The University of Karueein, which began in 859 in Morocco, is the world’s oldest continually operating university. For Europe, that distinction goes to the University of Bologna in Italy, which opened in 1088. But it took until June 25, 1678, until a woman was allowed to earn a university degree.
That woman was Elena Cornaro Piscopia, a Venetian. Here she is wearing an ermine stole called a mozzetta, worn by laureates along with an actual laurel wreath. Though she was not allowed to attend classes at any university, through her own hard work with tutors she prepared for and passed the exam to earn a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Padua. She wanted a degree in theology but was denied because church authorities were adamant that a woman doctor of theology should not be allowed to teach church doctrine.
Among Elena’s many accomplishments, here’s a list of some: she spoke Venetian, Italian, French, English, Spanish, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic. She studied grammar, philosophy, and her favorite, Christian scriptures. She also read deeply and widely from such authors as Homer, Plato, Herodotus, Xenophon, Livy, Virgil, Horace, Caesar, and Cicero. She studied art in Venice’s museums and private homes, plus sang while accompanying herself on various instruments. As was popular at the time, she could improvise poetry or singing on a given topic. All before she was twenty. She was termed Unico examplo, “Without precedent,” on a statue in her honor at the University of Padua.
Elena wanted nothing more than to be left alone with her books, but her father tried to force her to marry. However, Elena had secretly taken vows to be a Benedictine oblate, one who follows the Rule of Saint Benedict but without living as a nun. She also practiced physical penance by flagellation and starvation. Her faith was the only thing in her life she had any control over.
Elena’s was a remarkable intellect, formed by remarkable drive and discipline. A medallion cast in her honor read, “Non sine Foenore,” “Not Without Reward.” Today, we honor her memory. Read more about her life in A Beautiful Woman in Venice.
(Image of first portrait from Wikipedia. Image of plaque and second portrait from http://venicexplorer.net/tradizione/piscopia.php?hlangs=en. The statue photo is from brainsandcareers.com.)