Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia was the world’s first female graduate, obtaining a degree in philosophy from the University of Padova in 1678.
She was the natural daughter of the nobleman Giovanni Battista Cornaro, public prosecutor of St. Mark’s Republic, and the popular Zanetta Boni, and was born in Venice in 1646. She soon became passionate about her studies and was supported by her father who entrusted her to the theologian Giovanni Battista Fabris, the Latinist Giovanni Valier, the Greek scholar Alvise Gradenigo, the professor of theology Felice Rotondi and the rabbi Shemel Aboaf, with whom Elena learned Hebrew. She also studied Spanish, French, Arabic and Aramaic and she developed a rich musical culture. She also studied eloquence, dialectics and philosophy, studying the latter under Carlo Rinaldini, a professor at the University of Padova and a friend of her father’s. Alongside her passion for study, Elena also nurtured a real religious vocation which led to her becoming a Benedictine oblate at the age of 19.
In 1677, she applied for a doctorate in theology but the registrar at the University of Padova, the cardinal Gregorio Barbarigo, firmly rejected her request. Thanks to the aforementioned professor Rinaldini, Elena Lucrezia was finally able to graduate in philosophy on 25th June 1678, and not in theology as she had initially requested.
She already had a weak constitution and was further put to the test by her studies and ascetic macerations, which meant that she often fell ill, also for long periods at a time. She finally died in 1684. She was buried in the church of Santa Giustina in Padua.