spanish, French and Arabic. In 1665, she took the habit of a Benedictine Oblate, but she didn’t become a nun.

At the request of her father, Elena studied at the University of Padua where she was awarded her degree on June 25, 1678. Her work included mathematics, philosophy and theology, and her presentation for her degree involved explaining random passages from Aristotle in classical Latin.

The Cornaro Window at Vassar College was commissioned for the Thompson Memorial Library. Installed in 1906, it depicts Elena receiving her doctorate.

Cornaro Window

The Cornaro Window, Thompson Memorial Library, Vassar College.
(Photo: Sabatheus (“Jim Mills”), Wikimedia Commons)

About the window, from Wikipedia:

The window comes from the studios of Messrs. John Hardman & Company of Birmingham, England, and of the Church Glass and Decorating Company of New York, their U.S. representatives.

The window was designed by Dunstan Powell, grandson of Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, the Victorian era church architect. The much debated question of whose idea is was to choose the subject has not been resolved.

The lights in the tracery represent Grammar, Dialectics, Music, Philosophy, Astronomy, Medicine, Geometry and Theology.

At the bottom are cherubim holding scrolls upon which are written in Latin: “In Laud Helenae Lucretia Cornelia Piscopiae Lauria Philo In Patav Gymn Unico Ex-Emplo Donatae”

Lady Elena’s dress is Rose and Grey, the original colors of Vassar College.

Find out what else happened on June 25 in Women’s History.

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