Another Catholic “First”

November 2000By Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York.

The Lady Cornaro.  By Jane Howard Guernsey. College Avenue Press (914-266-8100), P.O. Box 75, Clinton Corners NY 12514. 276 pages. $27.95.



When Pope John Paul II proclaimed three intellectually gifted women as new patron saints of Europe — St. Catherine of Siena, St. Bridget of Sweden, and St. Edith Stein — he pointed out that the Church has always recognized the dignity of women. The truth of his statement is illustrated by this book, the first full-length study in English of the life and achievements of Elena Cornaro (1646-1684), a devout Italian Catholic. Jane Howard Guernsey devoted two decades to this research and has produced a lively, amply illustrated, and richly informed account of the life of the first woman Ph.D.

The author is a graduate of Vassar College, home of the Cornaro Window, a stunning 22-foot-high stained-glass window that illuminates the reference room in the Frederick Thompson Memorial Library. Produced in Birmingham, England — for at that time no one in America made Gothic-style stained glass — and installed in 1906, the window fills a whole wall and depicts a beautiful young woman receiving a doctorate in philosophy. Surrounded by admiring scholars and noblemen, she is the epitome of grace in the midst of learning. The year is 1678. Guernsey gazed at this scene during her years at Vassar, and dedicated many years of her life to exploring the achievement of the lady in the window.

It is heartening that this 17th-century Venetian noblewoman, who died so young and left but few writings, remains attractive today even to women who are not Catholic. True, Elena Cornaro was an unheard-of prodigy of learning in her day, but what is even more remarkable is that she was something of a saint. Universally admired for her achievements, she was also humble, and devoted to the destitute. Despite her wealth, status, and intellectual eminence, she put herself on a level with the lowest in her society, giving personal care to the indigent sick in one of the four Venetian hospitals — hospitals so remarkable that Protestants used to visit them on their grand tours.

In the 1970s a team at the University of Padua conducted a thorough study of the 114 universities in existence at the time Elena Cornaro received her doctorate. Their research confirmed that this Catholic woman was indeed the first woman Ph.D. — “la prima donna laureata nel mondo.” It was all of two centuries later, in 1877, that the first American woman received a Ph.D.: Helen Magill at Boston University.

During Lady Cornaro’s lifetime, the Republic of Venice (which included Padua) was the hub of trade between western Europe and the eastern Mediterranean. The 170,000 citizens of Venice were governed by a wealthy aristocracy, among whom the Cornaros were of the highest rank. In 1664 Elena’s father became the Procurator of San Marco, the highest official after the Doge. Yet though Elena was born in the Cornaro Piscopia palace on the Grand Canal, her mother was a Brescian peasant, her father having flouted social convention and married below his class.

The Cornaro line had produced three popes, nine cardinals, four doges, and one Queen of Cyprus, not to mention a cloud of prelates and nobles. The family claimed descent from the Cornelii Scipiones of ancient Rome (among whom was the mother of the Gracchi) and during the Renaissance the family was acquainted with such luminaries as Palladio, Galileo, Bernini, and Tasso. It is no surprise, then, that Elena’s father owned the finest private library in Venice, one that included all the ancient Greek authors published by the Aldine Press in Venice between 1495 and 1515. Carlo Rinaldini, a noted professor from Pisa, wrote to a correspondent that one day, when he was working among the Greek texts in the Cornaro library, he was pondering a theorem in Archimedes, and a little girl came over and astonished him by explaining the theorem. The girl was Elena.

Elena’s family, then, was able to recognize and nurture her rare gifts. Yet it was a local pastor, not a family member, who first noticed her extraordinary capability. As a child, Elena and her nurse went to daily Mass at St. Luke’s, near the family palace. It was here that the pastor, Msgr. Giovanni Fabris, an Aristotelian scholar and a doctor of theology, took cognizance of the prodigy and urged her father to take care with her education. The pastor became her first tutor and continued to instruct her in ancient Greek philosophy for fifteen years, until his death at age 86.

In that epoch, both the sons and daughters of Italian aristocrats, if they had the intellectual capacity, received a classical education in their early years. On weekdays, they studied grammar, history, poetry, moral philosophy, and rhetoric, and on Sundays, Christian doctrine. Their tutors were usually clergymen, but sometimes laymen or convent-educated women. At this time Venetian convents taught girls reading and writing, as well as domestic skills. Elena entered such a convent-school at 11, but came home after a few months, disappointed by the rowdy atmosphere.

Msgr. Fabris arranged for Elena to have other teachers besides himself. A certain ecumenism appears in the choice of her teachers. Abbot Gradenigo, a Greek Orthodox nobleman, taught her modern Greek, and later, Rabbi Shalma Abbroff, author of The Word of Samuel (1702), instructed her in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic, so that she could study Old Testament sources in the original tongues. (This rabbi was one of 6,000 Sephardic Jews then living in Venice and worshiping in seven synagogues.) After Msgr. Fabris’s death, a Briton named Alexander Anderson became her mentor and taught her English, a rare acquisition in those days. The scholar Rinaldini, on one of his research trips to the Cornaro library, wrote to a correspondent that young Elena was as “beautiful as an angel” and spoke “Greek, Latin, French, English and Spanish with perfect ease.” In addition to these tongues, Elena learned Arabic.

Doubtless she was a genius. Besides having acquired an amazing facility in ancient and modern languages, she had more attainments. An accomplished musician by age 17, she sang at public receptions her father gave to display her gifts. Carlo Grossi even composed a sacred cantata for her. She herself composed music, wrote poetry, and played the lute, harpsichord, and harp. In addition, she studied the pagan literature of antiquity and delved into science with the Jesuit Carlo Vota. Rinaldini remarked that Elena, as a teenager, was already learned in geography, mathematics, physics, and astronomy, and an early biographer declared that she was conversant with ancient and modern history, law, and civil government. As she grew older, she also became absorbed in linguistics, logic, and rhetoric.

Yet despite her enthusiasm for humanist studies, she settled on theology as her favorite subject. At 16, she began to study the Greek and Latin Fathers with Fr. Felice Rotondi, a theologian from the University of Padua, and found herself especially drawn to the Greek Fathers SS. Basil and John Chrysostom. What the poet Dryden wrote about Anne Killigrew in 1685, another female prodigy who died young, applies even better to Elena:

Thus nothing to her Genius was deny’d,
But like a Ball of Fire the further thrown,
Still with a greater Blaze she shone,
And her bright Soul broke out on ev’ry side.


At age 19, in 1665, Elena suddenly found herself betrothed to the Doge’s nephew. Her father, in the manner of that age, had arranged the marriage without so much as informing her, presuming her obedience. Amazingly, though, he relented when he saw how firmly she had set her heart on virginity. She had made a secret vow of virginity at 11, and when this marriage was averted she made vows as a Benedictine Oblate of the Third Order, taking the name Scholastica. Thereafter, she wore monastic clothing under her rich gowns and lived as simply as she could in the midst of the opulent Venetian court life, for her father refused to let her enter a convent. Her friend, Abbess Maria Felice, and even her own confessor advised her not to enter a cloister. And so, as in 1 Corinthians 7:31, Elena went forward using this world as if she used it not, knowing that the fashion of this world is passing away.

In a brief chapter called “Extreme Penance,” the author ponders the rigorous fasting that Elena carried out in secret. Unfortunately, the author — having a limited grasp of Tridentine Catholicism — uses modern terms such as “bodily abuse” and “anorexia” for Elena’s penances. This is the only time Guernsey makes such lapses. Even so, she concedes that Elena pondered the lives of the saints and took them seriously as her models. This fact alone puts Elena’s fasts in perspective. For those saints she admired deeply, such as St. Benedict, were spiritual athletes who performed great feats of penance to overcome the world, the flesh, and the devil. They trusted that their heroic bodily works, united with the sufferings of Jesus Christ, had merit in the sight of God — the only glory they ever sought.

Among the female saints whom Elena chose for her models were St. Teresa of Avila and St. Catherine of Siena — both made Doctors of the Church in the 20th century. She also admired the young Jesuit St. Aloysius Gonzaga, who perished from nursing plague victims, and St. Benedict, who enjoined manual labor as well as study in his rule. Behind the scenes, Elena would sometimes wait on her own servants and in all meekness beg for alms on behalf of the poor.

This training in humility was doubtless useful as an antidote to the vanity and pomp that surrounded her. For her father liked to display her rare accomplishments before gatherings of famous scholars, political leaders, and foreign prelates. Among those who came to hear her and who corresponded with her afterwards were such eminent men as the General of the Jesuits, Cardinal de Bouillon, and Cardinal d’Estrées, the latter sent from France by Louis XIV to report on Elena’s gifts. (At the time there were many learned women in France — witness Molière’s satire on them in Les Femmes Savantes — but none of them was on a par with Elena.) Beginning in her early 20s, she was invited to address learned societies in Italy: On one occasion she explored the qualities needed by ruling princes; on another she gave a discourse on modern astronomy.

She was urged by her tutors to seek a degree at the University of Padua, the second oldest university in Europe, which was founded in 1261 and counted Da Vinci and Copernicus among its illustrious alumni, and for the next six years Elena lived in the family lodge in Padua, studying Hebrew and theology, as well as history, poetry, and moral philosophy. She asked her father to abandon the idea of a degree, but he refused and petitioned for her to take a degree in theology. The University approved, but the saintly Cardinal Barbarigo balked at the precedent of a female doctor of theology. Instead, he gave permission for her to stand for the equally prestigious doctorate in philosophy.

On June 25, 1678, the laurel crown was placed on her head and the ermine cape on her slight shoulders, and she became the first woman ever to be nominated a Doctor of Philosophy. For her defense, she interpreted passages — randomly chosen by her examiners — from Aristotle’s Physics and Posterior Analytics, expounding on them for an hour in flawless Latin and answering all questions. She was awarded her degree not by the usual vote but by the loud acclamation of the assembled scholars, churchmen, and nobles. Thus Elena opened the door to scholarly achievement for the women who would come after her. The next one to receive a degree would be another Catholic woman and Aristotelian scholar — Maria Bassi, at the University of Bologna, in 1732.

For the next several years Elena’s health declined, and she died at age 38, in 1684. The origin of her fatal illness, apparently tuberculosis, was likely due to her hospital work, for she would personally tend to the sick, even when their diseases were gravely infectious. The wonder is that she did not die sooner, since she did not hesitate to wash and feed an old servant of the family’s who was in the terminal stages of smallpox. At the Mendicanti hospital, she would bathe and feed abandoned babies, as well as minister to prostitutes.

At her request, she was buried among the Benedictine monks in the Chapel of St. Luke, in San Giustina, Padua. After her death, the University of Padua published what little remained of her writings (for she had destroyed most of them).

When a Benedictine convent for English nuns was established in Rome in the late 19th century, the Abbess Mathilde Pynsent became interested in Elena Cornaro. She located Elena’s grave and offered to replace its broken gravestone. The grave was opened and Elena’s body identified. Astonishingly, the laurel crown on her head remained supple and intact after two centuries. In 1896 Mathilde published a short Life of Elena Cornaro. No one knows for sure why there is a “Cornaro Window” in the Frederick Thompson Memorial Library at Vassar College, but it is known that Abbess Mathilde’s biography of Elena was in the personal library of Frederick Thompson’s widow. So the little book may well have inspired the window, which in turn inspired generations of Vassar students. One of them was Ruth Crawford Mitchell, who was instrumental in having a Cornaro mural painted in the Italian Room of the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh (it was done by a Bolognese artist and unveiled in 1949). In 1978, when the chapel where Elena lies buried was restored and renamed the Cappella Cornaro, Mitchell was among the American women who endowed the restoration of Elena’s tomb. And now comes Jane Howard Guernsey, with this much-needed biography.

Elena Cornaro was extraordinary for more than her mind. For all her reading of pagan authors and early-modern humanist books she never lost her faith; for all the admiration she provoked, she never lost her humility; and for all the wealth and status she enjoyed, she never lost her sense of being, in terms of real dignity, on the same level with the poorest of the poor. In all these ways, she is far more than a prodigy of learning. She is, in the Pope’s words, one of those “signs of sanctity with a feminine face.”



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