[Editorial] Piscopia Statue Issue

Who was Piscopia?

  • Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia or Helen Cornaro was a 17th century Venetian philosopher.
  • In 1678, she became the first woman in the world to earn a PhD. She received it for her disposition on Aristotelian philosophy from the University of Padua.

On the issue of representation:

  • Despite achieving this feat, she stood excluded from the list of 88 luminaries in whose honour statues were installed in the Prato della Valle in the 18th century.
    • Prato della Valle is the largest public square in Italy.
    • 10 of these statues were destroyed by the army during Napoleon’s invasion of Italy in 1797. These pedestals now either stand empty or hold an obelisk in place of the destroyed statues.
  • A Piscopia statue exists at the University of Padua.

Most probable and repeated topics of upsc prelims

What is the recent debate about?

  • The local leaders recently proposed correcting this historical error by erecting a statue in her honour on one of the empty pedestals.
  • The leaders highlighted how all the statues were, without exception, dedicated to men.
  • The detractors are arguing that:
    • A statue dedicated to Piscopia already exists on the University of Padua campus.
    • The idea is expensive.
    • This move amounts to ‘playing’ with culturally-significant sites and is dangerous.
    • The move would be trendy but it is more important to place the exclusion in the country’s historical context and to learn from it.
    • The focus should be on helping people discover the original statue, instead of moving monuments about ‘as if they were Lego’.

What is the way ahead?

  • Injustices have filled the histories of institutions and nations- untouchability, slavery and colonialism were accepted practices; women weren’t allowed to vote; ‘divine right’ was considered as a basis of political legitimacy, etc.
  • Hence, the desire to do something to right some of these wrongs in public spaces is an understandable sentiment.
  • Placing Piscopia’s statue in Italy’s largest public square, where she wasn’t given her place in the sun in the 18th century, doesn’t have to mean covering up her exclusion. The statue could be accompanied by information on why she was excluded.


The context needed here isn’t for her presence but for her absence over the centuries. The question is whether preserving history with all its authenticity is more important than recognizing that history is being made and remade everyday.

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