Elena Piscopia, first woman in the world to earn A PhD

Proposal to erect statue of woman in Padua’s Prato della Valle square sparks debate

By Region Culture News North-east Italy

Elena Cornaro Piscopia was the first woman in the world to earn a PhD, receiving her doctorate degree in philosophy from the University of Padua in 1678. A proposal suggests erecting her statue on an empty plinth in the city’s square alongside 78 statues of men.

In the late 18th century, Padua officials devised a project to erect statues in Prato della Valle. Dedicated to illustrious historical figures who were either from the city or had links to it, Piscopia was not included.

When the statues were erected, there were 88, all paying tribute to men. Among them were statues of Italian scientist Galileo Galilei, sculptor Antonio Canova, and several popes. Napoleon’s army destroyed 10 of them dedicated to Venetian doges after it conquered the republic of Venice. Whilst eight were replaced by obelisks at a later date, two plinths remain empty.  

Prato della Valle, Padua where a proposal to ereect a statue of Elena Piscopia has met with controversy.
Prato della Valle

Two local councillors, Simone Pillitteri and Margherita Colonnello, proposed celebrating Piscopia on one of the empty plinths. “Perhaps it is not so well known that the figures to whom the stone effigies are dedicated are all, without exception, men,” the pair wrote in their proposal to the city’s council.

Piscopia recognised in the university

The University of Padua has a statue of Piscopia in its Palazzo Bo, and struck a medal in her honour. However, outside the university’s walls there is no public recognition of Piscopia.

A census of all statues of Italian figures in public spaces by Mi Riconosci found only 148 dedicated to women.

Federica Arcoraci, an art historian with Mi Riconosci, said Prato della Valle’s male-only line-up had “an impact on our lives and collective imagination”. She said, “The Prato della Valle regulation of 1776 forbade having statues of saints, living people and people with no ties to the city, but never prohibited the representation of women.

“Obviously, that was the result of a particular trend in history. But today it is possible to create a project that is connected with the history of the square in its entirety.”

Debate sparked among historians

The Padua councillors’ suggestions naturally sparked debate among historians. Fabrizio Magani, superintendent of Padua’s cultural heritage, is not against the idea. However, he suggested a female figure from more recent history ought could be celebrated there.

Carlo Fumian, a history professor at the University of Padua, said the “expensive and bizarre” idea was “a bit trendy, but culturally inconsistent”.

“Moving monuments as if they were Lego is a dangerous and unintelligent game,” he told the local newspaper, Il Mattino di Padova. “Instead, we should help people discover the original [statue], triumphantly seated at the university.”

Meanwhile, art historian Davide Tramarin said the two empty pedestals should remain that way. He said their lack of statuary represented the historical destruction by Napoleon’s troops.

Related article: Padua University elects first woman rector in 800 years

Perhaps a compromise?

It must be said, it seems strange that such a debate should be sparked. Perhaps a compromise could be sought. With two empty plinths, could not both Piscopia and a woman from more modern history be represented?

To please the university, a suitable inscription below Piscopia’s statue could ignite interest in visitors to view the original statue. And surely, the eight obelisks remain symbolic of the destruction by Napoleon’s troops.

As London’s Trafalgar Square moved with the times, with the ‘Fourth Plinth’ scheme, so could Padua. Perhaps not with something as “radical” as modern art, but recognition of women’s contribution to Padovan history at the very least.

Leave a Reply