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The statue of Elena Cornaro Piscopia

At the foot of one of the access stairs to the upper floor of Palazzo Bo, the statue of the University of Padua graduate, Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia.  Celebrated as the first woman in the world to receive a Doctor of Philosophy degree (magistra et doctrix), the monument of Elena continues to hold much respect for all who gaze upon her.

Having passed away prematurely at the age of 38, tributes poured out for Elena. A month after the funeral, her father, Giovanni Battista Cornaro, commissioned sculptor Bernardo Tabacco to create a cenotaph to be placed within the central nave of the Basilica del Santo in Padua.

The work not only offers an honest portrait of Elena, but allows us to better understand how contemporaries interpreted her exceptional achievements. Thanks to the description contained in the second edition of the Life of Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia by Massimiliano Deza (1692), we know that the cenotaph contained various coloured marble statues of philosophers, church doctors, and allegories of virtues.  Each arranged above several levels, symbolizing Elena’s high moral value, creating a life-size statue that stood out at the centre of the Basilica.

In 1727, following economic problems, Elena’s younger brother Girolamo Baldissera release several family assets and the cenotaph was removed from the Basilica. Almost fifty years later, a noble woman by the name of Caterina Dolfin, who spent the end of her life for the reform of female education, recovered the statue of Elena and placed it in the care of the University of Padua.

Removing Elena from its original context freed her from the many allegories and weighted additions. By redefining a women based solely on her individual qualities as a person does the monument re-symbolize the intelligent and tenacious of a young lady who broke down tremendous gender stereotypes over 300 years ago.