Jun 052018

Today is the birthday (1646) of Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, also called Helen Cornaro, a Venetian philosopher of noble descent, who was one of the first women to receive an academic degree from a university and is sometimes claimed to be the first woman in the world to receive a Ph.D. degree. At the time, the Ph.D. or equivalent did not exist in Italy, so we have to approach the claim with a little caution. In fact, the equivalent degree to the Ph.D. (dottorato di ricercar) did not exist in Italy until the 20th century. This state of affairs can lead to a great deal of quibbling. Piscopia held a laurea which I will describe more fully below. For a laurea, a student had to complete 4 to 6 years of university courses, and also complete a thesis. Laureati were customarily addressed as dottore (for a man) or dottoressa (for a woman), i.e. “doctor.” Until the introduction of the dottorato di ricerca in the mid-1980s, the laurea constituted the highest academic degree obtainable in Italy and gave the holders access to the highest academic positions. Nobel prize winners such as Enrico Fermi, Emilio Segrè, Giulio Natta, and Carlo Rubbia held it as their highest degree. The quibble comes in given that for centuries the laurea was the only post-secondary degree in Italy and the standards for obtaining one varied enormously. You will have to decide for yourself whether Piscopia’s degree was equivalent to a modern Ph.D.

Piscopia was born in the Palazzo Loredan in Venice. She was the third child of Gianbattista Cornaro-Piscopia, and his mistress Zanetta Boni. Her mother was a peasant and her parents were not married at the time of her birth. As such, Lady Elena was not technically a member of the Cornaro family by birth, as Venetian law barred illegitimate children of nobles from noble privilege, even if recognized by the noble parent. Her mother probably fled to Venice in order to escape starvation, and soon became the mistress of a member of one of the most powerful noble dynasties in the Republic. Gianbattista and Zanetta married officially in 1654, but their children were barred from noble privilege, which galled Gianbattista.

In 1664, her father was chosen to become the Procuratore di San Marco de supra, the treasurer of St. Mark’s, a coveted position among Venetian nobility. At that point, her father was second only to the Doge of Venice in terms of precedence. Because of this connection, Lady Elena was prominent in the annual Marriage of the Sea celebration focusing on the power of the Doge and the maritime dominance of Venice, even though she was born illegitimate. Her father tried to arrange betrothals for her several times. She rebuffed each man’s advances, as she had taken a vow of chastity at the age of 11. In 1665 she took the habit of a Benedictine Oblate without, however, becoming a nun.

As a young girl, Piscopia was seen as a prodigy. On the advice of Giovanni Fabris, a priest who was a friend of the family, she began a classical education. She studied Latin and Greek under distinguished instructors, and became proficient in these languages at the age of 7. She also mastered Hebrew, Spanish, French and Arabic. Her later studies included mathematics, philosophy, and theology.  Piscopia also became an expert musician, learning to play the harpsichord, the clavichord, the harp, and the violin as well as composing music for these instruments.

In her late teens and early twenties, she concentrated on physics, astronomy, and linguistics. Carlo Rinaldini, her tutor in philosophy, and at that point the Chairman of Philosophy at the University of Padua, published a book in Latin in 1668 on geometry and dedicated it to Piscopia. When her main tutor, Fabris, died, she became even closer to Rinaldini, who took over her studies. In 1669, she translated the Colloquy of Christ by Carthusian monk Giovanni Lanspergio from Spanish into Italian. The translation was dedicated to her close friend and confessor Gianpaolo Oliva. The volume was issued in five editions in the Republic from 1669 to 1672. She was invited to be a part of many scholarly societies when her fame spread and in 1670 became president of the Venetian society Accademia dei Pacifici. Upon the recommendation of Carlo Rinaldini, her tutor in philosophy, Felice Rotondi, petitioned the University of Padua to grant Cornaro the laurea in theology. When Gregorio Cardinal Barbarigo, the bishop of Padua, learned that she was pursuing a degree in theology, he refused on the grounds that she was a woman. However, he did allow her to sit for a degree in philosophy and after a course of study received the laurea in Philosophy. She was examined for the degree on 25th June 1678, in Padua Cathedral in the presence of the University authorities, the professors of all the faculties, the students, and most of the Venetian Senators, together with many invited guests from the Universities of Bologna, Perugia, Rome, and Naples. Piscopia spoke for an hour in classical Latin, explaining difficult passages selected at random from the works of Aristotle. When she had finished, she received plaudits as Professor Rinaldini awarded her the insignia of the laurea, the book of philosophy, placing the wreath of laurel on her head, the ring on her finger, and over her shoulders the ermine mozetta. This scene is illustrated in the Cornaro Window in the West Wing of the Thompson Memorial Library at Vassar College.

The last seven years of her life were devoted to study and charity. She died at Padua in 1684 of tuberculosis and was buried in the church of Santa Giustina in Padua. A statue of her was placed in the university.

Piscopia’s death was marked by memorial services in Venice, Padua, Siena, and Rome. Her writings, published in Parma in 1688, include academic discourses, translations, and devotional treatises. In 1685 the University of Padua struck a medal in her honor. In 1895 Abbess Mathilda Pynsent of the English Benedictine Nuns in Rome had Elena’s tomb opened, the remains placed in a new casket, and a tablet inscribed to her memory.

Venice is home to a huge variety of dishes made with rice. When you talk about risotto in northern Italy in general you can get into pretty deep waters with locals who all have their own preferences. But Venice by itself has scores of restaurants that specialize in a particular risotto (often with local fish), and watching the chefs at work is a wonder. Risi e bisi (rice and peas) is a somewhat more ubiquitous marvel that appears in spring when peas are freshly harvested. As with many, many regional specialties, I suggest you fly to Venice in the spring and sample the offerings. You won’t be able to recreate them at home. I can’t either if it’s any consolation. My risotto passes muster with some of my Italian friends, but it is far from the best. I’ve been working on technique for about 15 years. I can share the general idea with you, but the practice is up to you. For risi e bisi you should be using broth made by simmering fresh pea pods. The whole dish should be redolent of fresh peas. That means that the dish will work out best for you if you grow your own garden peas (or have a friend with a garden). You can also do reasonably well if you make a broth by simmering fresh Chinese snow peas. Anything other than pea broth will miss the mark. Likewise, you must use freshly picked peas. If you come across a recipe for risi e bisi that uses frozen peas, throw it away. You could use Venetian Grana Padano for your cheese to have a more fully local flavor if you want, but, in fact, Venetians usually use Parmigiano-Reggiano because it has a slightly more complex flavor (and Parma/Reggio Emilia, is not so far from Venice anyway).

Risi e Bisi


7 cups fresh pea broth
3 tbsp butter
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
⅓ cup minced onion
¼ cup diced pancetta
2 cups arborio rice
4 cups shelled fresh peas
½ cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 tbsp finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
salt and freshly ground black pepper


Bring the pea stock to a gentle simmer in a small saucepan and keep warm. Having the stock near boiling while cooking the rice is critical.

Melt 2 tablespoons of  butter with 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until soft, but do not let it take on color. Add the pancetta and continue to sauté for about 3 minutes. Add the rice and stir it in the hot oil and butter until the individual grains are coated.

This is the part that needs constant attention. Add 1 ladle of stock to the pan, and start stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. The temperature of the stock is the key factor. It should not be boiling too vigorously nor off the boil. When the stock is almost absorbed, add another ladleful. You want to keep the stock in the skillet at a constant temperature, so keeping it warm in a pan is essential. Continue adding the stock one ladleful at a time, letting it be almost absorbed before adding the next, until the rice is almost tender (that is, after about 4 ladles you need to start biting the rice to test it). When the rice is almost cooked add the peas and a last ladleful of stock. Continue stirring. If all has gone well the rice should be creamy and tender but still firm to the bite.

Remove the skillet from heat. Stir in the remaining butter and olive oil along with the cheese and parsley. Season the dish to taste with salt and pepper. Serve straight from the skillet with crusty bread.