University of Pittsburgh
July 2, 2003

Pitt's Nationality Rooms Program Director Celebrates 325th Anniversary of First Woman to Earn Degree

E. Maxine Bruhns facilitated translation and publication of Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia's biography written by Ludovico Francesco Maschietto
Contact:  412-624-4147

PITTSBURGH—In commemoration of Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia earning the master and doctor of philosophy degrees from the University of Padua, Italy, 325 years ago, E. Maxine Bruhns, director of the University of Pittsburgh Nationality Rooms Program, facilitated the translation and publication of an academic biography on Cornaro Piscopia, the first woman in the world to receive a university degree in June 1678.

Written by Ludovico Francesco Maschietto, the scholarly biography of Cornaro Piscopia is soon to be published by St. Joseph's University Press in Philadelphia.

Bruhns has long been involved in leading the campaign to recognize Cornaro Piscopia's accomplishments. In 1978, as chair of the United States Cornaro Tercentenary Committee, based at Pitt, Bruhns led a delegation to Italy for a week of celebratory events in Venice and Padua. The committee provided a new black marble gravestone at the site of Cornaro Piscopia's burial, in what was then named Cappella Cornaro.

Born in Venice in 1646 to Giovanni Cornaro, procurator of San Marco, and his common law wife, Zanetta Bono, Cornaro Piscopia's genius was nurtured by tutors in Aramaic, Hebrew, physics, astronomy, and philosophy. She also became a talented musician and poet.

Having taken a secret vow of chastity at age 14, Cornaro Piscopia avoided marriage and became a Benedictine oblate and devoted herself to secular and religious studies. Her father, who by then had married her mother, urged her to stand for a university degree. Although Cornaro Piscopia chose to be examined in theology, the bishop denied her this option since a woman could not be allowed to teach monks. He did permit her to stand for a degree in philosophy.

For the oral examination, held in a chapel instead of the university to accommodate the multitudes of scholars and townspeople who attended, Cornaro Piscopia discoursed on two Aristotelian theses. Before leaving the room, she begged for a secret vote. The judges, however, approved her examination by acclamation (viva voce) and acclaimed her Magistra et Doctrix Philosophiae.

During the remainder of her brief life, she received scholars from all over Europe and served the church and the poor. She died in 1689 at age 39 and was interred, at her request, among the monks in Padua's Monastery of San Giustina. Her portrait hangs on the rear wall of Pitt's Italian Nationality Room.

Books about Cornaro Piscopia are available through the Nationality Rooms Program. For more information, call 412-624-6150.